MOSES WAS a schizophrenic. The Code of Hammurabi and large portions of the Old Testament are the products of people who today would be shuffling through the back wards of mental institutions. Indeed, the entire history of human activity until about 3500 years ago - the development of language, writing, law, geometry, cities, calendars, art and architecture - all can be attributed to people whose thought processes would be labeled psychotic by contemporary standards. This is the shocking hypothesis of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton lecturer in psychology who has attempted to outline the historical evolution of human consciousness. Although Jaynes's effort is seriously flawed, his book has received the detailed attention of such media giants as Time magazine - probably because of the personal immediacy of his questions about the origin of consciousness, the outrageousness of his answers, and the wide range of disciplines he so boldly draws from to support his conclusions.
Jaynes feels that the human experience of being consciously aware of ourselves developed very late and that the evolution of consciousness can be inferred principally by the study of written records of ancient civilizations. He argues that prior to about 2500 B.C. the human mind was essentially unselfconscious. There was no sense of free will, no sense of past-present-future, no initiative, no deceit. Human activity, including problem-solving, was largely unconscious and automatic.
However, in times of stress, appropriate action was often impelled by godlike voices, which were in fact auditory hallucinations. Roughly 3000 to 4000 years ago - Jaynes is not too precise on this point - vast social disruptions and the appearance of writing resulted in the advent of modern consciousness. Writing, he explains, became an alternative form of communication serving to undermine the authority of the hallucinated word. Out of this arose modern consciousness, primarily characterized by a sense of time and volition as well as an ability to experience, articulate and abstract concepts about selfness.
To support his hypothesis about the nature and origins of consciousness, Jaynes provides several lines of evidence. They include not only historical, anthropoligical and linguistic analyses of ancient civilizations but also recent neuroligical studies of human consciousness. In addition, he attempts to explain schizophrenia as a modern manifestation of the preconscious mind.
As an effort in rational, expository scholarship, Jayne's work fails. Critically germane studies are omitted, and data are sometimes misrepresented or presented illogically. Because of Jayne's failure to attend carefully to a vast literature on consciousness, serious students could not even be convinced that Jayne's definition of consciousness is a correct one, much less his speculation about its origin.
His treatment of literary and linguistic evidence is also troublesome. He begins by pointing out that consciousness is based on language. He later becomes more specific, maintaining that the appearance of new perceptions and attentions depends upon the creation of new words. Jaynes implies this idea is his own, yet in truth the idea almost exactly represents the thoughts of Benjamin L. Whorf, a widely known linguist. Yet neither Whorf's name nor a careful discussion of the well-known criticism of his approach (known formally as the linguistic relatively hypothosis) appear anywhere in Jaynes's book.
Since he feels consciousness depends on language, Jaynes turns to ancient writings to discover clues to the evolution of consciousness. His treatment of the Old Testament is especially curious. He takes Amos, written about 750 B.C., as an example of the preconscious mentality, and thinks that the later Book of Ecclesiastes, probably written in the third of fourth century B.C., gives evidence of a modern consciousness by its sophisticated use of time - "To everything there is a season . . ." Jaynes then offers the third chapter of Genesis as a metaphorical account of the transition from preconsciousness to consciousness, humanity being cast from the garden where God could be addressed as a daily companion.
It is crucial to Jaynes's hypothesis that the compilation of the third chapter of Genesis be dated somewhere between Amos and Ecclesiastes. While carefully providing the dates of Amos and Ecclesiastes, Jaynes fails to tell the reader that the best biblical schoolarship dates the third chapter of Genesis at least 200 to 600 years prior to Amos.
Most disturbing is Jaynes's discussion of the neurological basis of his theory. For it is here that his ideas, if taken seriously, could have the most damaging consequences. Jaynes correctly points out that there is much evidence to suggest that the two cortical hemispheres of the human brain provide very different contributions to out conscious experiences. For most people, the use of language and the performance of more linear, "rational" skills are localized in the left hemisphere. The right cerebral hemisphere is nonverbal and specializes in perceptual and relation tasks such as the recognition of patterns and faces.
Jaynes feels that the left and right hemispheres provide one basis for understanding the evolution of human consciousness. He writes that in preconscious cultures the mind was truly "bicameral" or two-chambered, the godlike voices of auditory hallucinations originating in the right hemisphere and directing the verbal behavior of the left hemisphere. These verbalizations then became "decisions" determining the actions of preconscious individuals.
Jaynes writes further that modern societies have suppressed the activity of the right hemisphere. Right hemisphere activity, when observed, is commonly labeled as patholigical and schizophrenic. One prediction from this hypothesis would be that severing the neural connections between the two hemispheres would prevent the right hemisphere from gaining access to the left, thereby preventing the expression of schizophrenic behavior. While Jaynes shies away from stating this explicity in his book, he does not contest this possibility when questioned personally - no word of caution, no subtle caveat.
Yet there are absolutely no good data to suggest, much less require, that Jaynes's interpretation of hemisphereic function is correct. Most distressing is Jaynes's treatment of the neurological basis of schizophrenia. Exciting research in recent years has resulted in much progress in understanding the possible biological origins of schizophrenia. Today specific biochemical hypotheses can be made about the origins of the disorder, and there is good evidence that schizophrenia is a term embracing more than one disease process. To Jaynes, all this simply "a rather dull panorama of dispute . . ."
When citing specific evidence in support of his interpretation, he picks his way through classic neurological studies to select only those data which might help his case. To support his argument, Jaynes represents the results of one experiment (Sugarman et al.) on the electrical activity of the brain to be exactly the opposite of what the authors reported. In another case, only one of several alternative conclusions provided by the original researchers is mentioned by Jaynes.
In conclusion, Jaynes has provided us with what may prove to be a classic example of a good idea gone bad. It is possible that the content of our conscious lives differs radically from that of earlier generations. The answer to that questions awaits a worthier effort than Mr. Jaynes has provided us.