Origin of the SELF (and do reptiles have souls?)


A short dialogue

“Have you ever wondered about the origin of the self? What could possibly be the origin of the self?”

“Well, birth is certainly a reasonable answer.”

“Define ‘birth’.”

“Biological separation of mother and child. I would say the precise moment is the cutting of the umbilical cord. I think that’s the most dramatic moment of separation between the two physical entities.”

“So, the moment the umbilical cord is cut, is the moment of the birth of the self, the moment the new person becomes aware of his own, separate existence?”

“That sounds sensible enough, does it not?”

“Would you say only humans – members of the species Homo sapiens – have consciousness of their own unique existence? Would you say animals have a similar consciousness?”

“What kind of animal?”

“Many people would probably first think of dogs and cats.”

“Pets, but then surely also baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas …”

“Well, let’s say all mammals, then.”

“Or, all mammals born with umbilical cords.”


“Well, rats are mammals … and mice.”

“And whales. But if a rat has consciousness of its own unique existence, what about an ostrich? And if you reckon that an ostrich does not have consciousness of its own unique existence, why not?”

“According to our reasoning, because an ostrich is not a mammal. Because ostriches lay eggs, there is no dramatic moment of separation.”

“It doesn’t sound right that a common rodent has consciousness of its own unique existence, but not as large a … creature as an ostrich, just because it hatches. This means a giant creature like a dinosaur also did not have consciousness of its own unique existence, just because there is no umbilical cord, or there wasn’t. And what about egg-laying mammals?”

“Well, an egg-laying mammal lays an egg, so there’s no umbilical cord, anyway. Let’s say then for the moment that ostriches and other large egg-laying creatures also possess consciousness of their own existence.”

“What about insects? What about smaller organisms?


“And parasites and bacteria. How do they fit into the whole thing?”

“It’s difficult to say. Let’s stick for the moment with mammals and the large egg-layers.”

“Reptiles? If an ostrich qualifies, then a crocodile must qualify. And if the largest snake qualifies, then the smallest snake must qualify …”

“Let’s just first go back to the question about origin … but wait, what exactly are we talking about? What exactly is the ‘self’?”

“A few minutes ago we referred to the consciousness of own separate existence. Let’s see what a dictionary says …”

[The following terms and definitions are taken from Psigologie-Woordeboek (Dictionary of Psychology), by Gouws, Louw, Meyer & Plug (1979). The original source is in Afrikaans; the quoted definitions are my translations.]


A term with a variety of meanings, of which the following are the most important:

1. The person’s view of himself, i.e. a synonym for SELF-CONCEPT.

2. All the person’s characteristics, i.e. PERSONALITY.

3. The core of the personality, i.e. a synonym for PROPRIUM.

4. The agent or executor of behaviour, i.e. the “I”.

5. The substratum of behaviour, i.e. a synonym for PSYCHE.

6. (W. James) Any of a range of aspects of a person as it emerges in different life situations or areas, e.g. the social self, the religious self and the professional self.


A person’s perception and evaluation of himself. This includes cognitive, emotional and evaluative elements. Synonyms: SELF-COMPREHENSION, SELF-ESTEEM and SELF. Compare. IDEAL SELF and BODY IMAGE.

ideal self

(C.R. Rogers) The totality of characteristics that the individual would want to have. The assumption is that a person has such wishes in order to meet conditions for acceptance.

body image

A person’s subjective representation of his own body. It can include one or more of the following aspects: the subjective and more or less conscious idea that a person has at every moment of the position, posture and movement of his body; a person’s distinctive experience of his own body; and a person’s evaluation of his body or parts of it in terms of aspects such as attractiveness, masculinity, femininity or health.


A term which in its broadest sense refers to the integrated and dynamic organisation of an individual’s psychological, social, moral and physical qualities, as it is reflected in his interaction with his environment and especially with other people, and as determined by the interaction between constitutional and environmental factors. As the personality gradually develops during the individual’s life cycle and is therefore never static, the term usually refers to the pattern of characteristics at a given time during the individual’s life.


(G. W. Allport) The core of the personality. It entails those aspects of the person with which he feels himself most closely and intimately involved, for example, his most important values and objectives.


The hypothetical substratum or carrier of all experience and behaviour. […] A variety of terms is used besides psyche to refer to the hypothetical substratum of behaviour, e.g. spirit, person, personality, individual and organism. Synonyms: SOUL and SELF.


1. (Theology) The immortal (and non-physical) aspect of the person. […]

“I like the parts about body image and psyche. What do they say about the ideal self?”

