French Anthropologist Yves Coppens. Wikimedia Commons

Knowledge Is Always an Event

The 30th edition of the Meeting in Rimini, Italy began on August 23 with a presentation in Paris. On the stage, among others, was Yves Coppens, a famed scientist. He was asked to comment on this year’s theme in light of his own experience.
Carlo Dignola

“Not only is every adventure of knowledge ‘always an event’–as in the title of this year’s Meeting–but the very appearance on the face of the earth of the phenomenon of knowledge, which coincides with the appearance of man, is the Event with a capital ‘E,’ from the standpoint of natural history. The anthropologist, who bit by bit lowers his instruments deeper into a time that only a few decades before seemed impossible to explore, is always amazed by what he sees happen in the history of the universe.”

These words were spoken at UNESCO by Yves Coppens, the greatest living paleoanthropologist, whose discoveries include the famous Australopithecus “Lucy,” one of our forerunners, over 3 million years old. He, John Waters, and Archbishop Francesco Follo, permanent representative of the Holy See, presented the 30th Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, which will take place in Rimini, August 23–29.

“An event,” said Alain Finkielkraut, “is something that breaks in from outside. Something unexpected. This is the supreme method of knowledge. It’s necessary to give back to the event its ontological dimension of a new beginning. It is an irruption of the new that breaks the old workings of the system, that sets a process in motion.” Coppens’ observations, arrived at in the practice of cutting-edge scientific work, seem to confirm this intuition, word for word.

“At UNESCO,” explains the scientist, “I wanted to deal with the theme that this year’s Meeting title suggests, from a historical perspective, to show that at the moment when the homo genus appeared on earth, about 3 million years ago, there also appeared consciousness, which is always linked to the aquisition of awareness of what happens. At the same time, with consciousness, there opens the capacity to anticipate events and even a certain freedom of action, the possibility of a choice–what we usually refer to as ‘free will.’”

Is consciousness a human phenomenon?
It clearly appears with man, in a change that from the anatomical point of view means the development of the brain, which we perceive very well observing the growth of its volume and irrigation. From the point of view of facts, we see the beginning of the fashioning of tools on the second level. Instead of taking an object and using it, this “first man” takes another object to deliberately modify the form of the first-level tool, so as to be able to apply it to the function he wants to use it for. This truly is the debut of consciousness, of the deliberate act. My maternal grandmother used to say, “You may have descended from monkeys, but I certainly didn’t.” She wanted to defend the dignity of man. This is entirely safe and sound as long as you realize that the passage from the pre-human to the human stage is a leap toward freedom. This isn’t entirely true, however, according to current knowledge, because the animal, and in particular the pre-human being, had already reached a certain independence of thought, a certain form of knowledge.

Paleoanthropology teaches us that we can no longer think of the dawn of consciousness as a difference infused in the animal with an instantaneous act. Today, do we look at this leap, which undoubtedly happened, more as a process that developed gradually?
Without a doubt, there is a development in nature, because an insect certainly doesn’t have the level of consciousness of a mammal, and a small mammal like a mouse doesn’t have the same level as a monkey. Passing from the last pre-human being to the first precisely human being, however, there is both continuity and discontinuity. We could use the expression “more is different.” In some cases, saying “more” isn’t simply an addition–what you obtain is something new. With the passage from the molecule to the cell, 4 billion years ago, or with the passage from a pre-human like the Australopithecus Lucy to a human like homo habilis, there is a change of status, even if for good reason it seems to us like nothing more than a quantitative process. This is a case in which “more” really is “different.”

Man, therefore, is something absolutely new within nature, and at the same time is made of the same material: atoms, molecules, cells, blood, organs... He’s made of the same “mud,” you might say.
This how it is. In March, I gave a long talk at the Gregorian University in Rome, demonstrating that the passage from pre-human to human happened because of an important climactic change and the consequent need to adapt. It’s an entirely natural passage but, at the same time, the pre-human’s perfect fit in its ecosystem doesn’t stop it from giving life to something new in terms of its own nature, something destined to open up a different development, that of culture. In this sense, the emergence of man is truly an event in and of itself. Between animal and man, something changed.

Do we have proof of this?
Preliminary. One day, I was working in a paleolithic site in Ethiopia called Melka Kunture. In the oldest strata, we found a man, let’s say type A, who used a series of type A tools and who therefore had a type-A level of culture. Excavating in other strata, we observed that man changed and evolved, and we found a new type, which we can call B, who, however, still used type-A tools–his culture was delayed compared to his biological development. A bit further on, there was another B man, with a B culture–at a certain point, he, too, had evolved. And then there was a C man who still lived in a B culture, and then further on, one of his kind who reached a C-level culture, and then a C man with a D culture, then E, F... This means that, at a certain point, culture began to outpace nature, to go faster than biology. The explanation is precisely the development of consciousness, the freedom that bit by bit gains the upper hand. Today, cultural response is much more rapid than the natural one, so much so that man’s biological evolution has become a bit lazy.

You are an evolutionist scientist, naturally. Don’t these discoveries change our way of looking at Darwin’s theory a bit?
We’re becoming aware of the fact that the history of the universe is the history of matter that never ceases organizing itself and complicating itself. Currently, man’s is the most complicated and best organized state of matter known. When we study the evolution of the universe, we observe a sort of universal rule, perpetuated uninterruptedly since the emergence of matter with the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago, till the arrival of man, passing through the appearance of life on Earth, 4 billion years ago. Man has only existed for 3 million years. If everything happened in disorder, we might’ve had very complicated beings at the very beginning; instead, evolution begins with unicellular organisms, then multicellular about a billion years ago, then fish appeared about 400 million years ago, then mammals. We could say that one observes a constant progress toward something more complicated and organized. For all paleontologists, this is evidence.

Speaking of “evidence,” for a scientist, is it still important to receive a precise response, a confirmation or a refutation from reality, or do you concern yourselves with “scenarios” that are almost philosophical?
Evidence is absolutely necessary for those who do research. You could interpret the title of the Meeting “knowledge is always an event” in this sense, as well: scientific research is always an encounter with reality. I like the emphasis on a meeting “for friendship among peoples.” The encounter among human beings, on the individual level or on the level of populations and their cultures, is itself always an “event” because it is an enrichment, a sense of wonder at what the other, with his culture, can give.