The Inner Eye

by stephenpalmersf

In 1986 I was lucky enough to watch the complete first broadcast of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, which introduced his social intelligence theory of consciousness. It was an extraordinary series, which recently appeared on YouTube – apart from episode 1, alas – on the author’s own channel.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6 

Nicholas Humphrey began his lengthy, varied and influential career researching perception and other aspects of animal behaviour. In the 1970s he went to Africa, having already worked for some years as an experimental psychologist. In the mid-1980s he was asked to make the television series, which, in his introduction to the book, he describes as “difficult.” Simultaneous with the television series came the book, which I bought pretty much as soon as I grasped how exceptional the programmes were. The book asked some fundamental questions: What is human consciousness? How did it evolve? In addition to the inspirational text, cartoonist Mel Calman provided illustrations, but, unusually, he was asked to respond to the text rather than specifically illustrate it.

Nicholas Humphrey’s answer to the main question is very much set in the landscape of evolution. He says consciousness – the inner eye – allows us to feel and to understand what it is like to be ourself, and, crucially, to be somebody else. In other words, via our inner eye we use ourselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of others. Tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of years ago that behaviour was becoming very complex, as the social life of our ancestors mushroomed into something never before seen on the planet. Consciousness was the unique evolutionary response.

After summarising the sheer complexity of our extraordinary social lives (which we all underestimate because we’re so used to the social environment) the book continues with a chapter on how consciousness might make a difference in our lives. Because it evolved, as did shells and eyes and wings, it must come with considerable benefits. The inner eye is the given answer. This inner eye allows us to make realistic guesses about the mental state of others; and therefore allows us to lie, to feel compassion for, or to trust others. The author then ponders whether any other animals have this inner eye, looks at children’s development, and looks at dreams. The book concludes with a chapter on how our extraordinary abilities allow us to be cruel beyond belief.

Alongside Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society this book was a launching pad for my own thoughts about consciousness and the human condition. Nicholas Humphrey is still writing remarkable books, and every one of these I can recommend.


The Inner Eye, Nicholas Humphrey