Continuing a discussion I and one or two others were having in the thread vincent-torleys-disappearing-book-review it is of little surprise that those responding to what I said, along with many of the posters here, regard consciousness as a product of matter. I believe that it is the other way round. As with Owen Barfield and John Davy, I came to this conclusion many, many years ago, and for me like them, Rudolf Steiner was a big influence in solidifying this view. Here is an extract from an article about Owen Barfield from Richard A. Hocks
Barfield’s precoccupation with the history of consciousness is different from even the most saturated analyses of the past, such as Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Barfield maintains that, in any thoughtful consideration of evolution, it is both more reasonable and more illuminating to hold that mind, or consciousness, precedes matter rather than the reverse–though not individualized mind or self-consciousness. Not only does the origin of language point toward this supposition but also the content of the great myths, indeed even the very archetypes that a thinker like Jung explores so deeply yet without ever considering that that they might inhabit the world “outside” the human head–or a vast collection of human heads. In other words, evolution for Barfield begins with mind as anterior to matter, as a given “field” out of which, as it were, matter compresses. Barfield’s thesis herein does not merely challenge the Darwinian argument; in a sense it turns that argument on its head: for not only does mind precede and bring matter into being, and a form of intentionality replace chance-ridden natural selection, but the very same physical evidence used in support of the received position is never directly challenged or discredited, but interpreted differently…
Here are some words from John Davy (pseudonym, John Waterman) who gives an overview of Steiner’s thoughts on the evolution of physical life better than I ever could:
The evolution of man, Steiner said, has consisted in the gradual incarnation of a spiritual being into a material body. It has been a true “descent” of man from a spiritual world into a world of matter. The evolution of the animal kingdom did not precede, but rather ;accompanied; the process of human incarnation. Man is thus not the end result of the evolution of the animals, but is rather in a certain sense their cause. In the succession of types which appears in the fossil record-the fishes, reptiles, mammals, and finally fossil remains of man himself-the stages of this process of incarnation are reflected.
Steiner asks us to conceive of the form of man as originally an “imagination”, an archetypal Idea created by exalted spiritual beings, and existing spiritually, devoid of physical substance. Physical evolution records the preparation of a physical vehicle fashioned in the image of this archetype, in which the spirit of man could live.
The gradual shaping of this vehicle was a long evolutionary process. The spiritual powers could not produce a ready-made human body any more than parents can give birth to an adult child. A kind of spiritual embryology had to guide the development of the body of man.
This physical vehicle, Steiner says, accordingly passed through several distinct stages.These include a fish-like stage, a reptile-like stage, before the gradual emergence of the final human form. At each stage, the spiritual human being was able to unite more closely with his physical vehicle. But it was not until quite recent times-the Tertiary in geological terms-that the physical vehicle began to match the archetypal Idea sufficiently to allow the human spirit to enter into it.
What, then, is the relation according to Steiner between the evolutionary stages of man and the physical fossils found in the earth? The fish-like stage of the human body described by Steiner only contained physical substance in the most tenuous way. It must be thought of as a largely spiritual entity with only the most delicate and scarecly substantial physical elements-rather as some of the frailer jellyfish live in the sea like insubstantial ghosts, more that ninety-nine percent water, with only the most diaphanous membranes to give them form. Certainly, there was no question of this early human stage containing sufficiently mineralised matter to leave fossil remains.
On the other hand, the existence of such a delicate physical-spiritual vehicle provided an opportunity for other spiritual beings to incarnate. The fish “archetype” could enter fully into this tenuous vehicle and carry it down to earth. This meant filling out the body with physical substance, coarsening it, giving it firm bones and hard scales. In this way, the fish appeared in the fossil record. They reflect the fact that man was passing at that time through a fish-like stage, and simultaniously represent the incarnation of the fish “type” on earth. The same applies to the reptiles, and-in a more complex way-to the mammals. The animals have thus diverged from the line of human evolution, and plunged sooner and deeper into an involvement with the earth. Instead of the animals being the ancestors of human beings, man is the ancestor of the animal.
Now this is very brief and crude sketch of some very complicated and difficult aspects of Steiner’s account of evolution. It would lead too far to discuss here the origin of the “animal” archetypes and their relation to man. The question I want to consider is whether this central concept of incarnating spiritual archetypes can be related to the current scientific view of evolution.
The biological concept of “adaptive radiation” is, in fact, an expression of this process of incarnation. When a new generalised type appears in the fossil record its full possibilities are still hidden, so to speak. From Steiner’s standpoint, we see an animal archetype gradually incarnating, establishing a closer and more intimate contact with the earth. Adaptive radiation expresses the gradual emergence on the earthly scene of an archetype in its full complexity.
