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The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks review – what does it mean to be human?

This elegant near-future novel about a daring scientific experiment explores the evolution of consciousness

For a period during the 1990s, I visited a psychoanalyst several times a week. Lying on the couch, I would find myself examining the spines of the books on his shelves for clues to the mysterious process we were engaged in. Just in line with the toe of my right shoe was a volume with a title so bizarre that I eventually felt obliged to track it down and read it. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is the sole published work by Julian Jaynes. Its striking but unverifiable argument is that our prehistoric ancestors didn’t possess the kind of consciousness that we consider normal – the sense of a unitary I managing competing desires. Instead they heard voices emanating from the different hemispheres of their brains. Out of these auditory hallucinations grew what we think of as our sense of self. The intrusive commands that invade the mind of a schizophrenic, Jaynes suggested, are a throwback to the divided consciousness of our ancestors.

What is tantalising about Jaynes’s ideas is that they suggest consciousness is not a stable part of our human identity. Like jaw shape or gait, it evolved over time, so there may be or could have been multiple varieties of it – perhaps some that are more robust, more accurate, more ethically refined. Or, as a character in Sebastian Faulks’s new novel puts it: “It was only molecular chance that had led to the existence of modern humans … it could have been subtly otherwise, with a similar but saner and more integrated creature evolving from the same raw material.”

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