In between being dad, taxi driver, delivery guy and chef, I managed a bit of Mikey time for some googling on my Sunday quest for enlightenment.
The article below is just that and rather believable. Had to paste verbatim:
(These are excerpts from, or extensions to, the material published in my book “The Nature of Consciousness”)
The Origin of Consciousness
How does consciousness arise (in an individual) and how did it arise (in evolution)? It is a widespread belief that we, as individuals, are not born conscious, and life, as a natural phenomenon, was not originally conscious. If these beliefs are correct, when and how does and did consciousness arise?
One problem is to understand how consciousness is generated by brain processes. This is the “ontogenetic” problem of how consciousness “grows” during the lifetime of an individual. Another problem is to figure out what has it and what does not have it. This is the “phylogenetic” problem of how it was created in the first place: did it evolve from non-conscious matter over million of years or was it born abruptly in one species (whether by divine intervention or because of the advent of new brain structures)?
How and when and why did consciousness develop? Opinions vary. Julian Jaynes believes that it is a recent phenomenon, John Eccles thinks that it arose with the advent of mammalian neocortex, about 200 million years ago, the biologist Lynn Margulis thinks that it was a property of even simple unicellular organisms of several billion years ago, etc.
A Linguistic Origin
Several scientists believe that consciousness somehow owes its existence to the fact that humans evolved in a highly connected group, i.e. that it is related to the need to communicate with or differentiate from peers, i.e. it is closely related to language.
The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper thought that, phylogenetically speaking, consciousness emerged with the faculty of language, and, ontogenetically speaking, it emerges during growth with the faculty of language.
The USA biologist George Herbert Mead believed that consciousness is a product of socialization among biological organisms. Language provides the medium for its emergence. The mind is socially constructed, society constitutes an individual as much as the individual constitutes society. According to Mead, the mind emerges through a process of internalization of the social process of communication, for example by reflecting to oneself the reaction of other individuals to one’s gestures. The “minded” organism is capable of being an object of communication to itself. Gestures, which signal the existence of a symbol (and a meaning) that is being communicated (i.e., recalled in the other individual), constitute the building blocks of language. “A symbol is the stimulus whose response is given in advance”. Meaning is defined by the relation between the gesture and the subsequent behavior of an organism as indicated to another organism by that gesture. The mechanism of meaning is therefore present in the social act before the consciousness of it emerges. Mead thinks that consciousness is not in the brain, but in the world. It refers to both the organism and the environment, and cannot be located simply in either. What is in the brain is the process by which the self gains and loses consciousness (analogous to pulling down and raising a window shade).
The USA computer scientist Michael Arbib argued that first language developed, as a tool to communicate with other members of the group in order to coordinate group action; then communication evolved beyond the individual-to-individual sphere into the self sphere.
The British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey agrees that the function of consciousness is that of social interaction with other “consciousnesses”. Consciousness gives every human a privileged picture of her own self as a model for what it is like to be another human. Consciousness provides humans with an explanatory model of their own behavior, and this skill is useful for survival: in a sense, the best psychologists are the best survivors. Humphrey speculates that, by exploring their own selves, humans gained the ability to understand other humans; and, by understanding their own minds, they understood the minds of the individuals they shared their life with.
The USA anthropologist Terrence Deacon takes a “semiotic” approach to consciousness. He distinguishes three types of consciousness, based on the three types of signs: iconic, indexical and symbolic. The first two types of reference are supported by all nervous systems, therefore they may well be ubiquitous among animals. But symbolic reference is different because, in his view, it involves other individuals, it is a shared reference, it requires the capability to communicate with others. It is, therefore, exclusive to linguistic beings, i.e. to humans. Such symbolic reference includes the self: the self is a symbolic self. The symbolic self is not reducible to the iconic and indexical references. The self is not bounded within a body, it is one of those “shared” references.
A Practical Origin
Others see consciousness as useful to find solutions to practical problems. The Australian philosopher David Malet Armstrong, for example, argues that the biological function of consciousness is to “sophisticate” the mental processes so that they yield more interesting action.
Alas, today consciousness hardly contributes to survival. We often get depressed because we are conscious of what happens to us. We get depressed just thinking of future things, such as death. Consciousness often results in less determination and perseverance. Consciousness cannot be the ultimate product of Darwinian evolution towards more and more sophisticated survival systems, because it actually weakens our survival system.
Consciousness’ apparent uselessness for survival may be more easily explained if we tipped our reference frame. It is generally assumed that humans’ ancestors had no consciousness and consciousness slowly developed over evolutionary time. Maybe it goes the other way around: consciousness has always existed, and during evolution most species have lost part of it. Being too self-aware does hurt our chances of surviving and reproducing. Maybe evolution is indirectly improving species by reducing their self-awareness.