This suggests that the genetical concept of a flow of random mutations into the hereditary constitution of a species is too limited. Many people have found it difficult to imagine that a random process could produce all the fantastic adaptations found in the animal kingdom. The difficulty, most biologists say, is imaginative rather than logical, and they discount it. For in theory, a random mutation process, given time, could produce all the necessary adaptations, just as a team of monkeys with typewriters might eventually hammer out Hamlet by chance. Furthermore, they might produce it sooner if they were rewarded each time they produced a coherent word, and rewarded still more generously for each iambic pentameter. In the same way, natural selection could steer a random mutation process towards a coherent end. Fisher has described natural selection as “a mechanism for generating an exceedingly high degree of improbability”.
Nevertheless, the fact that monkeys could theoretically type Hamlet does not mean that Shakespeare was a monkey. The random mutation theory allows virually anything to happen. But the fact that it allows this does not prove that what happened necessarily arose by random mutation. The concept of evolution by accident is sometimes made by biologists to seem more compusory than its logic-or lack of it-really justifies.
But curiously enough, because the theory so anarchic and can “explain” almost anything, biologists have now come to talk of adaptations in a way which sometimes sound more Lamarkian than Darwinian. For instance, P. M. Sheppard in; Natural Selection and Hereditary; writes of the evolution of the horse thus: “Life in open country favoured swifter, larger animals which were more easily able to see and avoid their predators. Consequently, selection favoured an increase in body size and a reduction in the number of toes, for this gave greater speed. At the same time the teeth also became larger and more durable, a necessary change to allow for the greater volume of food taken by a larger animal.”
The horse, in fact, got what it needed. The imagination may balk at the idea that the genetic constitution had ready by chance, and at the right time, all the complex variability needed to allow the appropriate changesto take place. But genetic theory leads us to expect improbable events. And by permitting almost infinite possibilities, it puts itself in an impregnable position.
The trouble with a theory which can explain everything is that it does not really explain anything. In fact it does no more than offer one way of imagining how the horse could have evolved. Some biologists seem to argue that the very improbability of the evolution of the horse proves the theory is correct. They should look to their logic.
The real virtue of neo-Darwinism, to my mind, is that it has focused attention on adaptations. The theory predicts that practically every feature of an animal should have some function, should make sense in relation to its environment. This has led to a tremendous revival of field studies, and scientific naturalists have been discovering more and more of the extraordinary beauty and subtlety of animals’ relations with their environment. Even what appeared to be purely “decorative” features of birds or fishes, for instance, are gradually being shown to be intimately related to the animals’ pattern of behaviour. Thus while the theory has as its foundation mere random events, it has led to a much more meaningful understanding of the way animals actually live.
Such natural wisdom in animals’ lives is just what would be expected if they were an expresion of spiritual archetypes. Such archetypes would nowhere establish a senseless relationship with the earth. Every feature would have purpose and meaning, however subtle and elusive. Thus the real clash between Steiner and science, as far as this aspect of evolution goes, is the question of the source of variability or inner plasticity of a species. According to science, this is the flow of random events. According to Steiner, it is a stream of wisdom flowing from the archetype into the physical animals, and gradually manifesting in adaptive radiation.
There is , however, another aspect of evolution which is something of a problem for orthodox theory, and which Steiner’s descriptions illuminate. For evolution has not been only a matter of adaptation and specialisation. There has also been “progress”, or what Huxley calls “improvement”.
New kinds of biological organisation have appeared in the fossil record. The water-living fish are followed by the land-living reptiles, and they are followed by the warm-blooded mammals.These are major changes, not simply adaptations. Sheppard (op. cit.) calls them “inventions”.
Now there is no specific provision for this kind of biological reorganisation in genetic theory. In fact, it seems to run counter to expectation in some respects. For the essence of natural selection and adaptation is gradual specialisation, and closer ties with a particular environment. But a major reoganisation is inconceivable for a specialised creature.
Yet the main steps from fish to reptile, and reptile to mammal, seem to have been accompanied by an “escape” from specialisation. The early representatives of a new group in the fossil record are generalised, and then gradually undergo adaptive radiation. (The early reptiles later gave rise, for instance, to a host of specialised crawling, flying, running, swimming and climbing forms.)
One of the most interesting ideas put forward by biologists to account for such escape from specialisation is “neoteny”. This idea starts from the fact that the young of many animals show fewer specialised features than the adults. If a juvenile stage were to become prematurely able to reproduce, a new “juvenile” and less specialised line of creatures might result. Neoteny actually occurs in some animals today-for instance, the Mexican axolotl-an apparently adult creature-in actuality a neotenous form of the North American salamander. Professor Alistair Hardy has suggested that this process “seems likely to have provided some of the more fundsmental innovations in the course of evolution”.
