I hope I am asking these in the right SE. Please direct me to the right one if it isn't and correct any false assumptions my question may be based on.

Was there a specific moment when the first sufficiently advanced primate realized that he is no longer purely guided by primal instinct and urges and became aware of his own consciousness, as in thoughts/noises in his head?

If yes, What were the likely prerequisites for that moment to have taken place? Could it have been accidental?

If this awareness is the only difference between a self-aware specimen and one that's just as advanced but not self-aware - is the distinction enough to consider the two of them to be of different species?

How was that awareness passed to his tribe or descendants?

  • What have you been reading or studying that might have made this an interesting or important question to you? What hypotheses have you formed and what has your research uncovered so far?
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 23 '14 at 14:34
  • @JosephWeissman Just something I randomly thought about today and wanted to know more about. I know there's probably a lot of relevant reading I could do in different relevant branches of science but not really sure where to start. Based on my current understanding I would guess that once the brain became sufficiently complex to do so it was only a matter of time until one came upon circumstances where attention of the mind ended up directed inwards rather than outwards in relation to self. Regardless of how inaccurate this may be, I would like to read and learn more about this.
    – demiters
    May 23 '14 at 14:59
  • It is not known and never will be known because it never happened. We were always self aware. Think more about sleep. It is exactly related to your question. It is not us who became self aware, it is self awareness who became us.
    – Asphir Dom
    May 24 '14 at 1:10
  • 1
    @AsphirDom Are you suggesting self-awareness is independent of the physical body it "inhabits", perhaps even as a fundamental property the Universe? Would I find more satisfying answers looking into metaphysics rather than hard sciences? Would it then be possible that all life forms experience it up to the degree their perceptive abilities allow and we are (simply put) the physical vehicles most able to experience different aspects of awareness or in other words - the way Universe gets to know itself?
    – demiters
    May 24 '14 at 16:40
  • @Demiters Yes to everything! :) Precisely where i am pointing to.
    – Asphir Dom
    May 24 '14 at 20:56

I would suggest that the question might be better posed to anthropologists than philosophers. The relevant term that you're looking for is "behavioral modernity". My impression is that the major controversy about the advent of behavioral modernity is whether it was gradual accumulation of small changes or a great leap forward, but I'm not an expert on the subject.

  • Thanks, that is indeed a good start for further research but I guess I'm looking at a period before the one behavioral modernity is concerned with as not even language seems to be a requirement for self-awareness.
    – demiters
    May 23 '14 at 15:37

I'm not sure it was even in the primate lineage first, though you may wonder specifically about the primate lineage. In particular, magpies can pass the mirror test, something which only seems like it could be possible if they have self-awareness of a sort. It would not surprise me if, for instance, some species of dinosaur could have passed the mirror test in the Cretaceous.

Also, there are plenty of anecdotes about dogs misbehaving and looking sheepish (or behaving and not looking sheepish) that suggest that "primal instinct" is too simplistic a way to view animal behavior.

These sorts of self-awareness are not as deep as the self-consciousness you're describing (i.e. being aware that one is having one's own thoughts), but I don't see a difference in kind between that and recognizing self visually: it's the same kind of capacity, just via a different sensory modality (internal instead of external). The internal awareness is really hard to measure, though, so it's best to use external forms as a proxy for what is likely.

Gaining self-consciousness was almost surely a gradual thing, given the scattering of self-aware behavior across all sorts of animals with complex brains. Probably self-awareness was something which in some animals was only very intermittently noticed and the consequences only dimly grasped, and over time some lineages (including ours) gathered a more continual and deeper perspective on it. As with any other trait, even an abrupt change here would not alone serve to generate a different biological species unless the self-aware animals refused to mate with non-self-aware ones.

