The Role the Ego Has Played in Human Evolution

So why do I have to put up with this incessant chatter?

“Who am I?” is a fundamental question that most of us ask ourselves. “Where do I fit with the rest of the world? and “Where am I going with my life?” are other questions we pounder. The concept of self, also called neuroscience and neuropsychology.

Today’s psychologists ascribe three core capacities to the human ego:

  • Internal representation of a person’s past and present experiences and future goals, commonly called memory.
  • An executive function that initiates thinking, behavior and feelings.
  • Reflexive potential that is the “working self”. Reflexive potential involves the constant interplay between internal representation (memory) and executive function. Reflexive function determines how we pursue our goals, choose our daily actions and decide what to pay attention to.

Have humans always been so complex in the concept of self and social interactions? The fossil evidence from 200,000 to 300,000 years ago indicates that our ancient ancestor Homo sapiens first appeared in evolutionary fashion from prior ape-like creatures in Africa. Homo sapiens is unique in having a large brain in proportion to body size which fostered the development of abstract thinking and complex social interaction.

These traits are illustrated by the complex and refined stone tools that have been unearthed by archaeologists and the remaining evidence of social interaction in ancient times. Homo sapiens also had the ambition to wander and eventually replace the Neanderthals in Europe. DNA evidence proclaims that all humans on earth today are Homo sapiens.

While we don’t really know when in the evolutionary process that the ego developed, evidence of burial customs, personal jewelry and artwork from 60,000 to 30,000 years ago indicate the concept and importance of individuals; hence the possible existence of ego. But based on the commonly accepted idea of evolution, let’s see why the development of ego was an important and selected trait for human beings as we evolved over tens of thousands of years into who we are today.

Environmental Reasons for Evolutionary Ego

We already know that humans have a larger brain in proportion to body size than other animals. One thought is that the larger brain developed in relation to foraging for food. Grass-eating animals don’t need to make much in the way of feeding choices but fruit-eating animals like monkeys need more brain capacity, for example, to locate fruits and remember when each type of fruit is in season. Fruit-eating animals are known to have larger brains.

But the primates that eat fruit and meat (are omnivorous) have the largest brains in relation to body size because greater processing capacity is required for hunting and acquiring meat. Early humans didn’t hunt for large prey alone but engaged in social interaction in the process of hunting. Hunting by its very nature shows the capacity to comprehend and plan for future events.

Hunting also required the development of specialized tools like spears which requires remembering and symbolic reasoning abilities as well as coordinated skills. Self-satisfaction emerges after successful foraging for fruit and hunting for meat. The emotional side of humans potentially developed as self-satisfaction became happiness at the attainment of food and mate attraction goals through motivated actions.

In accord with the prevalent theories of evolution, the development of the ego conferred advantages to human beings with regard to food acquisition and adapting to varied environments like grasslands versus forests or warm versus cold climates. Internal feelings of self developed as a response to demands imposed by the environment.

Social Reasons for Evolutionary Ego

The size of the brain of a primate species is also related to the size of the group. It’s just more complicated to interact with more individuals every day so greater brain capacity is required. Humans have very complicated social arrangements that range from the mundane, like how to set the table and use a fork, to highly significant protocols between heads of state. While rams might simply butt heads to achieve dominance, the human ego can lay intricate plots with future planning to achieve a goal of power and dominance.

The evolutionary development of ego conferred advantages on the individual in social situations as tribal living became the norm. Animals that live in groups inherently develop a pecking order and self-awareness in terms of ego is necessary to assess your place within the social order of your fellow humans.

With the need for group interaction and cooperation, the evolution of humans favored those with a strong sense of self for social reasons. The need for a sense of self was further reinforced when language developed so a person could compare their self-image with what others expressed about them. Concepts of esteem, guilt or embarrassment easily find their way into the discussion and reinforce the continued evolutionary pressures placed upon the development of the ego.

The development of ego and evolution of the human species are permanently joined together. Ancient evolutionary forces caused Homo sapiens to evolve as a separate species from the other apes. The larger brain facilitated enhanced memory and the development of specialized skills in relation to gathering of food and making us attractive to members of the opposite sex. The ability to plan for future food needs then allowed humans to live in larger groups which in turn placed additional evolutionary pressure upon the emerging ego. The social human then required a self-image in order to interact properly within the group and eventually developed into the higher state of individual goals and feelings.

Have we outlived ego’s usefulness?

There exists a growing group of theorists and social anthropologists who think that humans have outgrown the need for the ego. We have long ago surpassed our basic survival needs of food and shelter. The ego’s fear based fight or flight instincts could very likely be the basis for much of the aggression, violence which have plagued our species. Egocentric behavior keeps us focused on the self. It is hard to see the world from someone else’s shoes when we are focused on the self. Ego keeps us separated from each other and encourages us to be always in an attack, revenge and defend mentality.

If Homo sapiens are capable of transcending the ego, could universal love and forgiveness provide the impetus for us to lay down our arms once and for all?

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2 Responses to The Role the Ego Has Played in Human Evolution

  1. Nigel Wiseman says:

    Interesting article.
    It is interesting that the three core capacities that modern psychologists ascribe to the ego do not include negotiating between Freud’s id and super ego.

    As to whether we have outlived the ego’s usefulness, we have only to look to India, where the idea developed that the true self is not the personal story (which is written by the ego), but consciousness itself. Meditational practices seek to shift the mind away from the ego into the aware Self. The Indians saw the problem and offered a solution.

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