Discover more from Vectors of Mind
Eve Theory of Consciousness (v2)
The gendered evolution of recursion
To my knowledge, no one has argued that women evolved recursion before men. This seems like low-hanging fruit, given it’s the oldest story in the book. Indigenous cultures worldwide have myths of a primordial matriarchy where women reigned, which is about the political divide one would expect if recursion were initially gendered. Closer to home, Eve first tasted the fruit and became as the gods, knowing good and evil. Presumably, she spent time as a reflective agent while Adam lived in Edenic ignorance. In this post, I’ll put forth a more detailed model about why I think women evolved recursion before men, and when it happened. Other differences with standard models include:
An emphasis on the downsides of recursion. It’s a load-bearing infinite loop; the earliest versions would have been a shit show.
Self-domestication could have been purposeful. Humans have developed all sorts of strategies to break a horse. None to elicit self-awareness when it was unevenly distributed?
These methods would have spread.
Greater willingness to accept large phenomenological changes wrought by recursion.
Trading unlikely timelines for unlikely mechanisms. Snake venom could have been part of the self-domestication package.
That last point is a substantial difference, but the rest are fairly pedestrian. They also don’t rise or fall on the Snake Cult of Consciousness. I try to stay mainstream on the dates. Many archeologists think the human condition emerged 40 kya; I defer to them. Adding a memetic (point 2a) and gendered angle to the evolution of recursion can, I think, answer the Sapient Paradox as well as the mystery of the primordial matriarchy. Why is it such a widespread myth, despite a total lack of matriarchies today?
This is the fourth post in a series on recursion. Previous posts made the case that recursive thinking is what makes us human and reviewed attempts to date when it evolved. I take the common position that it is required for introspection, language, abstract thought, and many other unique human abilities.
Baby’s first steps
There is a lot of debate about which artifacts reflect recursive thinking. Does Jewelry imply self-awareness? The oldest known bracelet was made 70 kya by a Denisovan. Or if aesthetic designs count, Homo Erectus engraved shells 500 kya. A common position is that recursion emerged 100-50 kya, for after this point there are no prolonged periods of technological stagnation. By 40 kya there are artifacts around the world that undoubtedly require recursion; it makes sense that at least glimmers of the ability would have been present earlier.
We could have evolved recursion for many purposes. Any task (eg. listening to music, making an axe, grabbing a coke from the fridge) can be understood hierarchically, which requires recursion. But even complex tasks can also be organized linearly, albeit less efficiently. Self-awareness, on the other hand, requires recursion by definition; the self must perceive the self. In Deja-you, I argue that this is a natural place to look for the evolution of recursion.
With that in mind, consider the thought experiment. What do you think the first inner voice was? In Consequences of Conscience, I reasoned that, given the social nature of our species, the first inner voice may have been a moral injunction like “Share your food!” But the content does not matter so much. It could also have said “run!” when one of our ancestors’ unconscious noticed that the birds had gone too quiet all of a sudden. The question is, would she have identified with the first inner voice? I think not. Identity is complex and requires recursion. Hallucination does not and is still common.
This suggests reframing “when did recursion first evolve” as “when did we first identify with our inner voice”. This is stacking a lot of ifs, and I will eventually bring this back to data. But for now, let’s see where this speculation takes us.
When it first emerged, recursion would not have been the base state of our psychology or an unalloyed good. Chomsky jokes that the role of his own inner voice is to torture himself. This would have been the case to a much greater degree in the beginning. There was no road map to having an inner voice, and the edges of subjectivity had not yet been worn off in the evolutionary meat grinder. Humans then would have identified with their inner dialogue in fits and bursts. Perhaps self-awareness was limited to shamanic states, certain members of the tribe, or women.
Recursive functions are inherently unstable. Incidence of epilepsy (or as the Greeks called it, the sacred disease), schizophrenia, and split personalities would have been much higher. Some minds would have fried. Imagine if the “pure pain” wires crossed in a recursive fashion. Were cluster headaches more common? Entirely new failure modes open up with recursion.
