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Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim With Ockham's Razor

Part IV: The Emergence of Consciousness
in Birds, Mammals and Primates

Don Salmon

While chimpanzees and gorillas may not be able to speak as we do, it is for want of a larynx, rather than a deficiency of their brains.

This is the 4th part of a series of articles exploring the limitations of Ken Wilber's evolutionary view. It is based on material from a book by Jan (my wife) and me which explored Sri Aurobindo's Integral Psychology, Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity.

The first essay explored the controversy regarding direction or progress in evolution. Frank Visser (founder/editor of the Integral World website) responded to this, and I spelled out in more detail my concerns about Wilber's view in a response to his essay.

The next essay looked at the remarkable parallel between the way that consciousness unfolds or becomes more complex over the course of evolutionary history, and the way that consciousness unfolds over the course of several hundred milliseconds, from moment, to moment, to moment...

In the previous essay, current scientific understanding of the first emergence of consciousness (in matter? or in plants and animals) was examined.

This essay consists of excerpts from the yoga psychology book which examine what contemporary scientists understand about the emergence of consciousness in birds, mammals and primates.

The book excerpts presented here regarding the emergence of consciousness, should not be taken as (necessarily) implying that the data of evolutionary biology "proves" any kind of direction or worse, 'progress' in evolution. Rather, the data from evolutionary biology is simply being presented starting with the least complex and moving on toward the most complex. Whether this suggests the working of any kind of "quasi mystical" force or is merely the result of a "blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos"[1] is left for the reader to decide.]

(NOTE: For further discussion, please join me on the Integral World Forum. Also, for some background context while reading this article, please see "Providing a Context for the Trimming of Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View". Other relevant forum threads include "The Richard Wiseman Challenge", "the Anon Challenge", and "Discussing the Richard Wiseman Challenge")


"That Damn Bird" — The Transition From Animal To Human Mind

Scientists and yogis alike agree that there is a fundamental difference between animal and human consciousness. However, in practice, it has been extremely difficult to draw a distinct line between the two. It had long been thought that language was unique to humans, but this distinction has recently become blurred. Celebrated primates such as Kanzi the bonobo, and Koko the gorilla, have been taught basic sign language and have proven themselves to be capable of some human-like communication. Still, such capacities were generally thought to be limited to primates. In the past 20 years, the research of Dr. Irene Pepperberg has forced students of animal behavior to further reconsider their earlier assumptions.

Kanzi with Oprah

"Kanzi: An Ape of Genius", documentary

More than a quarter century ago, Dr. Pepperberg became interested in studying the capacity for meaningful communication in birds, intending to use primate studies as a model for her own research. However, at the time nobody believed birds were capable of the same level of communication as primates, and her first grant application to the National Institute of Health came back with comments "essentially asking me what I was smoking."[2] Undaunted, she developed a training program for parrots which, after more than twenty years, has defied many previous expectations of what is possible in terms of animal communication and understanding. Because of Pepperberg's success, Mike Tomasello, one of her colleagues who lectures on primate intelligence, has been forced to add at some point in his talks, "the described behavior is found only in primates, except for that damn bird."[3]

That "damn bird" to which he refers is the African Grey parrot, Alex.

As a result of Dr. Pepperberg's training, Alex can demonstrate some remarkable cognitive abilities. As described by psychologist Theodore Barber, Alex

proficiently uses more than 100 English words correctly to refer to all objects in his laboratory environment that play a role in his life including his fifteen special foods, his gym, the shower, the experimenter's shoulder, and more than one hundred other things. He at times refuses the experimenter's request ("No!") and may tell the experimenter what to do ("Go away," "Go pick up the cup," "Come here.") He also requests particular information ("What's this?" What's here?" "You tell me." "What color?"). After Alex had learned to use the numbers one through six and had learned a triangle is "three-cornered" and a square is "four-cornered," he spontaneously and creatively called a football a "two-corner" and a pentagon a "five-corner."[4]
Alex is cute
Alex - "That damn bird"

Alex continues to surprise not only skeptical scientists, but Dr. Pepperberg herself. She described one occasion in which she was trying to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same way one would train children on phonics. "We were doing demos...for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled and the visitors wanted to see Alex work. So we put a number of differently colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, 'Alex, what sound is blue? 'He answers, 'Ssss.' It was an "s," so we say 'Good birdie' and he replies, 'Want a nut.'