The Bicameral Mind
The studies conducted in the 1970’s by the USA psychologist Julian Jaynes (and, before him, by the German classicist Bruno Snell) gave credibility to the idea that consciousness may be a recent acquisition of our mental life, or at least that consciousness was not always what it is today, that it was and still is evolving.
By reviewing historical, archeological and biological documents from ancient civilizations, he concluded that until about 3000 years ago human beings were still devoid of consciousness. They still relied, like all other primates, on learned reactions. The people of even the most developed civilizations before 1000 B.C. (ancient Assyria, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Egypt) were not “truly” conscious. Ancient books such as the Iliad and the Bible were composed by non-conscious minds that explains why they could not distinguish between real and imagined events. The characters of those books act unconsciously in making their decisions and always rely on “voices”. They tend to speak in hexameter rhythms, which are characteristic of the automatic processing of the right-hemisphere brain. Schizophrenics often tend to speak in the same rhythm. These stories are all action and no introspection.
Ancient people, because non-conscious, did not feel responsible for their actions. They had no concept of good and evil. They had no conscious memories. They had no interest in history (past). They had no interest in progress (future). They had no sense of themselves.
Human beings did already employ language to communicate with other human beings, and to cooperate and to build societies and civilizations, but, in each individual’s head, that language did not serve as conscious thought: it served as communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Human beings were guided not by conscious reasoning, but by “hallucinations”. Hallucinations would form in the right hemisphere of the brain and would be communicated to the left hemisphere of the brain, which would then receive them as commands. This is what Jaynes refers to as the “bicameral mind”. Human beings were led by these voices in making their important decisions. “God” is one manifestation of the bicameral mind. God is the main voice that would drive individual and social behavior. With the emergence of oral languages, the hallucinating voices for performing fundamental actions became standardized and consequently societies became increasingly organized.
A conscious mind appears in the Odyssey and the most recent part of the Bible, about 3000 years ago. Those writings gradually shifted from non-conscious actions to conscious decisions. In the Odyssey characters are aware of the moral and physical consequences of their actions. In the West, moral issues started spreading in written languages around the sixth century B.C. Chinese literature moved from the bicameral mind to the conscious mind about 500 B.C. with the writings of Confucius. Indian literature shifted to consciousness around 400 B.C. with the Upanisad.
At that time, the bicameral mind began breaking down under the pressure caused by the complexity of the environment (mainly, society). The hallucinated voices became confused, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive. They no longer provided automatic guidance for survival. At the same time, the development of writing, and the permanent recording of procedures, in 2,000 B.C., progressively reduced the need for guidance from the hallucinated voices and replaced them with a much more effective means of organization. Consciousness was therefore invented by human beings through a process that entailed the loss of belief in gods and natural selection itself, which started rewarding conscious individuals over non-conscious ones.
Jaynes thinks that, today, governments and religions, and psychological phenomena such as hypnosis and schizophrenia, and artistic practices such as poetry and music, are vestiges of that earlier stage of human consciousness, when action was guided by the bicameral mind, because these are all manifestations of an instinctive tendency towards seeking directions, or, in general, automatic guidance, from others.
Today, these two minds still coexist: the non-conscious bicameral mind that seeks guidance from “authorities” for important decisions in complex situations (such as those related to society); and the conscious mind that creates its own decisions in more local and manageable conditions.
Jaynes’ concept of consciousness was revolutionary. First of all, intelligence (or, more appropriately, cognitive faculties) and consciousness are not the same thing and they are only vaguely related. Consciousness is not necessary for concepts, learning, reason or even some elementary forms of thinking. Non-conscious beings can develop sophisticated civilizations.
Secondly, awareness of an action tends to follow, not precede, the action. Awareness of an action bears little or no influence on the outcome. Before one utters a sentence, one is not conscious of being about to utter those specific words.
Thirdly, consciousness is an operation rather than a thing. Consciousness requires metaphors to express one thing in terms of another. Consciousness is being able to construct one’s narrative in terms of metaphors. Consciousness requires analogy to transform things of the real world into meanings in a metaphorical space. The mental space is created through metaphors and analogies.
Metaphors and analogies map the functions of the right hemisphere into the left hemisphere and make the bicameral mind obsolete. Metaphors of “me” and analogies of “I” enabled a greater understanding of the world and of other individuals. In turn, consciousness expanded by creating more and more metaphors and analogies. Ultimately, consciousness is a metaphor-generated model of the world.
Jaynes thinks that consciousness could not have been invented if language had not evolved to the point of facilitating metaphorical thinking. And, while oral languages developed around 70,000 B.C. and written languages began about 3000 B.C., metaphorical structures did not appear until about 1,000 B.C. Early writings in hieroglyphic and cuneiform forms reflect a non-metaphoric and non-conscious attitude.