The very beginnings of recursion are not at all clear. Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal burials are evidenced 70-90 kya, implying nascent spiritual beliefs. My model is one of gradual development from ~100 kya, with important advances happening around the time we left Africa.
Out of Africa
Even if only some members of the tribe were conscious some of the time, there would have been profound cultural changes. Imagine if Eve is the undisputed smartest person in her tribe by virtue of being able to count to 29 and thus make predictions about the phases of the moon or her own period. She would have some power to make decisions. But she also hears voices that issue commands and occasionally she identifies as them. Things could get weird.
One reasonable development would be changes to migration patterns. Our journey out of Africa is one of the great human accomplishments. We left helter-skelter and conquered the whole world, adapting to environs as different as the highland jungles of Papua New Guinea to Ice Age Siberia. Chomsky at least is ready to explain it with recursion. But why would migrations be the last effect of recursion? If it took tens or hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, we should expect non-finished versions to first reach continental escape velocity. That’s what archeology indicates as well.
We can be confident that recursion was part of the package that humans took on the Great Migration. Evidence from counting, narrative art, and self-portraits are found all around the world starting 40-50 kya. Taking the first example of each in turn:
Counting: The oldest tally stick dates to ~44 kya in South Africa.
Cave art: The oldest narrative art is a 45,000-Year-Old Pig Painting in Indonesia.
Self-portraits: We can’t know if the Venus statues were self-portraits, but this is a common view. These voluptuous figurines go back ~40k years and are found from Europe to Siberia.
To my knowledge, these are the earliest clear-cut examples of recursion. Given how widespread they are, and how few artifacts survive that long, it is likely that at least some recursion existed 50-100 kya. My contention is that it wasn’t necessarily fully integrated into our psyche at that point. There is evidence of recursion after we leave Africa, but it is still sparse enough before 12 kya to inspire the Sapient Paradox.
Women lead the way
When consciousness was sporadic I think it would have mostly been experienced by women, and they would have obtained it as a base state first. There are myriad reasons:
Evolutionary psychology. At least during pregnancy and while caring for a young child, women are more dependent on the tribe. Therefore, the female niche is one of greater social adeptness and modeling what other people want and think of her. These are the same things I (and many others) argue first produced recursion.
Psychometrics. I became interested in this line of research because of my work on the General Factor of Personality, which is related to gender. One name for the GFP is social or emotional intelligence, on which women have an advantage. In fact, this is so well known that it is considered validation of an EQ survey if women score better than men. “How do you know the survey is actually measuring emotional intelligence?” “Well, women score better, for one.” That line of reasoning works among experts. There is even, apparently, room to argue that the GFP is mostly about gender as in The Primacy of Gender: Gendered Cognition Underlies the Big Two Dimensions of Social Cognition.
Neuroscience. The precuneus is the functional core of the Default Mode Network, which is implicated in self-awareness. The precuneus is one of the regions most functionally and anatomically different between the sexes. It has even been linked to sex differences in the tendency for mental time travel (another ability that requires recursion).
Julian Jaynes made a lot of our hemispheric cognition (“Bicameral” mind), of which there are large sex differences: “Male brains are optimized for intrahemispheric and female brains for interhemispheric communication…The observations suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”
Genetics. The X chromosome is enriched for genes that are expressed in the brain (1,2). If it has genes that code for recursion, women got twice the dose and may have met some critical threshold earlier. More generally, sex differences coded by sex chromosomes include brain differences.
Archeology. All three of the examples of recursion in the previous section may have initially been gendered.
Mythology. Matriarchy and prehistory explains how it has been theorized since the 1800s that there was a time when women were politically dominant. According to Yuri Berezkin, “there are similar rituals/myths in Africa, Australia, Melanesia and South America that are associated with institutionalized opposition of the sexes, and typically include stories about the past domination of women, not only in the social sphere (the story of "a woman's realm" sometime in the past, or in a distant land, is a motif known all over the world), but also in cult and ritual”. These include motifs such as:
“Women were possessors of the sacred knowledge, sanctuaries or ritual objects which are now taboo for them.”
