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By John V. Wylie


The Montréal Review, June 2021


Emotional Fossils: Mental Illness and Human Evolution (2020) by John V. Wylie




True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.

                                                                       –Albert Schweitzer

In an essay in the February issue of The Montréal Review, I discussed Duke psychologist Michael Tomasello’s Becoming Human (2019), in which he reviews studies comparing the minds of apes and developing children and concludes that collective intentionality (will) is unique to humans. He bases his conclusion on the predictable timing across cultures of the unfolding of 1) shared intentionality arising at nine months old (“Let’s both look at that pretty bird”) and 2) collective intentionality starting around three years old (“That’s the right way we ought to do it”). Tomasello assumes that collective intentionality was evolved for the benefits of collaborative foraging, and thus the unique refinement of teamwork has been the decisive human adaptation.

Most significantly, Tomasello claims that collective intentionality in humans represents a major biological transition comparable to the Cambrian Explosion of life. Just as individual cells assembled into multicellular organisms a half-billion years ago, individual apes assembled into organically functioning groups of humans. In both cases, biology crossed the Rubicon from cooperation, in which individual cells or apes co-opt benefits from each other in win-win transactions—to coordination in which the divided labor of individual cells and humans evolved to function harmoniously together as organisms. In this monumental transition, natural selection for the fitness of individuals was overtaken by natural selection for the productivity of relationships among individuals, and accordingly, intentionality shifted from individuals to the relationships among them.

...intentionality shifted from individuals to the relationships among them.

Intentionality, which everyone intuitively understands, is derived from the verb intend, which is related to will or motivate; but these latter two verbs are transitive needing an object: you must will or motivate yourself to do something, whereas you are the subject that intends to act. Intentionality has two dimensions: 1) the capacity to initiate and be the ongoing source or agent of an intention (will or motivation) and 2) it must be directed at, or be about, someone or something. When I pick up a spoon, the source of intentionality is me, and it is directed at the spoon.

With the Cambrian Explosion, intentionality ceased being about individual cells strategically jockeying for their self-interest and began to be about regulatory connections among cells, and then further evolving into a neurological system that was about the organic coordination of all cells as single creatures. So too did intentionality cease being about the self-interest of individual apes and began to be about codes of conduct among humans, and then further evolving into language, which became the equivalent of a neurological system in that it was about the organic coordination of human individuals as a single creature. The nature and experience of the unique language of our ancestral species can be teased out by probing the abiding mystery of the Acheulean hand ax.

Acheulean hand ax

The toolmaking capacities of our ancestral species differ qualitatively from toolmaking in animals and would not have arisen in the absence of collective intentionality. The manufacture of stone tools emerged with our genus Homo and evolved into the near universal use of the Acheulean hand ax, which remained essentially unchanged across continents for 1.5 million years, a time of unprecedented brain growth. Although part of the establishment of this early tool industry involved widely dispersed genetically mediated manual dexterity an opposable thumb, and hand-eye coordination, there can be no doubt that the knapping technique and tear drop shape of the hand ax were spread and maintained culturally—and there is the rub. We normally think of these kinds of cultural practices as spreading by imitation, causing their continuity over long distances and times to be fragile and subject to variation. Darwin’s challenge was to construct a theory that contained potential dynamic change over time within apparently unchanging species; but the challenge of the hand ax is quite the opposite—why such enduring stasis in usually rapidly changing cultural transmission?

To prevent territoriality from disrupting their adaptation for teamwork, the Homo peoples evolved to be hyper-migratory with constant mixing due to rapid climate fluctuations in the Pleistocene. In Fairweather Eden (1998), Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts in Boxgrove, England, deduced from the relative position of half-million-year-old knapped stone chips that they had been knapped off hand axes simultaneously in groups. I propose that a central function of knapping these tools, beyond butchering animals and other speculated uses, was as a bonding ritual that reflected and sustained their organic way of life. Hand ax construction was experienced as a restorative communion in which all immersed themselves into the authority of how it should be done. In my imagination, I can place myself into the experience of our ancestral species knapping essentially the same Acheulean hand ax for an astonishing 1.5 million years (from Emotional Fossils, 2020):

Crouching in a circle, we are all glancing back and forth, not merely imitating one another’s work, but watching for strokes made with the authority of how it should be and always had been done. We all instinctively know the familiar rectitude of wisdom flashing alternatively among us, making small adjustments with constant mutual recognition until general specifications are satisfied: the precise technique of striking, the proper size and shape.