The Prehistory Of Brain
In the 1940s the British anthropologist Kenneth Oakley speculated that there may be three level of consciousness, corresponding to the three evolutionary layers of the brain: awareness, controlled by the older part of the brain and related only to conditioning; consciousness, controlled by the cortex and the hippocampus, and related to the internal representation of the world; and self-awareness, due to the most recent layer of the brain and related to the internal representation of one’s internal representation.
The USA paleo-neurologist Harry Jerison looked at the fossil record for clues on the selection pressures that led to increases in the size of the primate brain.
Mammals evolved about 200 million years ago as the “nocturnal” reptiles. Unlike reptiles (such as dinosaurs), whose cognitive life was based on stimulus-response, mammals were capable of using sound to create a cognitive map of their environment. When the big reptiles disappeared 70 million years ago, vision too became a major source of information for the mammal brain, which evolved accordingly. In particular, the size of the brain increased dramatically. The brain of mammals was flooded with sensory inputs, and had to develop the ability to recognize an object that could be defined by many (virtually infinitely many) different sets of inputs. The solution was to develop a way to represent the perceptual world and use that representation to recognize objects. Thus the mammalian brain developed the ability to process stimuli by means of a “conscious” perceptual world, as opposed to the reflexes of the reptilian brain.
The function of consciousness was therefore to create the perception of the object, regardless of what sets of inputs originated the recognition.
The reptilian brain was simply “reacting” to stimuli, without any awareness of what those stimuli “meant”. The mammalian brain was capable of transforming the stimuli into an “object” existing in time and space, and then “act” accordingly.
Jerison speculates that the human brain is, first and foremost, a marvel of integration. The brain is flooded with sensory data. If the brain had to analyze them one by one in isolation, it would be virtually impossible to cope with the number of sensory data. Jerison believes that the nervous system constructs a model of the world, and then uses that model to “understand” sensory data. The key to constructing the model of the world is to integrate all the sensory data themselves. As the model gets refined, it also gets easier to recognize sensory data for what they are. A sensory datum is not recognized in isolation, but it is recognized as part of a scene. That scene, in turn, represents the integration of all the data that have been perceived.
The implication is that we are conscious of something that is not necessarily the real world, but is simply the world that we created. The “world” that we perceive is nothing more than the model that we have created. That model is not necessarily the world as it is: it is a plausible model of the world, given what we have learned so far about it.
The Prehistory Of Mind
The British archeologist Steven Mithen found evidence in ancient history that “cognitive fluidity” caused the modern mind to arise.
First came social intelligence, the ability to deal with other humans; then came natural-history intelligence, the ability to deal with the environment, and tool-using intelligence; last, language. Once the ability to fully connect all these faculties developed, the modern mind was born. Crucial for the development of the human mind was language. In particular, metaphor and analogy are the fundamental features that allowed the human mind to develop as it is.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens appeared 100,000 years ago and initially behaved like Neanderthals, showing little intelligence. Two momentous transformations in human behavior occurred with art and technology (60,000 years ago) and with farming (10,000 years ago).
In order to explain these breakthroughs, Mithen resorts to Jerry Fodor’s modular model of the mind. Initially, human minds were dominated by a general-purpose form of intelligence. Then a module appeared that was specialized for socializing. The social-intelligence module was shared with other primates so it must have predated humans. Then other modules, each specific to one domain, were born around the main general-purpose module. The modules evolved separately. Eventually, Mithen admits four types of intelligence (four modules in the mind): social, technical (tool-making, house building), natural-history (e.g., animal behavior) and linguistic. These modules were not connected, these “intelligences” were not communicating.
Mithen can thus explain why there is no archeological evidence of social life when (judging from brain size) social intelligence must have been already quite developed: a cognitive barrier between social and technical intelligence made it impossible for humans to conceive of tools for social interaction. Originally, humans were hunters and gatherers (the transition to farming occurred in the Middle East only about 10,000 years ago). The hunter-gatherers of our pre-history were experts in many domains, but those different kinds of expertise did not mix, precisely because the minds of those humans could not mix different types of intelligence.
“Cognitive fluidity” (mixing different kinds of intelligence) changed that and caused the cultural explosion of art, technology, religion. Suddenly, humans acquired minds in which modules had been connected. For example, tools started being used to transform nature. Religion was a by-product of mixing these intelligences, because mixing intelligences one can produce supernatural beings.
Farming was also a product of cognitive fluidity and in turn caused a redefining of intelligences (emergence of new intelligences, disappearance of old ones).
The factor that contributed or caused cognitive fluidity may have been the dawning of consciousness. Self-awareness may have integrated intelligences that for thousands of years had been kept separate.
Mithen’s evolutionary theory mirrors in many ways the theory of child development advanced by British psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith.