“A man gets into the village of women. Usually, he has to satisfy every woman against his will or every woman claims him for herself.”
Tough luck! And even in myths that are used to justify the domination of women, women are portrayed as agents. Adam becomes as a god because of his wife. It’s a politically inconvenient detail to include in Sky Father propaganda, and yet it is retained. Eve discovered the human condition and that’s a bad thing. Similarly, Hera acts like a homicidal maniac throughout Herakles’ journey of self-discovery, and yet his name means “glorified through Hera”.
The psychometric argument, too, is stronger than what is described above. As this is the closest to my background, at some point I will do a full post, but consider the divergent ability in face recognition below. Women with an IQ of 70 recognize faces as well as men with an IQ of 130. For women, the task is intuitive. This is their evolved niche. For men the task is effortful, and loads on general cognition.
Not counting the Bible, I believe I’m the first to argue that women were conscious first. Odd, considering there are so many lines of evidence. Perhaps most people aren’t willing to speculate that sex differences could be relevant to important traits. But strangely even evolutionary psychologists without such qualms are surprised women can think.
Men follow in the Holocene
If self-awareness was sporadic or limited to women 50 kya, then when did it become the base state for everyone? There is only one global transition after this—the Holocene just 12 kya. That is very recent! If this transition included self-awareness particulars of the experience should be preserved in many myths.
What would it be like to become self-aware after your wife was already conscious? The story of Adam and Eve is a remarkably good match. It’s hard to say what it would be “like” to live without a self (or at least not be able to introspect). Much in the same way we don’t know if it’s “like” anything to be a bat. But ostensibly, one salient change is the relationship with agency. It feels like “I” run the show of this meat machine. Who did before? Julian Jaynes thought it was the gods, and this makes sense to me. At the very least as social creatures “I” would displace a lot of subconscious moralizing. The “knowledge of good and evil” indeed.
Eve first tastes of the Fruit of Knowledge, becoming “as the gods.” It is she that encourages Adam to do the same. Becoming god, it turns out, is mutually exclusive to living with the gods (Elohim is plural), and they are both cast out of the Garden. Like religion reaching the logical conclusion of monotheism, a head can only house one master. But I don’t think this would be accomplished all at once. For many generations, there must have been a tug-o-war between Adam, his daemons, and Eve; god would not go down without a fight. If schizophrenia can serve as an analog, it is noteworthy how often the condition ends in suicide. Leaving Eden would have been traumatic; the self was born in tension and has been ever since. (This is essential to the human condition.)
An intermediate period when the self was not fully at the helmcould explain the paradox of schizophrenia. Given the reproductive costs, why is it still fairly common worldwide? Maybe there just hasn’t been that long to select against it.
Finally, once leaving Eden Adam ate by the sweat of his brow; he transitioned to agriculture. Just the timeline we needed. It can be read as a myth from the Fertile Crescent about why they adopted agriculture 12,000 years ago.
Of course, Genesis can just as easily support young earth creationism. Importantly, many other lines of evidence indicate human psychology changed at this time. The aforementioned Sapient Paradox calls the Agricultural Revolution the Human Revolution. For it is after this time that art and religion become widespread. This is usually interpreted as a social or environmental change, but the shape of our skull was evolving, so something innate cannot be dismissed. One linguist argues the skull change had to do with an expanding precuneus (part of the default mode network) and that recursive language emerged at this point.
Genesis emphasizes the downsides of being alive, which is a useful frame to view recursion. Depending on how bad the side effects were and how useful intermittent recursion was, it may not have been a deal-breaker for survival, at least initially. In graph form the fitness landscape may look something like:
Unity, living without self-reflection, is a viable way to pass on one’s genes. All animals do it, and humans must have been among the smartest even before implementing recursion. A bit of recursion may have been worse than none. It could have introduced insanity and headaches, but also consider the weight of agency. An inner life grants much more room to plan deception, and it must have been enough rope for many to hang themselves. In a small tribe, your reputation is your life. Most often it is best to play by the rules, not lie, cheat, and steal. Especially if you, like Adam, have no game.