Whether it be from one day, week, or century on into the next, the memory of what to do and when to do it was not stored in any individual brain. Rather, this knowledge was mixed into and among a given group—and all groups—in bits and pieces, which, when the moment arose, fell together in collective animation. Diffusing through time and space and linked by long repeating chains of unbroken mutual experience, this hallowed ritual, the emblem of a sacred tribe, scattered far and wide out into their diaspora from Africa out and across the vastness of Eurasia. Although individuals drifted from one group to another, small bands dissolved, and new ones reconstituted, these diurnal chains of communal functioning wove an unbroken fabric for 50 thousand generations across the expanse of entire continents.  

Just as all the varied cells in our bodies have evolved a collective intentionality mediated by the neurological connections among them and protected by an immune system, so too did the collective intentionality of our ancestral species flow through the linguistic connections among them and protected by an immune system of refined instincts for justice.

Homo sapiens

From our violent factious world, it would appear absurd that we could have sprung from a collective form of life with advantages sufficient to transform the dominance competition of apes into a benign shared authority with evolved collective wisdom emanating from a virtual spiritual space. Clearly, the prior 50 million years of primate instincts to dominate did not simply evaporate, because they re-emerged with a vengeance in our own species. However, allow me to point out a popular alternative view of how collective intentionality evolved. In his wildly successful Sapiens (2015), Yuval Harari’s speculation is that 70 thousand years ago, a lucky genetic mutation galvanized a “cognitive revolution” in the brain from which collective intentionality emerged as a feckless parasitic genie inflicting “delusional” beliefs morphing into religions and ideologies like communism, capitalism, and fascism. Compared to the hypothesis of a biological transition which, as my prior essay described, ties together the major scientific findings in paleoanthropology, the idea that chance mutations in the brain suddenly enabled our unique capacities to immerse ourselves into our collective beliefs is not a serious proposal, and his narrative that follows is a paean to the prevailing reductionist paradigm of human nature.   

In the prior essay, I offered a fraction of ubiquitously obvious evidence that the evolutionary equivalent of the biblical Fall in Eden was caused by the emergence in our own species of sexual selection. Darwin finally settled on the mechanism of sexual selection when he concluded that the useless beauty of the peacock’s tail is simply the result of the peahen’s taste for beauty, and he pointed out that the desire for an attractive trait and the trait itself can co-evolve without regard to the trait’s survival benefits. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin considered human behaviors such as singing and dancing as sexual display, and I would most certainly include the earliest cave art in Europe and Island Southeast Asia.

Although sexual selection is clearly exemplified in our courting process in which we mutually sort through attractive “displays” many of which are aesthetic, the relentless drive for social approbation on the part of modern humans goes well beyond mere mating and is referred to as narcissism by psychoanalysts and vanity in biblical texts. I propose that the Homo sapiens desire for youthful beauty, such as selection for our slender (“gracile”) bodies and distinctive child-like skulls compared to forebear species, is mere “romantic baggage,” and that the central survival benefit of the broad social desire to be admired is to cohere tribes into ever larger intercommunicating populations.

...the central survival benefit of the broad social desire to be admired is to cohere tribes into ever larger intercommunicating populations.

Indeed, there is hard genetic evidence that ancient Homo sapiens families had larger mating networks (Sikora, 2017) than the more ingrown families of contemporary Neanderthals (Prüfer, 2017). The benefit of larger interconnected populations is that, at a threshold of broadly pooled knowledge, practical knowhow is maintained across generations and thereby can commence its own generative process of natural selection—which is the decisive achievement of our species. Although cultural evolution did not continuously take hold until about 40,000 years ago, the earliest Homo sapiens fossils are associated with elaborations of stone tools beyond the Acheulean hand ax (Reichter, et al., 2017).

And, yet, who among us would deny the truth in these lines from Ecclesiastes 2:11? “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit.” Our own species is animated by a private and desiring willfulness emanating from individuals and directed at attracting the admiration of our groups and beyond, while the legacy from our ancestral species is animated by a public and prescribing willfulness emanating from a virtual relational space and directed at the proper functioning of our groups. And so, this evolutionary narrative simplifies an understanding of the human mind by revealing that we have been endowed with two interacting minds: each of us, at all times is both a new mind of the me and an old mind of the we.

...we have been endowed with two interacting minds: each of us, at all times is both a new mind of the me and an old mind of the we.