Co-Evolution Of Language And Consciousness
The British psychologist Euan MacPhail believes that consciousness comes from language, and therefore it is unique to humans.
“Association formation” is ubiquitous in vertebrates, and it forms the basis for every form of learning. But humans differ from animals in that humans are capable of language, humans possess an innate ability for acquiring language.
MacPhail relates this fact to memory structures, and it does so by unifying two findings about memory.
On one hand, he thinks that humans are endowed with two parallel learning systems: a conscious (explicit) and an unconscious (implicit) system, corresponding to two memory systems, one unconscious and one conscious. The unconscious learning system is the human analogous of an animal’s associative learning system. While they are both present at all times, we cannot consciously recall episodes stored in unconscious memory, whereas we can consciously recall episodes stored in conscious memory. Conscious memory develops with language, and that explains why we cannot recall episodes of our early life.
On the other hand, conscious memory is an “autobiographical” memory in the sense that it develops as the concept of “self” develops. I can feel pain only after I have developed a concept of “I”, only after I have come to realize that I am myself. What feels the pain is the network of neurons that constitutes the self.
By merging the two aspects of conscious memory, MacPhail reaches the conclusion that other animals only have the implicit (unconscious) kind of memory and learning, whereas humans developed also the explicit (conscious) kind, and the latter requires the development of the self.
The origin of consciousness is therefore predicated on the origin of the self. The self, in turn, is a by-product of “aboutness”, which is a requirement and a by-product of language.
The association between a subject and a predicate in language is structurally different from the associations that animals are capable of. Animals can learn associations between stimuli, but cannot infer subject-predicate associations, and that is the prerequisite to acquiring a language. Language allows humans to think in terms of “representations”, of “aboutness”, of the philosophical “intentionality” (from “intendo”, i.e. being able to refer to something else). Animals, who are not endowed with language, cannot grasp this “aboutness”. The “aboutness” relationship is the fundamental grammatical requirement for language. It is the ability to deal with “aboutness” that enables the formation of a concept of self. It is the concept of self that enables consciousness. The ability to create relationships of “aboutness” mature in children and leads to a conception of the “non-self”, which in turn is reflected in a conception of the “self”. At this point conscious memory starts developing, and conscious recall is possible, and conscious life begins. Consciousness is the consequence of the evolution of “aboutness”.
Inasmuch as “aboutness” is the key to consciousness, Brentano was therefore correct: intentionality is the fundamental property of mind, that distinguishes it from matter.
MacPhail believes that language, the self and consciousness develop together in the infant, and this development somehow recapitulates the evolution of language in our species: we started to think when we acquired the ability to discriminate self and non-self, and we acquired that ability when we acquired the ability to learn languages.
What rests to be explain is what causes infants to diverge from other animals. If, as toddlers, we are no more conscious than puppies, what happens to toddlers than does not happen to cubs, so that after a few years a toddler is conscious and a cub will never be? Ultimately, MacPhail postulates that the answer lies in our ability to learn languages, i.e. that something unique in the human genome sets in motion a process to learn languages that is unique to humans.
MimesisThe USA linguist Merlin Donald argued that the modern mind of symbolic thought arose from a non-symbolic form of intelligence through gradual absorption of new representational systems. The human mind developed in four stages (which, incidentally, roughly correspond to stages of cognitive growth in modern humans).
Early hominids were limited to episodic representations of knowledge, which was useful for remembering repeating episodes (the “episodic” mind). The episodic memory was useful to learn stimulus-response associations, but it could not retrieve memories independent of environmental cues. In other words, it could not “think”. These “episodic beings” (still more apes than humans) lived their lives entirely in the present.
Homo Erectus developed a “mimetic” (pre-linguistic but roughly symbolic) system of motor-based representations. At this stage the mind was capable of retrieving memories independent of environmental cues, and was capable of “re-describing” experience based on the overall knowledge. This is what the British psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith refers to as “representational re-description” in the stages of child development. The mind has a representation of the world and it is capable of continuously adapting it to new knowledge. The mind has “understanding” of the world.
These representations also enabled the individual to communicate intentions and desires and, on a larger scale, enabled generations to pass on cultural artifacts. At this stage, there existed a sort of collective memory (a “culture”) founded on the ability to carry out collective motor-based re-constructions of earlier incidents. By “motor-based”, Donald means that early humans were able to use their bodies to learn, remember and teach. Tool-making and games originate at this stage.
In the third stage, Homo Sapiens acquired language and therefore the ability to construct narratives and build myths, and myths represent integrated models of the world by which individuals could generalize and predict (the “mythic” mind). This stage requires new anatomical (and, specifically, neuronal) additions to the human body. These humans were capable of telling stories, a quantum leap in communication. Thus, one of language’s fundamental functions is to express myths. “Language is about telling stories in a group”.
