Written by Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, 2011
The truth is, all these questions relate to an even deeper question:
The astonishing answer to that question of questions is:
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘ego’ as ‘the conscious thinking self’, so the question of ‘what is the ego?’ is really the question of ‘what is the conscious thinking self?’–in fact, ‘what is consciousness?’
To very briefly answer this question, nerves were originally developed for the coordination of movement in animals, but, once developed, their ability to store impressions–which is what we refer to as ‘memory’–gave rise to the potential to develop understanding of cause and effect. If you can remember past events, you can compare them with current events and identify regularly occurring experiences. This knowledge of, or insight into, what has commonly occurred in the past enables you to predict what is likely to happen in the future and to adjust your behaviour accordingly. Once insights into the nature of change are put into effect, the self-modified behaviour starts to provide feedback, refining the insights further. Predictions are compared with outcomes and so on. Much developed, and such refinement occurred in the human brain, nerves can sufficiently associate information to reason how experiences are related, learn to understand and become conscious of, or aware of, or intelligent about, the relationship between events that occur through time. Thus , which again is our conscious thinking self or ego, means being sufficiently aware of how experiences are related to attempt to manage change from a basis of understanding.
What is so significant about this process is that once our nerve-based learning system became sufficiently developed for us to become conscious and able to effectively manage events, our conscious thinking self or ego was then in a position to wrest control from our gene-based learning system’s instincts, which, up until then, had been controlling our lives. Basically, once our self-adjusting, conscious thinking self or ego emerged it was capable of taking over the management of our lives from the we had acquired through the natural selection of genetic traits that adapted us to our .
however, it was at this juncture, when our conscious intellect challenged our instincts for control, that a terrible battle broke out between our instincts and intellect, the effect of which we have historically referred to as the human condition–our less-than-ideal, seemingly-imperfect, ‘good-and-evil’-afflicted, even corrupted or ‘fallen’ competitive, selfish and aggressive egocentric behaviour.
How this angry, egocentric and alienated state emerged has been the great outstanding question in biology, and the question that had to be solved if the human race was to survive. Indeed, even E.O. Wilson once conceded that ‘The human condition is the most important frontier of the natural sciences’ (Consilience, 1998, p.298)–despite later trivialising this ‘most important frontier’ with his own psychosis-avoiding, dishonest ‘explanation’ of it.
Unable–until now–to truthfully explain our competitive, selfish and aggressive egocentric state or condition we justified it with all manner of false excuses, but, most wonderfully, biology is finally able to provide the clarifying, psychosis-addressing-and-solving, truthful, real explanation of the human condition–a redeeming, relieving and thus healing explanation that brings about the complete transformation of the human race, ending our angry, ego-embattled, repressed, escapist, alter ego-needing, alienated condition forever!
The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung was forever saying that ‘wholeness for humans depends on the ability to own their own shadow’ because he recognised that only finding understanding of our dark, competitive, selfish and aggressive egocentrism could end our underlying insecurity about our fundamental goodness and worth as humans and, in so doing, make us ‘whole’. In the interim, however, while this understanding was still to be found, we understandably invented excuses to justify our species’ seemingly-imperfect, egocentric competitive, selfish and aggressive behaviour–the main one being that we have savage animal instincts that make us fight and compete for food, shelter, territory and a mate. Of course, this ‘explanation’, which has been put forward in the biological theories of Social Darwinism, Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, Multilevel Selection and E.O. Wilson’s Eusociality and basically argues that ‘genes are competitive and selfish and that’s why we are’, can’t be the real explanation for our divisive competitive, selfish and aggressive egocentric behaviour. Firstly, it overlooks the fact that our human behaviour involves our unique fully conscious thinking mind or ego. Descriptions like egocentric, arrogant, deluded, artificial, hateful, mean, immoral, alienated, etc, all imply a consciousness-derived, psychological dimension to our behaviour. The real issue–the psychological problem in our thinking minds that we have suffered from–is the issue of our species’ ‘good-and-evil’-afflicted, less-than-ideal, ego-embattled/ egocentric condition. We humans suffer from a consciousness-derived, psychological human condition, not an instinct-controlled animal condition–our condition is unique to us fully conscious humans. (A brief description of the theories of Social Darwinism, Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, Multilevel Selection and Eusociality that blame our divisive behaviour on savage instincts rather than on a consciousness-derived psychosis is presented in the in The Book of Real Answers to Everything!, that this article also appears in, with the complete account provided in of the freely-available, online book Freedom Book 1.)
The second reason the savage-instincts-in-us excuse can’t possibly be the real explanation for our divisive, selfish and aggressive behaviour is that it overlooks the fact that we humans have altruistic, cooperative, moral instincts–what we recognise as our ‘’–and these moral instincts in us are not derived from reciprocity, from situations where you only do something for others in return for a benefit from them, as Evolutionary Psychologists would have us believe. And nor are they derived from warring with other groups of humans as advocates of the theory of Eusociality would have us believe. No, we have an unconditionally selfless, fully altruistic, truly loving, universally-considerate-of-others-not-competitive-with-other-groups, genuinely moral conscience. Our original instinctive state was the opposite of being competitive, selfish and aggressive: it was fully cooperative, selfless and loving. (How we humans acquired unconditionally selfless moral instincts when it would seem that an unconditionally selfless, fully altruistic trait is going to self-eliminate and thus not ever be able to become established in a species is briefly explained in the above-mentioned , and more fully explained in –however, the point being made here is that the savage-instincts-in-us excuse is completely inconsistent with the fact that we have genuine and entirely moral instincts, not savage instincts. Charles Darwin recognised the difference in our moral nature when he said that ‘the moral sense affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals’ (The Descent of Man, 1871, p.495).)