God: “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”
Adam, with absolutely zero cool: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”
Babies are not born self-aware. In fact, their brains look a lot like those of an adult on an acid trip. Self-awareness—or at least body-awareness—emerges at about 15 months. My theory is that when self-awareness first evolved it would develop in adulthood; in the Upper Paleolithic women came up with rituals to speed up the process and make it stick.
Because of differences in Theory of Mind, the valley of insanity was wider or deeper for men. Still, I think that self-awareness could be taught, even if leaping over the valley would require the largest environmental intervention possible. One would have to design a culture around preparing a young man for his initiation. Every hunt, word, and setting sun points to the moment he will be given the knowledge of self. That moment would press every biological lever available, including psychedelics.
The Snake Cult of Consciousness
After Genesis piqued my interest I started reading other creation myths. One is immediately struck by the primordial world’s snake infestation. Eve is tempted by a snake. Pandora’s box is often depicted with snakes. Herakles, like Adam, became as the gods. His penultimate task involves stealing an apple from a tree guarded by a snake. He then completes his journey by descending to Hell and subduing Cerberus, a snake-tailed dog. In Egypt the world begins when Atum says his name. His first task as god is to fight the cosmic serpent. In India Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, rests on a bed of cobras. In Mexico Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, made humans out of ground corn and his own blood. In Australia, the Rainbow Serpent taught them language and ritual. I could go on; show me a culture and I’ll show you the snake.
Wondering if this meant anything, I asked Google if snake venom is a psychedelic. Sure enough, there is a small academic literature and a few Vice documentaries (of course). Not only that, it is packed with nerve growth factor, which is essential for neural plasticity. I make the case that this was part of the self-epiphany ritual in the Snake Cult of Consciousness. Think of it in game-theoretical terms. If one ritual seeks to elicit self-awareness using song, dance, fasting, torture and sex and the other does all that plus SNAKE VENOM, which do you think will outcompete? This has not escaped the all-seeing eye of the MBAs, who know good marketing when they see it (The Cosmic Serpent Surrounds Us: Future directions in mascot marketing).
Let’s say 5% of initiates managed to reach a net-positive level of self-awareness after initiation. These men would have had more children, as would their children. Over a thousand years there could be an extraordinary shift in how seamlessly men developed and experienced recursion, even without initiation. The genes were already in the gene pool, they just had to be driven to higher values, right through the valley of insanity. Anywhere the Snake Cult spread, the dynamics would be the same.
The extended family
Some argue that consciousness collapses the wave function. I don’t know about that, but I sure think it could collapse the genus Homo. Recursion allowed a new thinking species to conquer the planet. Relatives that could be absorbed would be. Those that could not, went the way of our favorite food sources. The meme is mightier than the club.
Over the last few decades, the image of the Neanderthal has been rehabilitated. No longer are they seen as knuckle-dragging brutes, but as complex artists interested in music and ritual cannibalism (separate the art from the artist!). Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other close cousins spent hundreds of thousands of years mostly genetically isolated from Homo Sapiens. It stands to reason that they too were evolving better Theory of Mind, a precursor of recursion. If there was a phase change in cognition, admixture could have helped put us over the edge. And indeed, cave art was perfected at precisely the time and place where Neanderthals are last evidenced. Their genetic contribution may not be incidental to our story.
Below is a plot of new genes entering the human gene pool. Notice the surge at about the time we leave Africa and mix with other species. Many of those are cognitive genes.
Multiple lines of evidence suggest women became conscious first. And yet, there are 105,000 papers discussing the gender wage gap, and 0 on the possibility of a many-millennia gap in subjective self-awareness. What does this say about society?
Thus far, the main claims of the Eve Theory of Consciousness are:
Recursion is responsible for self-awareness, inner life, and deliberation about the future—the human condition.
It first emerged 100-50 kya, with major developments ongoing until the Holocene.