About 50,000 years ago humans began to store memories in the outside world instead of in their own brain (e.g., cave paintings, figurines, calendars, etc).
Finally, modern humans, helped by written language, achieved higher, symbolic representational capabilities such as logic (the “theoretic” mind).
According to the epistemological theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children follow a similar path to full-fledged thinking, from event to mimetic, from narrative to symbolic.
Donald’s fundamental insight is that language and thought are tightly related: some forms of thought require language, and language reflects what forms of thought are possible. Symbols per se did not cause a major revolution in thinking: the kind of mental models that the mind could build caused the revolution. And language (or symbols) was simply a means to represent those models. The purpose of language was to allow individuals to share a common model of the world. Narrative was the natural product of language. Narrative led to unified, collective models of reality, in particular those embodied by myths.
The USA psychologist Michael Tomasello believes that human civilization is so fundamentally different from the societies of other animals because human cognition, at some point in evolution, became a “collective”, not only individual, process. This was originally a small difference, but over time it has made a huge difference, because each generation hands down a “culture” to the next generation. Each generation can benefit from the experiences (e.g., discoveries and inventions) of previous generations. And this causes an acceleration of cognitive evolution.
The Three Stages of Brain Evolution
The USA developmental psychologist Stephen Porges characterized the evolution of consciousness as a transition from a state of being acted upon by the world to a state of acting upon the world. Consciousness originated when the brain evolved from the reptilian structure to the mammalian structure (using Paul MacLean’s model for the evolution of the brain).
The brain of a reptile (which de facto means the brainstem and the hypothalamus) is not active, but simply reactive: it reacts to food, light, temperature. The reptilian brain increases or decreases metabolism based on the body’s needs. Matter prevails over mind.
In a mammal, instead, the brainstem and the hypothalamus command adjustments so that body temperature and metabolism are kept stable. This phenomenon enables the brain to dedicate energies to other functions. The brain of a mammal is capable of acting: mammals explore their environment looking for what they need. Mind prevails over matter.
The same argument can be made from an energetic perspective, which is reflected in the differences between the reptilian and mammalian cardiac systems. In the highly competitive world of mammals, it is necessary for the body to increase the production of energy to deal with preys and predators (hunt or run). So it is no surprise that mammals have metabolic demands four to five times that of reptiles, which makes reptiles more prone to passive feeding strategies, whereas mammals can actively hunt and graze and adapt to changing environments.
The reptilian brain is designed to use food. The mammalian brain is designed to look for food.
The structures in mammals (i.e., facial muscles, larynx) that express emotion (facial expression, vocalization) were evolution of anatomical systems of the reptiles. The resulting organization of the brainstem in mammalians fostered brain functions of attention, motion, emotion, and communication.
The development of the cortex enabled the mammalian brain to communicate emotions. Then it was just a matter of time before language and conscious thought emerged.
The Evolution of Feeling
The British chemist Graham Cairns-Smith views consciousness as an evolution of elementary emotions.
First, a rudimentary system of feelings must have been born by accident. Then it must have proven to have evolutionary usefulness. Finally, from that rudimentary system, that was probably a very basic pain-pleasure system, more complex feelings evolved.
Initially, they may have been simple variations on the basic emotions of pain and pleasure (or a broad palette of feelings, from pleasant to unpleasant, as the subtlety of our five senses seem to imply). As they proved to be more and more useful for survival, more and more emotions may have popped up. Eventually the organism was flooded with emotions and something like a primitive “stream of consciousness” appeared. Verbal language simply put words to it. Language allowed us to express the stream of emotions in a more sophisticated way than the primitive facial language. Thought was born. With thought even more complex emotions were born. With language, thought and deep emotions, the conscious “I” was born.
Bottom line: consciousness originated from the evolution of feelings. Feelings begat consciousness, not the other way around.
Daniel Dennett thinks that the mind was created by the evolution of memes. Cairns-Smith thinks that the mind was created by the evolution of emotions. Where most thinkers see language as essential to the development of consciousness, Cairns-Smith views it as a mere tool to communicate emotions in a more complete way. Where most thinkers see emotion as a corollary to consciousness, Cairn-Smiths views it as the embryo of consciousness.
How Homo Became Sapiens
Likewise, the Swedish linguist Peter Gardenfors views language as the last (not first) stage in the process that led to today’s conscious humans. He believes that first came sensations, then attention, then emotions, then memory, then thoughts (by which he really means “internal representations of the world”), then planning, then the self, then free will and finally language.
Most of these faculties are not unique to humans. Most mammals have emotions and even thoughts. Chimpanzees exhibit all of these faculties up to planning. But he thinks that humans are the only animals that are truly conscious of themselves and can speak.