What is a mind? Imagine a lifeless collection of amino acids first acquiring the rudiment of life, which is to replicate. In the process of replication, mutations are naturally selected for traits that enhance the survival of succeeding generations of this new little bit of life. Because these newly acquired traits all enhance the capacity of this burgeoning organism to survive, it is transformed into a subject with the intention to survive, and in the process has achieved the rudiments of mind. Now turning to the Cambrian Explosion: in contemplating the wholesale shift in natural selection from individual cells to groups of cells, it naturally followed that intentionality also shifted from cells to multi-cellular organisms producing a higher order mind. And, with the transition of apes into collective intentionality, humans leaped into a still higher order mind—which recently has evolved to interact with our new mind that is animated by vanity.

My day job as a psychiatrist was alleviating the suffering of patients living with mental illnesses, while at night, I contemplated the evolutionary meaning of their enigmatic symptoms. I gradually confirmed that the experiences of schizophrenia and the manic phase of bipolar disorder can be validly viewed as vivid emotional fossils that accurately magnify the quality and intentionality of our old mind and new mind respectively. Before examining these fossils of our two minds, some historical context is helpful.

Half-Century of Shifting Psychiatric Paradigms

Like many major therapies in medicine, the benefits of lithium, Thorazine and many others were discovered by astute serendipitous observations. Although my practice of psychiatry began in the 1970s in the waning years of the Freudian psychoanalytic paradigm, by the mid-1980s, the golden age of biological therapeutics had arrived, and mental illness became a “chemical imbalance” and “all in the genes.” However, now it is thirty-five years later, and thorough knowledge of the neurochemical effects of therapeutic drugs has not led to the discovery of root biological mechanisms in mental illness, so most recently a substantial search for genetic causes has been undertaken. After analyzing over a million genomes, Harvard’s multi-centered BrainSTORM consortium (2018) could not genetically discriminate risk factors for any of the major mental illnesses and concluded that their negative finding “underscores the need to refine psychiatric diagnostics.”

But the reason for difficulties in distinguishing the genetics of psychiatric diagnostic symptoms is that they reflect the normal emotional function that is disrupted in the psychic sphere and not the biological pathology, which diffusely overlaps among all the major mental illnesses. Our two minds break down into mental illness in the following manner: like sound, emotion varies in amplitude (volume), and a simple analogy of the experience of both schizophrenia and mania is the input-output feedback-screech of a microphone and a speaker, and this pathological mechanism occurs at the psychic level of our two interacting minds, while drug treatments attempt to regulate this pathological hyperactivity at the brain-level by “turning down the volume.”

...a simple analogy of the experience of both schizophrenia and mania is the input-output feedback-screech of a microphone and a speaker, and this pathological mechanism occurs at the psychic level of our two interacting minds...

The New Mind: MANIA

In manic illness, the sentient pleasure that normally motivates our new mind’s quest for social approbation pours out as if from a speaker in a feedback-screech, supercharging the careening roller-coaster-binge of euphoric manic behavior. One striking symptom in mania fixes the time-period in which this odd rage for adulation emerged in our evolutionary history.

There have been occasions when I have been temporarily drawn from my role as physician into stunned fascination by the linguistic performance of a patient in the throes of a manic illness. All manner of rhetorical flourishes and beautifully constructed phrases may pour out in a torrent. Often there is a magnetic quality to this verbal virtuosity, the meaning of which can constitute a brilliantly creative flight of ideas, all of which accurately corresponds in the natural world to sexual display like a peacock’s tail. In the biography by Sylvia Nasar of the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (1998), a visitor relates the following incident at the McLean Hospital in Boston, where Nash was hospitalized for schizophrenia:

“Robert Lowell, the poet, walked in, manic as hell. He sees this very pregnant woman. He looks at her and starts quoting the begat sequences in the Bible. Then he started spinning quotes with the word “anointed.” He decided to lecture us on the meaning of “anointed” in all the ways it was used in the King James Version of the Bible. In the end I decided that every word in the English language was a personal friend of his.”

Vital to dating a fossil is careful evaluation of the surrounding geologic strata in which the fossil is embedded. The cognitively demanding, intricately complex structure (syntax) of this linguistic performance fixes our pursuit of vanity as having evolved very recently, within our own species. Moreover, a simple understanding of the process of modern human language is that the new mind of the me weaves attractive clauses for verbal “display” upon a loom of dynamically responsive rules deployed by the old mind of the we.