  • I'm interested to know how you can defend "Gaining self-consciousness was almost surely a gradual thing." I'm not trying to say you can't be right. I just have a difficult time imagining what evidence exists to get you that level of certainty.
    – virmaior
    May 24 '14 at 0:36
  • @virmaior - From observing the spectrum of abilities in animals, and also noting the varying degrees of self-awareness in humans in different conditions. (And because evolution generally results in gradual changes.) From observations you conclude that there is no really sharp divide between "self-aware" and "primal instinct". Hence, given the gradual increase in other cognitive areas (e.g. tool use) in hominids, one would expect this would follow the same pattern.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 24 '14 at 2:25
  • I think it's presently an open question whether features happens gradually or appear spontaneously in terms of the evolution. Specifically, if you look at the level of chemical systems, there are some where we can conceive of no way that the parts gradually improved to produce the whole. Thus, the debate in anthropology referenced in shane's answer and my surprise at your level of certainty. There definitely are some other mammals that demonstrate level of self-awareness. But this does clarify where you're coming from on that degree of certainty.
    – virmaior
    May 24 '14 at 2:39
  • @virmaior - Argument by lack of imagination is not very compelling. If I found it so, I agree I'd be much less certain. Also, I'm not sure which chemical systems you're talking about, but the ones I'm aware of mostly have at least conceptions of how it could have arisen gradually (though those may be incorrect; biochemistry doesn't leave as much of a trace as one needs to do adequate history).
    – Rex Kerr
    May 25 '14 at 18:51
  • not at all sure what you mean by "argument by lack of imagination" nor do I know your degree of knowledge concerning biochemistry. I have a BS in chemistry -- but maybe things have changed dramatically in the 11 years since I earned it. At least where I went and at that point, I would say the idea that it could all happen by spontaneous gradual improvement was on the way out. But these things tend to go back and forth in ebbs and flows (which I suspect are motivated in the background by larger concerns that either want bigs leaps or don't [God vs. no God among accepts of evolution])
    – virmaior
    May 25 '14 at 21:43

Your question assumes there is no self awareness outside humanity. I think this assumption is caused by the belief that most people are taught as children in the West and Abrahamic religions that people have souls and animals do not. Self awareness like most things is not a black and white phenomenon. Rather like most things there is a lot of gray and a little black and white. Scientists now communicate with upper primates through sign language. Dolphins and whales have highly developed upper brains. Our failure to understand how to communicate with them doesn't make them unaware of themselves or thoughtless.

I am left handed, and thus right brained. I often do not use language when I think. Does that make me not self aware?

Passing on to a next generation is not self awareness, it is culture. Even house cats have culture. A cat is not born to be a mouser, it learns it from its mother.


First off, it should be pointed out that the process of self-awareness you are describing is also experienced by human young. I believe we all get to experience that at some point in the age of 3 when we realize the influence of our thoughts over our behavior. Experiences such as "Mommy! I thought you went out!" can sooner or later guide the child towards introspective thinking.

Yet, I believe that relatively advanced level of realization is not the only experience that can be generally described as self-awareness. It can be reasonably argued, as does Rex Ker, it is hard to sharply distinguish between primal instinct and self-awareness as both phenomena generally suggest an "awareness" of external and even internal stimulus by the subject. A cat responds to the internal feeling of hunger and that suggests his is "aware" of its emotions but a cat doesn't seem to be ever able of critical introspection where a living thing contemplates upon its thoughts.

So considering that we humans do go beyond that primitive level of self-awareness, it is very intuitive that different levels of self-awareness emerge at different levels of the evolutionary process yet not all animals reach such advanced levels of self-consciousness as do human beings.

Now going back to the challenge of distinguishing different levels of self-awareness, it seems that the object of awareness is the real criteria for distinguishing different levels of self-awareness. Well, you might immediately respond that the object of awareness in self-awareness is evidently the "self", yet as in the cat's hunger example we learned that self-awareness is actually applied to an associate of the cat's self which was the feeling of hunger as experienced by the cat's self.