The cortex is the place where a representation of the world is created. That allows the brain to use the representation of an object (or a situation) rather than the object (or the situation) itself. It allows, in other words, to be somewhat “detached” from reality: the brain can work on something that is not an object/situation present “here and now”. Gardenfors believes that the large cortex of the human brain (i.e., its superior ability in representing the world) makes all the difference between human and animal behavior. Other animals have a cortex too, but it does not compare in size with the human cortex.
Gardenfors believes that first came sensations, then perceptions (the interpretation of those sensations, which are already representations but are directly related to the world) and then “detached” representations (which he also calls “imaginations”, and differ from perceptions which are “cued” representations, i.e. representations about something that is present here and now). Since all animals have sensations, Gardenfors assigns a degree of consciousness to all animals. But only mammals and birds have the cortex that allows for detached representations: they can “guess” and “plan”. E.g., a cat does not need to see a mouse to understand that it is hiding in a place where it cannot be seen, and the cat can make a plan (by guessing how the mouse will behave) in order to catch it.
Gardenfors explains the difference between sensations and perceptions as a difference in the referent: sensations are about what is happening to the body, whereas perceptions are about what is happening in the world (that is causing that change in the body). A perception is, in a sense, a step back to find out what caused the sensation. “We perceive the causes”.
Humans are better than any other animal at discovering the causes because they have better “simulators” in their cortex.
The next step up, the detached representations, are important because they can be used at any time, regardless of whether the object is present or not. They also provide an evolutionary advantage: the animal can play trial and error in its internal representation, without risking its life in the real world. The animal can simulate the consequences of acting before actually acting. An internal representation “allows our hypotheses to die instead of us”. Animals that are capable of internal representation (which are animals with a large cortex) share some behavioral traits: they play and they dream. Reptiles do not play and do not dream.
Thoughts (his nickname for “internal representations of the world”) allowed some animals to “become increasingly detached from the immediate vicinity”. Instead of reacting directly to stimuli from the environment, these animals can use “reason” to understand what is going on in the environment and to decide what to do next. An animal that can only react directly to a stimulus is limited to one course of action. An animal that can build an internal representation of the world is capable of creating more than one possible course of action.
The next step up is to actually “plan” an action. Many animals plan, but in an “immediate” fashion. Humans can plan in an “anticipatory” manner. The difference is about being ready for the same situation to occur again in the future. For example, animals make tools to be used immediately, but only humans carry their tools with them, knowing that they may need them again. Other animals would simply make the same tools again when required. Another example is how we communicate: animals do communicate, but their communication is about the “here and now”, whereas humans can discuss of our memories of the past and dreams for the future. In a sense, another proof of this difference is the fact than only humans seem to be aware of the full meaning of death: they not only fear it, but are devastated by the mere thought of it (note that humans bury their dead, and this custom seems to be relatively recent in the evolution of humans).
Another ladder of cognitive abilities has to do with the kind of things that one’s brain can represent: an internal representation of the world, which is necessary for immediate planning; “compassion” (an understanding of others’ emotions); a theory of attention (understanding what others are focusing on); a theory of intention (understanding why others are doing what they are doing); a theory of others’ minds (which is basically the ability to represent the internal representations of other minds); and finally self-consciousness (a representation of one’s internal representation, which is required for anticipatory planning). The jump from understanding intentions and having a theory of others’ minds may be the most difficult one: children acquire a theory of others at about the age of four; and it is still being debated whether apes ever do. Thus Gardenfors concludes that, in all likelihood, only humans are self-conscious.
The self, the last stage of human cognitive development, presupposes a “you”. Gardenfors assign a key role even to deceit and cooperation. These are phenomena that presuppose an understanding of others’ minds. The level of sophistication that the human race can achieve in matters of deceit and cooperation is due to the ability to work with the chain of nested beliefs: “I know”, “I know that you know”, “I know that you know that I know”, etc. When one can see one’s mind through the eyes of a competitor or a partner, one is seeing one’s own mind. One can see one’s own internal representation. Thus Gardenfors believes that an understanding of others’ minds came before an understanding of one’s own mind. I understand that you exist, act and have motives before I understand that I exist, act and have my own motives. First came the concept of “I and You”, then came the concept of “I” (the subject, which presupposes a non-subject), and finally the concept of “it” (the object of the subject, which presupposes a subject).
Gardenfors believes that the self is an “emergent” phenomenon, a property of the whole that was not a property of any of its constituents. The “I” emerges from a network of inter-related cognitive functions.
Gardenfors’ theory of cognitive steps is consistent with Daniel Dennett’s classification of “kinds of minds”: “Darwinian creatures”, which only live in the present; “Skinnerian creatures”, which are capable of learning from trial and error; “Popperian creatures”, which can play an action internally in a simulated environment before they perform it in the real environment; and “Gregorian creatures”, which can extend their cognitive functions outside their organism by using tools and language.