“They reckon you cherish the notion of an ideal self because you want to be accepted.”

“Want to be accepted? I have an ideal image of myself in my head, but if more people than the current handful accept me, I’ll definitely get nervous!”

“I don’t know if you picked it up, but not one of the authors of those definitions succeeded in properly caging their target. It’s as if everyone tries to get a grip on a fairly slippery bar of soap.”

“Let’s see: a person’s view of themselves … a person’s characteristics … the core of the personality … the agent or executor of behaviour … any of a range of aspects of a person as it emerges in different life situations or areas … a person’s evaluation of themselves … an integrated and dynamic organisation of qualities … the carrier of all experience and behaviour … the immortal and non-material aspect of a person …”

“As I say, a slippery chunk of soap. Let’s first concentrate on a human’s consciousness of his or her own self.”

“Consciousness of self? Just remember, if the self is ‘X’, the self cannot also be ‘consciousness of X’.”

“Perhaps the self is not an ‘X’, perhaps the self is awareness … of … something, or everything. Yet, self cannot be equated to consciousness … Do you ever get the feeling you’re trying to articulate something for which your vocabulary is too primitive?”

“Yes, often.”

“Nevertheless, the awareness of … own living, physical, separate existence must surely arise from somewhere, at some point it must go from nothing to something, from ‘0’ to ‘1’. If this point does not lie with the cutting of the umbilical cord, what other possibilities are we looking at?”


“Can’t be … can you imagine a fertilised egg with consciousness, not to mention a sophisticated consciousness of its own existence?”

“Can it be said that the self does not arise from one moment to the next but that it rather develops slowly?”

“Can it be said that the body does not originate from one moment to the next because it develops slowly?”

“Let me see if I understand this correctly. The physical body originates from the mother – and to be thorough it should be mentioned, after the mother’s egg was fertilised with a physical contribution from the father. According to the umbilical theory it can be said that the new-born human’s consciousness of himself or herself also arises from the mother, in the sense that initially there is only one consciousness – that of the mother, then after ten or twenty or thirty weeks brain activity in the foetus is detected, but certainly nothing that could be called consciousness of own unique existence – there’s no personality, no view of him- or herself, no evaluation of him- or herself, and then the moment the umbilical cord is cut there is undeniably more than one case of consciousness – the mother’s consciousness and the child’s consciousness.”

“Consciousness of own, separate existence perhaps, but still no personality. I mean, no new-born baby has any view of him- or herself, no self-evaluation …”

“Not yet, but you cannot deny that an extraordinary event occurs from one moment to the next.”

“Doesn’t it make you think of Frankenstein who animates his project, and gives it consciousness of himself, with an electric shock? Except in the case of the new-born human, the electric shock is the severance of the umbilical cord.”

“But in the story the electric shock also stimulated brain activity. From brain activity, consciousness arose. In the case of real humans, the foetal brain is already active weeks before birth, weeks before the cutting of the umbilical cord. Whether the foetus is aware of anything, and if indeed, of what, is of course a different question.”

“Let me make a statement: I am now, at this point, Monday, 5 July 2004 at 12:48 in the afternoon aware of myself as a distinct entity, separate from inanimate objects in my environment (except for the chair on which I’ve been sitting for hours), and physically removed from all other living creatures. If I should die now from sudden seizure, only I would die. If anyone else in the area were to die at this moment of a heart attack, only that person would die – I would continue. I am aware of this separateness. I am also aware of another type of attachment, what we call in everyday speech an emotional attachment to people I have known since I … well, since I can remember. I am also aware of the fact that I have a fairly unique personality, that I have a particular view of myself and that certain aspects of my person emerge in different situations. I am aware of all these things. My question now, at what point did I become aware, for the first time, of myself, of my separateness, of my existence as a separate entity? And if this point is not the origin of what can ultimately be referred to as the self, what is, then?”

“It’s hard to put a finger on a single point. One must also remind yourself that ‘self’ cannot be equated to brain activity, and cannot necessarily be equated to consciousness.”

“And brain activity also does not necessarily mean that there is consciousness.”

“Nevertheless, even if the ‘self’, or a consciousness of own unique existence is understood as a result of a slow process that happens in small increments, there still has to be a point of origin. There must, necessarily, be a point of origin! Where this point is, when this moment of more than just flesh and blood coming into being occurs, however elementary, touches the essence of human existence.”

“Then we don’t even speculate about the possible similarity between human consciousness and appreciation of own existence, and what other mammals experience.”

“And birds, reptiles, fish, insects … trees?”