Last year drew to a close with great pessimism among many of us for humankind's future. It's easy to see why. The Taliban has reemerged in Operation Omari against the NATO-supported government in Afghanistan. Civil wars rage in Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Their populations diverge into ethnic and religious groups aggressively competing to control territory. Hierarchical regimes, like that of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, counter-terrorism with terrorism. Graphic images of attacks on Aleppo's hospitals that kill injured women and children are shocking indictments of the ineffectiveness of the UN, which was founded to prevent wars.
That pessimism is deepened by witnessing the response of 'civilised' countries to these examples of divergence, competition, and aggression. Refugees fleeing the atrocities have fuelled a jingoism that in some cases has developed into neofascism. Anti-immigration nationalist parties have surged throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Finally, Donald Trump is elected as the new US president on an appeal to jingoism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and misogyny.
However, examining the evidence of human evolution over the long term gives reasons for hope rather than despair.
Reflective consciousness resulted in the development of the UN, Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace: bodies committed to cooperation, peace, and altruism
What marked our emergence as a distinct species some 25,000 years ago wasn't the size or shape of our skulls, or that we walked upright, or that we lacked body hair, or the genes we possessed. What made us unique was reflective consciousness.
Consciousness distinguishes a living thing from an inanimate thing, like a rock. It is an awareness of the environment, other lifeforms, and self that can lead to action, and is possessed in rudimentary form by the simplest species like bacteria.
In the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, consciousness increased with increasing neural complexity and centration in the brain until, with humans, it became conscious of itself. We are the only species that not only knows but also knows that it knows.
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Such thinking about ourselves and our future resulted in innovative behaviour, including cooperation and convergence. Hunter-gatherer families worked together in tribes for their mutual survival. Some 10,000 years ago they began settling in more productive, larger village communities that expanded into city states and then nations. Barely 65 years ago – 0.26 per cent of human existence – reflective consciousness resulted in the development of supranational bodies like the United Nations and its agencies such as UNICEF; as well as nongovernment organisations, like Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace, committed to cooperation, peace, and altruism without distinction of race, skin colour, or religion.
But this new and evolving reflective consciousness had to contend with powerful instincts inherited from several million years of prehuman ancestry. These instincts are characterised by aggression, hierarchism, and divergence into competing groups.
Reflective consciousness as part of human nature has slowly been increasing, but the long-term pattern of evidence shows temporary setbacks in the direction of evolutionary travel. Larger human societies reverted to hierarchy and subjugation of the population by a king or emperor claiming a divine right to rule. Such empires aggressively competed with each other for territory before their eventual demise.
While prehuman instincts still dominate human behaviour, they have been decreasing
The good news is that reflective consciousness has been accelerating since the emergence of philosophical thinking 3,000 years ago; and at an even faster rate since the emergence of scientific thinking some 670 years ago. While prehuman instincts still dominate human behaviour, they have been decreasing.
The reflective response to recent events should not be pessimism but a recognition that these are temporary setbacks on humankind's evolutionary path. It should increase our compassion for the victims of divergence, hierarchism, competition and aggression, and it should redouble our efforts to practise peaceful cooperation and altruism as the only way for the human species to survive and continue to evolve.