Well, I don't want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, "What sound is green?" Alex answers, "Ssshh." He's right, it's "sh," and we go through the routine again: "Good parrot." "Want a nut." "Alex, wait. What sound is orange?" "ch." "Good bird." "Want a nut." We're going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, "Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh."[5]

In fact, Alex displays some cognitive abilities that human children usually do not demonstrate before the age of four or five. He is able, for example, to clearly differentiate color, shape and number. He can look at a group of different objects of different color, shape and material and tell you which one is round, which one is red, and which one is made of wood.

As amazing as this may seem, it pales in significance when compared with the extraordinary complexity of the totality of cognitive abilities we take for granted in a three year-old human child.

Consider, for example, the following exchange:

Mother: "What would you like for Christmas?"
Three year-old child: "A new bike."

In order to make that very simple statement, the three year-old child has to have an implicit (non-conscious) understanding that the word "Christmas" represents a whole range of experience. Neither Alex nor any other animal yet studied by scientists has demonstrated the ability to use symbolic language in this way. When the three year-old hears his mother utter the word "Christmas," he is — at least subconsciously — aware that it represents a ritual involving the exchange of gifts, the gathering of family members, the singing of certain songs, and the recitation of particular prayers in church, along with perhaps a number of other associations.

How is it that a toddler has the capacity to take a simple sound such as "Christmas" to represent such a complex range of experience? It is because he has developed sufficient self-awareness to separate his "self" — at least to some extent — from the ritual, the family gathering, and the experience at church. In other words, he is able to step back from them and see them as events related to each other and himself.

What about self-awareness in animals? The existence of some kind of self-sense is not altogether absent even in some less complex animals. Ethologist Frans de Waal suggests there is a continuum of self-awareness extending from fish to human beings.[6] According to science writer Robin Cooper, "centered experience" of some kind exists in early mammals, who have "a center upon which sensations seem to impinge, and from which actions seem to emanate...[there is a] central point [by means of which] all impressions and experiences can be knitted into a unity."[7] But for most animals, it is not possible to step back from and become objectively aware of this center — i.e., to be self-aware. The first appearance of this stepping back capacity seems to be in primates (and possibly dolphins, a few other mammals, and maybe even "that damn bird" as well).

Frans de Waal

The "self" in primates and humans: Are primates aware of an individual "self"?

With primates came the ability to make use of more complex symbols, making possible a simple form of reasoning.

With primates came the ability to make use of more complex symbols, making possible a simple form of reasoning. For example, a chimp, spotting a banana outside his cage just beyond arm's reach, can conjure up the image of a stick and think about how he might use it to retrieve the banana. This capacity freed primates from adherence to rigid instinctive behaviors, allowing for innovation and a far greater degree of flexibility in coping with new situations. The ability to use symbols also allowed for a new form of communication — that of symbolic language.

While chimpanzees and gorillas may not be able to speak as we do, it is for want of a larynx, rather than a deficiency of their brains. The world-renowned and much beloved gorilla, Koko, was taught the deaf sign language and showed a remarkable ability to use it to communicate.[8] She now has a vocabulary of more than a thousand words, and is able to compose simple sentences. Her ability to make use of symbolic language gives her a greater capacity than reptiles and most mammals to comprehend the relationship between herself and the things and creatures of her environment. This makes it possible for Koko to have a more highly developed social life, with more complex familial and other interpersonal ties. These more intimate relationships bring the possibility of deeper, more complex emotional feelings and responses. They also facilitate the passing on of social norms to a new generation, giving birth to the possibility of culture.[9] ...

