As far as cognitive development goes in Zamjatin’s We, the biological adage “ontogeny repeats phylogeny” holds true. In the course of the novel, D-503 retraces important stages in the evolution of human consciousness of consciousness. It is possible this is not a coincidence but rather that it reveals a deep-seated and vital tendency in artistic literature. Zamjatin’s treatment of the manner in which D-503 discovers his own consciousness touches on major discoveries in our own shared history: the recognition that dreams express psychological conflicts, rather than supernatural messages, that people do not think alike, that they reflect their infantile and adolescent experience, that people can not control their own actions, let alone their thoughts, and, coming close to Zamjatin’s own time, the unconscious itself.
It would be difficult to think of another novel that better exemplifies Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that social competition gave rise to the extended development of human consciousness (albeit Nabokov’s Lužin’s Defense comes to mind). Our mental powers far exceed the environmental demands of the Pleistoscene, that is, until we take into account competition with each other. According to Humphrey, we developed self-consciousness in order to model the unknowable thoughts of possible competitors—and collaborators—as a means of being better able to discern whom to trust and to anticipate the behavior of others. Since it would also pay to hide one’s own intentions, while detecting others’, the consequent escalation of penetration and deception led to our hypertrophied consciousness. D-503 retraces much of this history as he tries to figure out I-330, who apparently is trying to deceive and exploit him. In so doing he not only conducts the reader on a tour of his State, but he takes us and himself to as yet unglimpsed reaches of his mind.
An important portion of the model we have built on Humphrey’s insight is that we learn what it is to truly be a human being from reading fiction like Zamjatin’s. not only is it highly significant that the novel is written in the first person, whereby D-503’s self-consciousness becomes our own, the protagonist’s rediscovery of his psychological capacities is frustrating and ultimately truncated by the fantasiectomy, leaving the reader with the recognition that our minds are far too rich to be safely constrained by the limited environment that is utopia. Rather, trajectory of self-discovery leads us far beyond, in effect prompting further evolution of consciousness.