Women at least sometimes self-aware before leaving Africa, gradually become more-so
Everyone, including men, is self-aware as a base state by sometime around the Holocene
Creation myths are memories of this transition
Self-awareness could be taught, to an extent. Rituals to this effect likely used psychedelics, possibly snake venom
During this time period, and especially once the rituals were established, there was strong genetic selection for stable recursion. At first, the selection was stronger on women, and then on men.
This brain reorganization would have introduced entirely new failure modes. Schizophrenia was not a phenotype before there was a self.
Neanderthal introgression helped in the evolution of recursion.
Reframing “When did recursion evolve?” to “When did we first identify with our inner voice?”
The last point has a Jaynesian flavor to it, but he, nor the 5,000 people that cited him, connected consciousness-through-self-realization to the larger package of recursive abilities (which obviously pre-date 1,200 BC). It seems strange we would have recursion but not consciousness for so long. Further, if “I” was discovered recently, then the current pronoun distribution is permissible evidence in the debate on the origins of consciousness (see: The unreasonable effectiveness of pronouns). Nobody in the Jaynesian tradition explored this in half a century.
The Eve Theory of Consciousness has the potential to unite Darwin with Genesis, and the rest of the myths too. It is also incredibly human: a quasi-memetic speciation event. I love the idea that the second some humans came online, they used their wits to devise a ritual that could induce self-awareness in others. “Check this out, you are not gonna believe it.”
A rationalist friend encouraged me to keep writing because he gave it a 2% chance of being true. Really, I’m flattered he gave it anything above zero; a good heuristic is that all theories of consciousness are wrong, especially at the cross-section of Darwin, Quetzalcoatl, and the Mother Goddess. But he also said that it will always be speculative. That’s where I disagree! The posited male awakening was not that long ago and the theory makes predictions about genetic selection. Those can be falsified. 6,000 years ago around 95% of all male lineages died out. The next post will argue this was due to selection after the spread of the “self” meme.
Dates vary from 30kya - 70kya. As far as I know, there is no debate about whether it was made by a Denisovan.
A possibly related cultural development is the extraordinary incidence of trepanation of Neolithic skulls, especially among men. It’s a worldwide phenomenon for the treatment of possession and headaches which then just sort of stops. Given it is such an extraordinary intervention, widely practiced, while there is evidence the shape of our skulls were changing, it makes sense to me that it was functional. That there were more headaches and possession, especially in men, in the Holocene.
Some geneticists have commented that the X chromosome doesn’t give two doses because of inactivation. However, X chromosome effects on the brain escape inactivation:
Globally Divergent but Locally Convergent X- and Y-Chromosome Influences on Cortical Development: "The presence of a negative relationship between X dose and brain size—regardless of gonadal sex—is consistent with direct regulation of human brain size by X-chromosome-specific (i.e., non-PAR) genes that escape X-inactivation (Carrel and Willard 2005) although could potentially also arise through mechanisms that are independent of X-chromosome gene content."
Shown by the marginal effects of an X chromosome in a population with extra chromosomes. A Cross-Species Neuroimaging Study of Sex Chromosome Dosage Effects on Human and Mouse Brain Anatomy: "Total brain size was substantially altered by SCT in humans (significantly decreased by XXY and increased by XYY), but not in mice. Robust and spatially convergent effects of XXY and XYY on regional brain volume were observed in humans, but not mice, when controlling for global volume differences."
I mean more than just hearing voices; questions like “I feel like my leg belongs to me” also predict schizophrenia.
Young adulthood? Seems to be an experience vs plasticity tradeoff. Not sure when the two would have reached an optimum for novel introspection.
“It explains everything – yes, everything – with the aid of branding’s secret cosmic serpent. You’ve heard of dark matter? Well, you’re about to discover dark mascots… Or, you could always read Lévi-Strauss instead.”
One of my assumptions is that once you get one type of recursion you get the whole package. Therefore, self-awareness and grammar and hierarchical thinking and mental time travel all come together. This is why I date self-awareness using art (which requires mental time travel). Jaynes does not, and thinks that one can build pyramids without self-awareness (which requires recursion).
Speciation is a genetic event. I’m arguing that we used ritual to change the fitness landscape.