As an undergraduate at Stanford University I had the chance to study from a breakthrough professor named Sylvia Wynter. Her central thesis is that human consciousness is not biologically programmed but rather programmed by narrative, or story.
Our society and all of its educational disciplines are based on the idea that essentially biology determines consciousness—i.e. the story of Evolution. She challenged that definition of the human as a purely biological being by putting forward the idea that we program our consciousness with narrative and that the purely biological definition is, itself, a story.
Needless to say, the validity of her thesis has huge ramifications. Story, in her thesis, is the factor in determining what type of world humans are to live in. From small tribes up to but not including our present society, the centrality of story has not been too downplayed. The assumption the West makes about itself, though, is that it is reality, meaning outside of story. But what if we, our present “modern” order is as much based on story, in this case, the story of Evolution, as was the first one that emerged out of Africa and all others to follow it. Truly we would live in a radically different world as our entire body of knowledge would have to be rewritten.
Most people assume that the mind has evolved out of Africa and “improved” over time, which has created a paradigm of racism and a “Bell Curve” mentality when it comes to “intelligence.” When Wynter’s thesis is put forward, the idea that the mind evolved beyond having the capacity for language and symbolic thought and the ability to constitute its own consciousness through myth and narrative, is debunked. She puts forward the thesis that once the human entered into symbolic thought it was a complete rupture from all other forms of biological life. For once it developed the capacity for language and symbolic thought the human was, unlike all other species, constituting its consciousness through narrative and outside of evolution in a new and distinct way. Genes are able to tell you whether you are predisposed to certain diseases and what you will look like but they do not determine what type of consciousness you will have.
Presently, Evolution acts as the story that holds our social order in place. It is the origin narrative account of what we are--i.e., from a relationship of pure continuity with the primates (rather than being a new type of entity that constitutes its own consciousness through myth and narrative)-and of how we are to behave — i.e., Evolution puts forward that humans, like animals are biologically programmed to compete amongst ourselves in a free market for resources that are “naturally scarce.”
Our entire educational system, including all the disciplines in academia (not just economics), is based on the idea that the genes have determined consciousness. Wynter’s challenge to the foundational paradigm of Evolution (in its self-conception as the Agent of history and, specifically, that the mind still evolves) is tantamount to the challenges made to Genesis as the origin narrative for the medieval order. When Genesis was challenged by a new narrative (as in The Great Chain of Being as put forward by Pico della Mirandola during the Renaissance) a new social order emerged where the State and Laity could then assert hegemony over the Church. The State and Laity (the Monarchy and the landed gentry) were then to be challenged during the “Enlightenment” by the bourgeoisie and their narrative of evolution as the story which puts in place the “free market” (and, obviously, race). From these two examples one can get a blueprint as the how narrative changes bring in new consciousness, new behaviors, new hierarchies, and therefore, a new social order.
In addition, her analysis transforms the “nature” versus “nurture” debate into a “nature” versus “culture” debate. This means that for the matrix identities of “white” and “black,” for instance, to even exist a story had to be put in place--the story of evolution. Clearly we are socialized in the context of that story, as identity has so much to do with the way in which we accept that narrative and its racism or fight against it.
Against the mainstream of academia, therefore, Wynter puts forward the thesis that Evolution is not the author of the social order, any more than gods, God, ancestors, the spirits of nature had been for other peoples. It is the belief in the story of Evolution, and its manifestation through the disciplines of academia, that brings our social order into being and makes “reality,” “race” and “class,” for instance, in our case, experienceable as true.
In sum, the Western body of knowledge is based on a Two Event thesis. These two unexplainable Events are the creation of the universe in time and the emergence of biological life (from the so-called lightning bolt that hit the swamp). What Wynter puts forward is that there was a “Third Event” to be taken account of: the emergence of the human as a pure rupture with purely biological life. If she is right we are headed towards a radically new world.
(Matt Hamburg is the son of former Supervisor Dan Hamburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)