History of Consciousness

Gary Lachman. A Secret History of Consciousness. Lindisfarne Books, 2003.

In a sense this is a prequel to Lachman's earlier study of the mystical 1960s, tracing as it does counter-cultural views of the development of consciousness from Madame Blavatsky onwards. It covers Ouspensky, Orage, Colin Wilson, Owen Barfield, Bergson, Jean Gebser and others.

The central theme of many of these writers is that consciousness is not just an incidental byproduct of the patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the nervous systems of animals but is somehow a primary part of nature not directly linked to the brain. Unfortunately for Lachman the 'evidence' he presents for this, the cases of people of normal intelligence who apparently had lost much of their brain to hydrocephalus, has recently been re-examined. A woman with just this syndrome was examined using the latest imaging technology, and it was found that though her brain was displaced and warped by the condition, she had a normal amount of brain matter, rather more than her 'normal' husband in fact.

Another theme which runs through this book is the evolution of consciousness, and as most of the writers quoted are writing long ago, or quote from out of date sources, the results are strangely ethno-historically chauvinist, with notions that, say, the builders of the pyramids had a radically different form of consciousness from ourselves, or that modern consciousness arose with literacy. Of course whether literate or not, and however 'alien' their culture, human beings have broadly the same human concerns as each other and the same kind of consciousness. We certainly can't take seriously writers who ascribe to people of previous ages a lesser degree of consciousness than that possessed by the average chimpanzee.

Lachman's confused account of human evolution is likewise out of date, and often muddled and plain wrong. He quotes from the wild ideas of Stan Gooch, one of the fringe thinkers from the 1970s about the Neanderthals (wrong on all points, and Lachman conveniently omits Gooch's claim that the Jews were descended from the Neanderthals because they both had big noses!).

You can often tell a book by who introduces it, and here we have old Colin Wilson, a curious mixture of hack, crank and pseud in one package. My problem with this book, like so many of its ilk, is not so much that the author attacks modern science or the current scientific narratives, but that he makes no real attempt to find out just what these narratives are, and what evidence backs them up, preferring to tilt at caricatures instead. Lachman thus appears as yet another reactionary romantic Don Quixote titling at the windmills of modernity. This is an interesting round up of fringe ideas, but rather lacks critical perspective. -- Peter Rogerson

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