Gardenfors adds a fifth kind to Dennett’s kinds of minds: “Donaldian” beings, named after Merlin Donald’s third phase: Donald believes that about 50,000 years ago humans began to store memories in the outside world instead of in their own brain (e.g., cave paintings, figurines, calendars, etc). The invention of external memories (which does not imply any change in the structure of the brain) was fundamental for creating the kind of mind that we now have. Writing and science were simply further evolutions of that invention.
Ultimately, it is all about the internal representation, which in humans is “detached” enough to allow for thinking about the past and the future, and even for thinking about ourselves.
Gardenfors sees evidence that humans have better “simulators” of the environment (building better representations) in apparently unrelated facts such as the human ability to aim and to beat a rhythm. Apes cannot aim and cannot keep time.
The consequences of having good simulators are civilizations.
Thus Gardenfors concludes that language came last: not only was it unnecessary for the birth of consciousness, but consciousness is a primitive phenomenon and language is the last stage of cognitive evolution. Human language requires a kind of internal representation (the “detached” kind) that only humans have. Basically, it requires “symbols”. In a sense, human language is about which is not here and not now, whereas other animals can only communicate about here and now, because their representations are not “detached” enough from external reality (they “are” about external reality).
This limitation of other animals also translates in the sounds that they can produce. Humans are the only animals that can “choose” what sound to produce. Other animals have a repertory of sounds that they produce, and cannot control them. Humans can control them. Sometimes humans use the “instinctive” repertory of sounds (e.g., a scream or laughter). But humans can also articulate speech. Animals cannot literally talk. “They have no need to talk since they have nothing to talk about”. They have no detached representation. They have no need to “talk” about things that are not here now. Gardenfors believes that even self-consciousness is required to be capable of speaking, because human language is very much about the “I” and the “you”.
Gardenfors agrees with Robin Dunbar that, originally, language had a social function. Humans chatted for the same reason that apes groom each other: to cement social bonds. That helped humans create groups, and groups helped survive in a hostile environment. So language had an evolutionary advantage.
Noam Chomsky’s theory of an innate universal grammar is unnecessary because grammar could be (yet another) emergent phenomenon that arises after speech already existed. The brain basically organizes the speech acts that is performing. The result (not the cause) is the rules of grammar.
Language is not handled by a separate “module” in the brain, as Chomsky claims. Instead, it is a natural evolution of cognitive skills that preexisted it.
The USA psychologist Stuart Hameroff advanced a theory of consciousness rooted in Physics. One of the big mysteries of evolutionary Biology is the sudden explosion of species during the Cambrian period. According to fossil records, life on Earth originated about 4 billion years ago, but for about 3.5 billion years it evolved very slow, producing mainly single-celled organisms and a few simple multicellular organisms. Then, all of a sudden, in a rather brief period of 10 million years beginning about 540 million years ago (the Cambrian period), a huge number of different forms of life emerged. Biologists have always been puzzled by this sudden diversification of life.
One possible explanation would be the emergence of a feature that greatly enhanced adaptation and mutation. Hameroff thinks that it may have been the emergence of consciousness, that consciousness not only occurred early in the evolutionary path but it even altered the course of evolution. The idea is that behavior can indirectly alter genetic information, as already argued in 1958 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger, by enabling organisms to survive and reproduce where non-intelligent organisms would simply die.
Cells contain a structure called “cytoskeleton”, which is made of a protein called “tibulin”, which forms cylinders called “microtubules”. According to the USA biologist Lynn Margulis, microtubules and the cytoskeleton were created by symbiotic mergers more than a billion years ago. Simple organisms actually had to rely on the cytoskeleton for purposeful behavior. Having no synapses or neural networks, they relied on their cytoskeleton for sensation, locomotion and information processing. Cytoskeletal structures provided several services, including internal organization of the neuron, processing of information, communication. In summary, the cytoskeleton organizes intelligent behavior in simple organisms.
The cytoskeleton seems to play a particularly relevant role in differentiation. A cell’s genes are activated and regulated by its cytoskeleton. Cytoskeletal cooperation among neighboring cells enabled differentiation and allowed different types of tissues to emerge. Then, higher order structures appearing with specific functions (organs) started appearing and these in turn enabled more purposeful behavior.
All of this depends on the cytoskeleton, which Hameroff thinks is the level at which consciousness is created. If that is the case, then rudimentary “conscious” events occurred the very moment the cytoskeleton became important for small organisms. Organisms began to experience feelings and make conscious choices.
The End of the Struggle and the Luxury of Consciousness
A modest proposal: I think that consciousness came with the end of danger.