So I think the question rests fundamentally upon our full understanding of the nature of the conscious substance of living organisms including human beings. I, as an adherent to holistic theory of Mulla Sadra about the nature, origin, and development of human bodily and mental existence, believe that human self (or highest substance) just like every other living organism is a non-material being that interacts closely with his physical organs. Yet the multiplicity and compoundedness of his external physical existence introduces various kinds of perceptions to the non-material substance varying from primal instincts of hunger and lust, to external sensory perceptions (visual, audible, etc), mental abstractions and logical judgements thereupon which allows a wide and varied spectrum of further abstract conceptions and complex logical judgements.

Under this light, depending upon which particular set of perceptions (ranging from sensory and abstract perceptions to judgements and propositions) we predicate awareness upon, we get different levels/types of self-awareness as all types of perceptions become part of a living organism's self. Therefore, "I am angry" is as much indicative of self-awareness as is "There's a car out there", "I think Earth is round" and "2 + 2 makes 4" as they all indicate an awareness of a fact which is ultimately reflected in the subject's existence, as all of the prepositions can be preceded by "I am aware that..." So we can reasonably say that all awareness of conscious living organisms are also self-awareness.

But as an example as to how we proceed from the most elementary (primal) instincts to higher levels of consciousness let's trace different stages of the mental development of a new-born baby. When a baby first sucks upon her mother's breast, he is already aware of the existence of his lips (notice, that he still doesn't have a sense of the shape, proportion and other properties of his lips doesn't negate the fact he does sense their existence). And since he senses them as part of his existence, his self, that very primal instinct does qualify for a primitive level of self-awareness.

Taking the example further, the baby gradually establishes a relation between the perception of satisfaction (lack of hunger) after lactation and the perception of sucking on the mother's breast, and as a result craves for mother's hug once he is hungry again. That's how the child gradually arrives at such mental abstract categories (although not yet very articulate and vivid) as food (sensed as something that eliminates hunger, i.e. mother's breast), food-source (mother's breast or hug), eating (the act of sucking).

These vague more abstract concepts are reinforced upon the recurrence of similar experiences and later in the child's mental development come to be associated with visual images of the mother and her breast, and later with oral words such as "mommy", "breast", "food", "milk", "hug" and their respective referents and meanings, and as such lingual capabilities gradually evolve.

This introduces a higher level of self-awareness, that is, awareness of the most primitive abstract categorizations of immediately sensory percepts, all sensed by the subject's self. Reinforced senses of "me" and "others" on one hand, and reinforced concepts of existence and non-existence, cause, effect, etc on the other gradually enable the child to arrive at more philosophical questions or statements such as "Where did I come from?", "Why does apple fall?" etc. This is the stage where mental development can generate a myriad of new concepts, statements, questions etc and it is difficult to point out in particular what concepts and statements the child arrives at from this point forward, yet it can be safely said that since the child has already developed a strong sense of "me" and "other" enabling him to utter various first person sentences, the notion of self-awareness as recognition of the existence and impacts of thoughts is very likely already established.

This wisdom reveals that human self-awareness (which corresponds to his very mental substance) is constantly expanded as he acquires more knowledge of the world around him. Though, the knowledge absorbed, formed or arrived at can be divided into various types (i.e. primal, sensory, rational and spiritual) each with a particular impact on the subject's existence.

And in the meantime, it was also revealed that self-awareness is not passed from one living creature to the other, but it is a capability that separately evolves throughout mental development each individual conscious living being goes through.


I would suggest you reading "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". Which coins the term "Bicameralism". I would say the topic is exactly an answer for what you are looking for, but wrong or write, well I don't know! Julian Jaynes looks for a possible answer for this question in a philosophical-historical investigation. I haven't read the book but it has been recommended to me by many of my friends. I know for example the following from the book:

The topic is the order of god that the king needs to oblige and in old paintings there used to be some of them showing the king, receiving the order from a good which sits on a chair. During the time the god on the chair disappeared from the paintings and [and if I remember correctly] the king has been replaced by god on chair. Then the claim goes as the humans used to be schizophrenic before becoming conscious. And this god in the pictures was their inner voice which was a symptom of their schizophrenia.

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