Evolution of the Self

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.




Which self are we talking about?

Who are you, really?

“Who am I?” is not the easiest question to answer.

Over the last 40 years there have been hundreds of thousands of research articles and books published on self-related phenomena.  And before that, of course, philosophers and religious scholars have wrestled with the notion for millennia.

Self-conscious, self-esteem, self-understanding, self-control, self-deception, self-defeating, self-acceptance, self-determination, self-image, self-protection, self-efficacy, self-actualization,…the list is very long.

Perhaps a unifying construct for these seemingly diverse self’s lies in the capacity for self-reflection.  Reflexive awareness – the human ability to recognize and think about oneself as a Self – is a rare and special characteristic among the animal kingdom.

Common conceptual groupings in our thinking about the self often include:

  • thinking of the self as a combination of genetic pre-dispositions plus formative experiences resulting in the unique personality of the individual;
  • thinking of self as the all-inclusive totality of the person;
  • thinking of the self as the invisible internal decision maker, planner and doer (executive agent of volition) who steers the body-machine through life;
  • thinking of the self as the experiencer of life (my life, “me” = self as known/self as object);
  • thinking of the self as the observer of the experiencer of life (“I” = self as knower/self as subject) (The subjective witness of the life of “me” as object);
  • thinking of the self as the contextual living awareness within which the observer, the experiencer, the personality and all other aspects and levels of “self” exist.  (Pure sentient consciousness)

So we can see that when we refer to our self (or another person) as a self, it’s not always clear which self we are referring to.

It can be useful to note that both taking oneself as an object of one’s attention and noticing oneself as contextual to all other concepts of self can bring a certain measure of cohesion and stability to life.  It is from these perspectives that mistakes are minimized and choices are more frequently aligned with core values.

Three psychological processes are involved:

Attentional processes that allow us to purposefully direct our conscious attention onto ourselves;

Cognitive processes that allow us to think about ourselves – our current state and circumstances, our traits, roles, memories, wishes, etc. and their relative stability or fleetingness;

Executive processes that enable us to self-regulate and navigate from where we are right now to where we would like to be in the future – thus we can aim for and achieve goals of our own choosing.

There are also numerous self-relevant emotional and motivational phenomena that affect our coping and adaptation to the ever-changing conditions in life, but these are not inherent aspects of the self and thus won’t be considered here at this time.

Our focus, in this post, is on the interface between 1) the experience of self and 2) the locus of identity; and how these two processes contribute to our ability to achieve successful outcomes in life.

Four factors affecting our understanding of what’s going on here include:

  • individual developmental processes;
  • evolutionary processes as a species;
  • cultural influences on self-related phenomena; and
  • advances in neuroscience and how the biochemical and bioelectrical activity of the brain gives rise to subjective experience and self-awareness.



instincts, habits, choices

Our nervous systems have been shaped by millions of years of evolution to survive by seeking pleasure and avoiding danger/pain.  Our decisions about what to approach, and what be cautious about in life are also shaped by our individual developmental experiences.

Fortunately, human behavior is not limited to a repetoire based exclusively on our genetic inheritance and our personal conditioning.

We have the ability to rise above our instincts and our conditioning with awareness and intention.

We have the ability to consciously choose our direction in life, and to establish patterns of thinking-feeling-behaving that are aligned with our core values and long-term goals.

If we don’t take control of this process – if we don’t consciously guide ourselves along a path toward health, fulfillment and success in life – then our old instinctual and conditioned habitual inclinations will tend to unconsciously steer our life, by default, back toward old aims of “safety” based on fears that may no longer be relevant.

It’s OK to take control of our lives.

It’s OK to reassess our current circumstances and resources at every juncture along the way, and then to relaunch – again and again – toward higher aspirations.

It’s OK to consciously decide what to aim for, what we will allow to claim our attention, and where we will apply our life’s energy.

This, too, is a part of our human inheritance.

Lucky us.

…adding to the silence…

There’s a lot of noise in the world today – a lot of busy-ness and frenetic activity and glaring signage.  Our current global economic system is abuzz with strident promotions, announcements, news (good and bad), advice, warnings, information and misinformation.

It’s a lot!

Does the world really need us to be adding to the noise?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If we wanted, instead, to add to the silence, how might we do that?  Here is one (of many) possible ways.

Turn off the TV, the movie, the radio, the podcast, the “noise” for a few minutes and listen.  Simply listen – with appreciative awareness and curiosity to whatever is happening right around you in the present moment.

Listen for the silence.  Be the silence.   And the stillness within which all of this noise and activity is happening.  If you are not alone, you might listen with full attention to whomever you are with.  By listening, by being still – even for a minute – we are not adding to the noise, but rather “subtracting” from it, in a sense.  This could be one way of adding to the silence.

Then, when you’re ready, go ahead and dive back into the noise.

If you want to.

Or not.

Aiming for Success

How are you growing these days?

What aspects of yourself are you intentionally developing?

In what direction is your life currently taking you?


Passively floating through life and allowing unplanned disasters to determine the course we take and where we end up is one way of navigating.

Being intentional and deliberate about our life, our goals, and our growth is another.

Which one is more likely to take us in a direction – and to a destination – that we truly desire?


To really grab hold of this process of intentional living, it is sometimes necessary, and generally helpful to:

  1. Schedule time with our self, for ourself (on our calendar!) to think about where we are headed and how we need to grow in order to get there.  Time set aside on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly) to reflect, re-evaluate, and re-aim encourages us to continually re-engage life with strength and purpose.
  2. Choose it now (yes, right now).  Because it’s always right nowright?  Thus, now is always the right time to focus our attention and efforts on our goals and self-improvement.

The “choice points” in life – those times to start (and continue) to focus on developing our personal and professional success  – are always experienced by us as occurring right now. It always feels like we have to make the choice in the here-and-now moment.

It feels that way because it is that way.

Got it?  OK.   So,…accepting that, then we get to make the choice.  Choosing growth and deliberate aims over aimless drifting and a stagnant life.  Choosing.  Right now.  And right now.  Like any time of day, all day long – right now.


Once we have established regularly scheduled time slots for self-reflection and re-evaluation, and, as we cultivate our fortitude and ability to focus and align our here-and-now attention and efforts with our considered aims, then personal and professional growth become intentionally-formed habits that carry us to our goals.

In this way, we are proactively and intentionally steering our course through life.

It seems like a better way to navigate.

Your thoughts?