Anthropologists Nam C. Kim and Marc Kissel argue in Emergent Warfare in Our Evolutionary Past, 2018 that war has been in the process of slowly emerging during the entire 300,000-year span of our species with direct evidence for chronic war starting 12,000 years ago. Perhaps it was thousands of generations of Romeos and Juliets ratcheting up pressure on diverse tribes to amalgamate; but surely the same kinds of rivalries that devolved Cain and Able into hatred and violence did so too in the tribes of our species. Darwin understood that chronic war engenders natural selection for war-like dispositions in individuals, but this kind of group selection also co-opts what collective intentionality (authority) is about—from justice and the productivity of relationships—to the fitness of competing groups. As a result, we modern humans have acquired instincts to immerse ourselves (identify with) and submit to (believe in) the hierarchical authority of our contending tribes, such as the Republican Party or the scientific community. We have evolved a “social GPS” that unconsciously attunes us to the background messaging of authority that elicits loyalty (avid obedience) to the mores and prejudices of our nested groups; and it is this often-insidious process of identity that is disabled in schizophrenia, which is why people living with this disability are stigmatized as outcasts leading to lives of loneliness.

Just as mania is analogous to the feedback output of a screeching speaker, schizophrenia is analogous to the torrential input to the microphone. The emblematic symptoms of schizophrenia are delusions and hallucinations of thoughts and voices communicating to the patient from an external intentionality. Like mania, schizophrenia is caused in large part by the failure of modulating mechanisms at the neurochemical level (“broken brakes”), but the actual pathological mechanism occurs in the psychic sphere; our process of believing in our collective identities is thrown into a sustained pathological feedback screech that results in the experienced symptoms.

For example, in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shootings in 2013, everyone initially assumed that the perpetrator was a terrorist motivated by hostile group beliefs. It turned out he was living with schizophrenia. In an email recovered by the FBI, he expressed his motive: “Ultra-low frequency [microwave] attack is what I've been subject[ed] to for the last 3 months, and to be perfectly honest that is what has driven me to this.” In schizophrenia, the internal emotional mechanism, whereby the authority of groups normally communicate with their believers, collapses into an intense feedback screech.

Beyond an identity disorder, schizophrenia is a sickness of the sacred collective capacity that makes us human. With this understanding, the same experiences of schizophrenia that have been stigmatized through the ages (cf., the etymological source of “crazy”) become ancient beacons of an uplifting vision of who we are. Apart from hopes for more effective treatments, in my dreams I go to a time when the profound humanness of schizophrenia is felt and also honored.


In 1994, Sir Francis Crick captured the élan of our current bottom-up, reductionist paradigm in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul: "A person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them." A paradigm shift is not produced by scientific findings, but by the power of an explanation to simplify complexity in the natural world: heliocentrism simplified celestial movements, natural selection simplified the diversity of species, and plate tectonics the complexity of geology. The object of the remainder of this essay is to show how a macro-biological evolutionary understanding of our two minds—amplified in mania and schizophrenia—can simplify the micro-biological complexity of not just mental illness, but also religion, self-awareness, and free will.


I will not review the literature on the brain physiology of religion but suffice it to say there have been no coherent mechanisms discovered. All religions have the elements of collective intentionality, but the Abrahamic religions are particularly associated with the authority of justice, which has been refined over six million years to permit the intimate engagement required for individuals to live and work immersed as a single being.  

In the following passage by Robert Bellah from his Religion in Human Evolution (2011), Bellah compares the trajectory of Zeus in Greece and that of Yahweh in Israel:

“As a thought experiment, in what might have been we can think of the close connection of Zeus and justice (dikē) beginning, tentatively, in Homer, becoming quite explicit in and central in Hesiod, powerfully applied to his immediate situation by Solon, and reiterated once again in the tragedies of Aeschylus. But although the concern for justice remains central for those we call the Presocratics, the connection with Zeus loosens drastically. We saw in the case of Israel that Yahweh emerged gradually from being one of many other gods, even the greatest god, to the status of the one and only true God. Zeus never underwent that fate, even though the possibility was never entirely lost: witness the Hymn to Zeus of the early third century BCE Stoic Cleanthes.”

Last stanzas from Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus (translated by E. H. Blakeney):

O Thou most bounteous God that sittest throned

In clouds, the Lord of lightning, save mankind

From grievous ignorance!

Oh, scatter it

Far from their souls, and grant them to achieve

True knowledge, on whose might Thou dost rely

To govern all the world in righteousness;

That so, being honoured, we may Thee requite

With honour, chanting without pause Thy deeds,

As all men should: since greater guerdon ne'er

Befalls or man or god than evermore

Duly to praise the Universal Law.


