A student of mine in one of my psychology classes asked my thoughts on the collective unconscious, the idea proposed by Carl Jung that we don’t just have an individual consciousness, but as species we also have a collective unconscious, where all humans have access to universal thoughts and ideas. This article attempts to provide some evidence for psychic powers as an explanation of collective unconsciousness.
Jung was impressed that symbols in dreams seem to reappear across human cultures and theorized that we have some unifying consciousness. Modern psychologists would explain that this collective unconscious is transmitted through genetics and is due to similarity in out mental architecture and not psychic powers.
Jung and Freud have many important contributions to psychology, but they aren’t scientists. In the article the author suggests that rats could psychically know a maze just because another rat solved it somewhere in the world. The author gives a few instances of these but no statistics were cited to know if this is anything more than mere chance.
If CU as described existed, then very quickly every rat would learn the quickest path as the positive feedback (snowball effect) dramatically improves accuracy. Human children would know advanced physics and mathematics, or even how sex works, just because some other human figured it out and contributed to our collective unconscious. But children clearly have to start at the same point of complete ignorance before they can understand these things. We should all be able to speak all the languages in the world because other humans have done it contributing to this pool of collective unconsciousness that we can all draw from. But we don’t do any of these. We do all share a genetic endowment to learn any human language as our first when we are at a particular stage of development. I suppose, the Internet is the closest thing we’ve got to a collective unconscious as described by Jung and his followers.
I found it odd that the author thought it was incredulous that nest building in birds can be influenced by genes, yet was willing to resort to psychic phenomena to explain a few interesting coincidences. Genes do far more complicated thing than transmit nest building skills, the entire architecture of the brain and body is transmitted through a cascade of events continued through DNA transmission, this is obvious just by looking at the consistency of anatomy. You’d expect buildings built the same way to have similar features like staircases, corners and corridors in similar places, but with some minor differences. The same is true of the brain, so we tend to think of similar ideas, certain themes appear in our dreams etc (collective unconscious) simply because of the overlapping similarity in our basic architecture. This is transmitted through our genes and shaped by our environment.
Other examples from the article where brought up like human and plant, and human to animal communication. Humans and animals clearly can communicate emotional states to each other fairly easily. But I reject the notion that a cactus can be charmed into producing fewer thorns. Biochemically yes, charm no.
This naturally lead to a discussion of biological evolution and the future of humans, as described in this video:
His explanation is a bit complicated, but is essentially describing the fact that humans are the first species to be able to intentionally alter our evolutionary course. He conceived of a “new”evolution that stems for information and knowledge that we control versus natural selection. I disagree that this “new” evolution is much different than the old. He talks about increased intelligence piling on top of our previous talents. Evolution already works that way, if those talents have survival value or is increases chances of sexual selection. The only difference is that we can directly change our DNA with molecular biology to accelerate the process.
My biggest problem here is that he assumes that evolution has a purpose and that there is progress and a goal to evolution. I think he also overemphasizes the individual. From an evolutionary point of view, individual organisms are nothing more than vessels for genes.
Individual lives don’t really matter on such a grand scale of time, only transmitting genes to future generation matters from a evolutionary perspective. There is no progress or goal, only survival and adapting to change to continue to survive. Seems sad perhaps, but the closest thing we have to immortality in the physical world is passing on our genes.
The speaker in the film seems to neglect that humans have dramatically changed our lives, not by messing with our biology, but through cultural evolution. The concept of memes is powerful here. People like Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Muhammed have come up with ideas that have dramatically altered human behavior and the course of history. Most of this was a result of progress in science and technology and no evolutionary changed has occurred in humans for 150,000 years. Cybernetics and gene therapy are already being used to influence the architecture of the human body, I suppose this is the new evolution he’s talking about. It’s more metaphorical view rather than actual Darwinian processes of natural selection.