Consciousness From Beyond: A Space Odyssey

I'm complicated.

Certainly one of the most sensational theories, and one that makes for really good science fiction, is the theory that human consciousness was taught/implanted by an influence from beyond the earth.

This is the premise for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In of the most famous cinematic portrayals of the origins of consciousness, an alien monolith lands amongst a band of proto-humans and imbues them with a higher intelligence. So engendered, human creativity propels an otherwise marginal mammal out of Africa, across the globe, and finally out into the solar system to explore the great mysteries beyond.

This is a pretty iconic clip from the mind of a bizarre and brilliant director, but also from the pen of Arthur C. Clarke. The movie and book were actually developed at the same time, and Clarke was writing while Kubrick was filming, with feedback in both directions.

Without clinging to too literal an understanding of the clip, and in particular the climatic finale of the rising bone, this scene is meant to represent the ascent of humanity. In the book of 2001, the corresponding chapter is entitled “The Ascent of Man,” and Clarke briefly surveys the tool infused destiny of humanity post-alien intervention. The bone thrower does not appear to be a modern human, but definitely from the same hominid line. The book makes reference to multiple ice ages as well, which suggest they may have intended to portray Homo Erectus or maybe even the more distant Homo Habilis.

Whatever the case, with this alien-induced homo-revolution, a particular situation emerges, one in which an advanced consciousness encounters a lesser one. Anthropologically, this is possible. There is a model, called the Out-of-Africa Model, which speculates that a new variations of homo emerged from the African milieu and replaced (an interesting euphamism) other hominid variations.

This idea of replacement, though ignored in the movie, is an essential part of Clarke’s vision of 2001. The alien-trained hominid variations challenge and transform the peoples surrounding them, the beginning of a new era in the history of humanity. Clarke’s conception of the Higher Man (sage?) is laced with a darker, more ominous and violent tone. Here is the excerpt, almost all of chapter five, entitled “Encounter in the Dawn”:

2001: A Space Odyssey

From their side of the stream, in the never-violated safety of their own territory, the Others first saw Moon-Watcher and a dozen males of his tribe as a moving frieze against the dawn sky. At once they began to scream their daily challenge; but this time, there was no answer.

Steadily, purposefully –above all, silently –Moon-Walker and his band descended the low hillock that overlooked the river; and as they approached, the Others became suddenly quiet. Their ritual rage ebbed away, to be replaced by mounting fear. They were dimly aware that something had happened, and that this encounter was unlike all those that had ever gone before. The bone clubs and knives that Moon-Watcher’s group carried did not alarm them, for they did not understand their purpose. They only knew that their rivals’ movements were now imbued with determination, and with menace.

The party stopped at the water’s edge, and for a moment the Others’ courage revived. Led by One-Ear, they halfheartedly resumed their battle chant. It lasted only a few seconds before a vision of terror struck them dumb.

Moon-Watcher raised his arms high into the air, revealing the burden that until now had been concealed by the hirsute bodies of his companions. He was holding a stout branch, and impaled upon it was the bloody head of the leopard. The mouth had been jammed open with a stick, and the great fangs gleamed a ghastly white in the first rays of the sun.

Most of the Others were too paralyzed with fright to move; but some began a slow, stumbling retreat. That was all the encouragement that Moon-Watcher needed. Still holding the mangled trophy above his head, he started to cross the stream. After a moment’s hesitation, his companions splashed after him.

When Moon-Watcher reached the far side, One-Ear was still standing his ground. Perhaps he was too brave or too stupid to run; perhaps he could not really believe this outrage was actually happening. Coward or hero, it made no difference in the end, as the frozen snarl of death came crashing down upon his uncomprehending head.

Shrieking with fright, the Others scattered into the bush; but presently they would return, and soon they would forget their lost leader.

For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

This is a portrait of a very important moment in the development of consciousness, if it emerged spontaneously. It is a clash that must have occurred throughout the prehistoric world. Prior to consciousness, different is not necessarily scary, it is confusing.

New, especially without a Jaynesian imagination, is almost impossible to compute. Confronting in a moment like One-Ear must, the novel understandings of weapons and violence weilded by Moon-Watcher, there is no possible reply. The chapter captures this incomprehensability. He notices the objects in the hands of his rivals, what we would know as weapons, he does not understand. Something feels wrong and different, but how to try and understand it, and so react?

One-Ear cannot compute. It is an unknown behaviour. Maybe the name is a hint, that just as he cannot hear in stereo, so he cannot understand the dynamics of this new state of being innovated by Moon-Watcher. He is only dimly aware of the possibilities, and so not able to compete evolutionarily. Him and those like him are replaced.

And so, perhaps, consciousness emerged from the Africa, a revolution in the minds of hominids, eventually roaming across almost all the globe.

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