Efforts to understand brain mechanisms in self-awareness and free will have fared no better than far more extensive efforts in mental illness. Indeed, there is no agreement about what self-awareness is; for example, does the ability of chimpanzees to recognize themselves in a mirror qualify?  

The idea that humans are separated from all other animals (our neurotic dogs don’t count) by a major transition to collective intentionality can both define and simplify an understanding of both self-awareness and free will. Awareness of our willfulness occurs when our private aspirations encounter the willfulness emanating from the authority of our social sphere, the deepest experience of which is our ancient collective core, our soul. At the instant of this encounter, private aspirations “go public” and become known to us in the collective social context.

Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet performed a classic experiment on free will titled “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action” (1985). He recorded the exact time at which subjects consciously made the decision to move a finger at a moment of their choosing. An electroencephalogram monitoring brain activity revealed unconscious activity, which Libet called “readiness potential,” an average of a half-second before participants were aware of their decision to move. In other words, before a person is aware of deciding to act, preparation for the action has already been initiated in the brain.

Because of its philosophical implications for free will, this experiment has been thoroughly debated and repeated over the years, but for our purposes I will accept Libet’s findings at face value and interpret them using the two mind hypothesis. This half-second delay is explained by the proposition that our 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens individual consciousness only becomes self-aware in the act of experiencing itself from the underlying platform of our six-million-year-old collective consciousness. The decision is made freely and instantaneously transmitted to the brain by the new mind but must await its conscious registration in the old mind before knowledge (awareness) of the conscious decision is attained and reported.

The difficulty for us moderns is that, when awareness is peeled off from the consciousness of our new mind, what’s left is naked physical reality imprisoned within the fleeting moment of our desires. Then this difficulty is compounded because the old mind is also inaccessible because it is the “background noise” of collective intentionality, within which we are immersed like fish unaware of the water in which we swim. As individuals our intimate engagement within this ubiquitous old mind experience is apparent to us in the act and feeling of becoming aware of knowing our private thoughts and motivations. In Eden, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and so we are condemned to watch ourselves as individuals, not just from our factious groups, but mostly from the depths of our collective Soul wrought through the ages by our noble ancestors.


  • The mind can be understood by studying the brain.
  • “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” (Darwin, Decent of Man,1871)
    • Exclusively human mental capacities are due to culture.
  • Natural selection is always a Malthusian struggle, perhaps because Darwin struck on the idea while reading Malthus (recounted in his Autobiography, 1887).
  • Natural selection acts only on individuals—and genes in blood relatives (kin selection).
  • Collective intentionality is a cognitively assembled state evolved by recursive mind-reading capacity, i.e., “recognizing, recursively, how the partner is thinking about how she is thinking about his thinking, and so forth.” (Tomasello, Becoming Human, 2019)

Three Million Years Ago . . .

I become aware of a continuous chirping sound threading up from below while hiking on a promontory high above the East African savanna. After lying down with my binoculars to examine the vast plain beneath me, I am astonished by the sight of two groups of grass-eating apes, separated by roughly a quarter-mile. I am charmed and fascinated to have discovered two herds, all harmlessly crouching and munching together. From the beginning, and steadily increasing, I have a profound sense that these creatures are unique. I finally see two of these three-to-four-foot-tall animals (presumably mates) stand up straight and walk over to the other group to join them, but that is the least of it. It is subtle at first, but once recognized, undeniable: I become aware that the individuals in each group as well as constantly vocalizing are all simultaneously gesturing to each other. They emit a continuous emotional intensity that causes within me a growing sense of foreboding—of fear. As peaceable and closely comfortable as they are with each other, the thought occurs to me that if they discover my presence, all that harmony might instantly merge, and they could become extremely dangerous to an outsider.

So fearing for my life while fatally drawn to them, I watch them from my lofty perch. For two days, I am tortured by my inability to pin down what it is about them that both terrifies and enthralls me. Gradually I focus on how intensely in tune they are with one another, without a hint of dominance or hierarchy. Each group will be doing different things, but not at the lazy pace of chimps in a zoo or the way ordinary herd animals often react simultaneously to the environment. Then it hits me like a thunderstone.1 The individuals in these groups are not just cooperating with one another; the entire behavior in these two groups is coordinated as if emanating from a single creature.


John V. Wylie, M.D. is an evolutionary psychiatrist in Olney, MD.


1 Acheulean hand axes were called thunderstones in the middle ages. They were thought to have dropped from the sky, having been somehow produced by thunder and lightning.



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