How has our sense of self been shaped over time?
It has become more expansive, elaborated and differentiated. Research from an evolutionary perspective considers the anthropological, archeological, and historical evidence for such changes.
The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farming communities gave rise to the possibility of greater differentiation of identities. A surplus of available food in one place enabled individuals to begin specializing in various activities – toolmaking, shelter construction, cultivation of food, etc. Thus it became possible for people to persue activities that were no longer tied to their immediate survival. The acquisition and distribution of food was being taken care of by someone else. The sense of self began to identify with the most frequently performed activity (role) through which the individual contributed to the benefit of the tribal unit. “I am the person who tends the fire.” “I am the person who makes the shoes.” “I am…” is who I am.
As survival of larger numbers continued to expand early settlements into more complex communities, ones sense of identity continued to expand as well. From trades and family groups, “I am Erik Erik’s son.” to regions, “I am Leonard of Vinci.” to political and ethnic identifications, “I am a Roman citizen.” “I am Germanic.” etc.
Another transition of enormous importance is upon us now. The rapidly expanding perspective given rise to by the Internet is bringing about a shift in consciousness and an accelerating expansion of the sense of self.
As communication technologies continue to accelerate their reach into the lives of more and more people on the planet, and as both meaningful mediated connectivity and physical travel around the globe become relatively easier and less expensive, our sense of identity, as a species, is once again experiencing profound evolutionary pressures.
At this point, many millions of people have had their identities extend well beyond political and geographical boundaries (Beyond “I am an American.” “I am Chinese.”) to where they now consider themselves to be “global citizens” and to share “terrestrial concerns” (population vs resources, persistent toxins in the environment, climate change, etc.). And further yet, an increasing number of “ordinary” people around the globe are finding their identity to be residing, primarily, in the contextual awareness of their individual lives. An expansive sense of self such as this was rare a few hundred years ago. Today there are many millions of people that take for granted the connectedness of us all. We share one “global economy”, one finite planet, one animating life force.
It is too soon to determine just how, how much, and in what ways our individual identities may change over the course of a single lifetime or a few generations. But the frequency and variety of social comparisons and information exchange that are now occuring seem to be propelling an increasingly expansive, complexly integrated and highly individuated sense of personal self along with a paradoxical sense of connectedness to and sameness with all of humanity. Both at once. Yes. “I am completely unique.” AND, “I have more in common with all others than I think I do.”
We are less different from others than we fear we are.
We are more alike than we remember to remember.
This is hopeful for the continued upward ascent of humanity.