My school emphasizes various forms of psychology, and this weekend there's a small conference on transpersonal psychology. Sitting in the student lounge at school, I happen to be listening to two enthusiastic and excited fellow students discussing at what moment in human history "true consciousness" emerged.

They were not deeply familiar with human evolution, so while they did not think consciousness arrived like a light switch being flipped on, they were somewhat dubious regarding the possibility of Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons having consciousness. I asked what 'true consciousness' meant, and while they acknowledged it was a nebulous thing to define, one student tried to explain: that moment where there was an awareness of Self, of death, of perhaps the possibility of life after death…

I was pleased, explaining that this definition meant the Neanderthals likely had achieved consciousness! After all, they tended to bury their dead with red ochre — likely considered sacred, considering its prevalence at particular places and points — and little white flowers, when possible. The one student was somewhat dismissive, feeling Neanderthals were likely more like animals, not true humans, and those burial items were not necessarily indicators of understanding of death. No, he felt true consciousness had to most likely have happened some time after Cro-Magnon, closer to Homo sapiens.

I had to head to class, and they continued talking. As I left, though, I found myself wondering: is this just another version of the old 'what separates us from the animals?' question that some people have been using for centuries to justify treating animals abusively, while propping up the human ego? For that matter, why do people so often assume we're the final, perfectly conscious pinnacle of evolution?

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