Koko: A Talking Gorilla

For the past several decades, scientists have used mirrors to help determine whether or not an animal has developed the capacity for self-awareness. Daniel Povinelli, director of the laboratory of comparative behavioral biology at the New Iberia Research center in Louisana, has been studying self-awareness in chimpanzees. Journalist Karen Wright describes here one encounter between Povinelli's chimpanzees and their mirrored reflections:

Povinelli lugs a three-by-three-foot mirror into the chimp compound and gives his apes a chance to eyeball themselves for the first time in about a year...All the chimps are excited by the new arrivals, but some seem to understand better than others just who it is that has arrived. Apollo hoots and feints in an attempt to engage his reflection in play. Brandy fixes her gaze on the mirror while repeating a series of unusual gestures, apparently mesmerized by the simian mimic who can anticipate her every move...It is Megan, the Einstein of the cohort, who performs an eerily familiar repertoire of activities before the looking glass. She opens her mouth wide and picks food from her teeth, tugs at a lower lid to inspect a spot on her eye, tries out a series of exaggerated facial expressions.[10]

As Povinelli explained to Wright, chimpanzees do not at first recognize themselves in the mirror. Rather, they "act very much as if they were confronting another chimp." After initially attempting to interact with the mirror image, they "soon abandon such tactics and, like Brandy, begin to perform simple, repetitive movements, such as swaying from side to side, while watching their mirrored doubles intently." Povinelli suggests that

at this stage...the animals may be apprehending the connection between their actions and those of the stranger in the glass; they may understand that they are causing or controlling the other's behavior. When they finally grasp the equivalence between their mirror images and themselves, they turn their attention on their own bodies, as Megan did.[11]

In describing the chimps' emerging self-awareness, Povinelli is careful to distinguish the glimmer of self-awareness present in apes from the more highly developed self-awareness of a human being. As Povinelli characterizes it, the self-awareness of an orangutan is nothing like, "'God, I'm an orangutan, and gosh, I was born 17 years ago, and here I am, still up in the trees, climbing. I wonder what my fate is?'"[12]

Povinelli: Creativity and Art in Animals

What exactly is the difference? The chimp and the orangutan, like the human infant or very young toddler, are able to objectify their body, but they cannot attend to their emotions, thoughts or perceptions as objects. It is not until approximately age four or five that the human child can step back from his impulses and emotions and become aware of them. And it is not until the child becomes an adolescent or an adult that he will (potentially) be able to have an awareness of his "self" as a complex organization of physical, [emotional] and mental characteristics...

...With the appearance of human beings something radically new began to emerge — the sense of an individual self with a past, present and future, and the capacity to be aware of and reflect upon the nature of that self. We've moved from the blurry inchoate world of the amoeba to a highly differentiated world of multi-dimensional relationships — between past, present and future, and between an individual and his environment. With a greatly enhanced capacity for memory, analysis, and strategic planning, human beings can arrive at complex theories for making sense of their world. We've graduated from simple feeling responses of pleasure and pain to the complexities of romantic love, self-sacrifice, compassion and remorse. And along with the capacity for self-awareness has come the power to change ourselves and reshape our environment.

Next: Part V, Conclusion: Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim With Ockham's Razor:
Applying the Understanding of the Evolution of Consciousness to Our Own Development


[1] This comment was originally made by philosopher Daniel Dennett in reference to (what he sees as) the accidental arising of "laws of physics" but, I think, could be equally indicative of his outlook toward the idea of "purpose" or "progress" in evolution.

[2] Pepperberg, I., That Damn Bird: A Talk with Irene Pepperberg, at

[3] Tomasello, M., in Pepperberg, I., That Damn Bird.

[4] Barber, T., Evidence that Birds are Aware, Intelligent and Astonishingly Like Humans.

[5] Pepperberg, I., That Damn Bird.

[6] Dewaal, F., in Wright, K., The Tarzan Syndrome: only human beings can conceive of themselves and others, in Discover, Volume 17, #11, November, 1996, at

[7] Cooper, R. The Evolving Mind, p. 100.

[8] Information on Koko is available at

[9] Some biologists speak of "culture" as beginning with birds and mammals, who, like primates, are capable of passing along acquired knowledge to their young.

[10] Wright, K., The Tarzan Syndrome.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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