The principal biological advances are thus considered by Hardy to have been facilitated by a kind of rejuvenation in its literal sense-a “making young again”. Now Rudolf Steiner’s account of evolution indicates that the emergence of a new “improved” group of animals into the fossil record is the result of a new divergence from the human line of evolution. The principal divergences gave rise to the main phyla-fishes, reptiles and mammals. And each represents a major biological advance-from water to land (reptiles), then from cold blood to warm-blood (mammals). These steps reflect important advances in the preparation of the human body.
According to Steiner, the human line retained its youth longest, so to speak. It held back from involvement with the earth longer than the animals. But as each phylum emerges into the fossil record, it still bears within it some of the “youthfulness” derived from its recent connection with human evolution.
Man as he is now still expresses physically more of this youthful quality than any of the animals. Many of his physical features (for instance his hands) are extremely unspecialised and versatile. He is not forced by his anatomy into such specialised relationships with his environment. It is no accident that young animals sometimes seem more “human” than their adult parents. They carry a kind of physical memory of a time when they were closer to man. This effect is at its most dramatic in apes and monkeys. An infant ape looks surprisingly like a very ancient and senile man. But an adult ape is completely an animal. Growing up, in animals, still reflects the original growing away from the human form.
Man’s relationship to the apes and monkeys is thus the opposite of that normally assumed. The apes are creatures which descended to earth just before man. They took hold of the almost human form and carried it prematurely into too deep and specialised a connection with the earth.They are literally “descended from man”.
Anatomists have often noted the resemblance between man and the “foetal ape”. According to science, man is a kind of neotenous or juvenile monkey. According to Steiner, the trajedy of the apes is that they are, in a sense, prematurely senile men at birth. Their growing up carries them deep into the animal world.
The “descent of man” to earth has separated him more and more from his spiritual origins. And physical evolution has been accompanied by a profound spiritual evolution, an evolution of human consciousness. Its effect has been that man has lost direct awareness of the spiritual worlds out of which he is born. But he has gained self-consciousness.
This process of withdrawal into a physical body and into a central point-like self-consciousness has given rise to our essentially dualistic outlook today. Man experiences himself as a detached onlooker, observing a separate “outer” world. This, according to Steiner, represents the deepest incarnation of the human spirit into the body. The descent of man is complete.
But evolution, Steiner says, has now reached a turning-point. The ascent of man is beginning, and the first step is that man will gradually begin to carry his “objective” consciousness into a new relationship with the spiritual world. The fruit of this process is to be true spiritual freedom. Such an experience of freedom, however, has only become possible by passing through the present experience of spiritual isolation.
How has this transformation of the evolutionary process been achieved? Through the Incarnation of the true Archetype of Man, in whose image we aare created and whom we call the Christ. This event was the turning-point of the evolutionary process.
Without the intervention of the Christ Being, according to Steiner, the descent of man would have continued. The human spirit would have been mastered by the processes of incarnation. Man would have been irrevocably entangled in the earth.
Through the events on Golgotha, the Image of Man, that original Imagination which had gradually descended into physical embodiment, was redeemed. Good Friday is the final Descent of Man. On Easter Sunday, the turning-point of time, the metamorphosis of the whole evolutionary process is achieved.
Through the redemption of the human form, the way is open for a redemption of human consciousness. But this cannot be achieved by a divine intervention, for ths would deny just that spiritual freedom which is the purpose of human evolution. Man must undertake the spiritualising of his consciousness by his own efforts and his own choice. But if he makes the choice and the efforts, he will not be left alone. He will receive, in Christian terms, the gift of the Holy Spirit. After Easter will come Whitsun.
Steiner’s central purpose was to set man’s feet firmly on this road. And he maintained that while many of the things he said might still seem strange to the present age, this would be less so as time went on. Just below the surface, so to speak, human consciousness is evolving. The climate of human thought is already completely different from Darwin’s day.
It is, therefore, not unexpected that there should be some striking echoes of Steiner’s account of the significance of evolution in the work of a “scientific humanist” like Huxley.
Modern biology is, of course, still deeply imbued with nineteenth-century assumptions-but there are signs that it is beginning to struggle hard to free itself. Steiner’s view of evolution offers a tremendous liberation to the human spirit, whose effects would work creatively throughout society. In many ways neo-Darwininsm is much nearer to Steiner than would have seemed possible at the beginning of this century. If this essay can accelerate this trend, even slightly, it will have achieved its purpose.
A short series which gives a nice precise of the thoughts of Barfield in the book “Saving the Appearances” begins here on Youtube.