The human mind (cognitive faculties plus consciousness) was just an organ of the body, useful like the others to survive in the environment. Where the hand was useful to grab things and the leg was useful for running, the mind was useful for deciding what to do in the face of danger. The mind was capable of organizing knowledge about the world and relating it to bodily needs (food, sex, shelter, etc). In a hostile and unpredictable environment, the mind was presumably busy all the time with practical chores. As humans became less and less vulnerable to natural selection, the mind became less and less “useful”. Nonetheless, the mind was still collecting and organizing knowledge about the world. Once survival got easy, the mind had “spare time” to spend with its knowledge. (We can expect that domestic animals will also go down the same path of increased awareness, as they become pets and are sheltered from their ecosystem’s selection).
The human mind works in two dimensions: 1. It uses whatever knowledge it has to determine behavior in the environment; 2. It uses whatever spare time it has to refine and increase its knowledge. From knowledge better and better knowledge can always be created. That is what the mind does when it needs not concern itself with survival. The more knowledge gets created, the more efficient the mind will be the next time it has to deal with a matter-of-life-or-death situation. That is why it takes advantage of every “break” to increase its knowledge. If the mind is “inactive” (as far as struggling for survival goes), then knowledge keeps increasing exponentially, in all directions. That includes knowledge about the mind itself. The mind becomes more and more aware of its own existence.
The mind was in origin just one of the body’s features, caused by one of the body’s organs (the brain), just like “walking” is a body’s feature caused by a body’s organ (the leg). As knowledge about itself increased, the mind became more and more independent of the environment’s conditions, more and more independent of the body’s needs, more and more a machine to acquire and process knowledge, more and more a feature about itself.
Consciousness comes with the end of the mind’s usefulness. As the mind becomes useless, while its brain processes are unstoppable, it turns into higher and higher degrees of self-awareness. Instead of using knowledge to analyze the world, recognize natural patterns, predict situations and mandate behavior, the mind uses knowledge to create more knowledge. Eventually, it also creates more and more knowledge about itself.
A Darwinian History of Consciousness
It is often the case that competing theories are all right to some extent, are all part of the solution, although neither is the “whole” solution.
If one applies Darwinian thinking to the origins of consciousness, one is led to believe that today’s consciousness must be a point in a continuum of consciousness that started a long time ago and underwent evolution. If we accept that the human mind is just one of the organs that evolved over millions of years, the origins of the mind must be found in 1. a primordial organ of “thinking” and 2. an evolutionary advantage of that organ that made it evolve into what it is now.
It is likely that a number of facets of our experience evolved together.
First of all, we are a tool-making species. And tools have always shaped the mind. We are not the only tool-making species, and we are not the only species whose “cognitive life” is shaped by tools. Even a spider, that has built a spider-web, will have a “mental” life that revolves around the spider-web. Each new tool, whether fire or television, has shaped the mind of the humans who used it. Tools contribute to create the mind as it is because they change the environment in which the mind must operate. As tools have evolved, from the wheel to the automobile, according to a Darwinian scenario of their own, our mind has evolved with them.
Secondly, the primordial “mind” that evolved from non-conscious matter ages ago is likely to have been very simple, possibly limited to a few emotions. For example, it may have only been capable of feeling pain and pleasure. Those emotions proved to have an evolutionary advantage, and therefore they reproduced and eventually evolved into more complex emotions, such as fear and desire. And so forth: as they proved more and more useful for survival and reproduction, eventually a whole spectrum of emotions began to emerge.
Emotions had an evolutionary value, as they helped bodies (and their genes) survive, and therefore were valuable, and therefore evolved. It is unlikely that humans are the only species with emotions, but it is likely that humans are the species in which emotions evolved in the most spectacular way. The reason for this spectacular evolution may very well be that at the same time we were developing ever more sophisticated tools than any other species. Tools relieved us from many daily chores. Our emotions had been invented to help cope with those chores, but, thanks to tools, our emotions gradually became less and less crucial to survival. The fear of tigers is important to survive in a tiger-rich environment, but once we build fences around our dwelling that emotion becomes less crucial; at least, we don’t need to fear tigers all the time.
Our mind was nonetheless still producing emotions, because once an organ is created that does something it will continue to do that something. We can’t just turn off our immune system because this morning there are no viruses around. Just like the immune system is producing antibodies all the time, the mind is producing emotions all the time. That flow of “free” emotions eventually led to what we call “thought”. Thought eventually yielded a continuous flow of emotions and a concept of the self: consciousness was born. Consciousness was born because our mind had nothing to do most of the day. We became conscious because we had nothing better to do with our emotions.
At the same time, communication was also evolving. Language evolved from primitive sounds and gestures because, again, it provided an evolutionary advantage. Language shaped the mind as much as the mind shaped language. The very idea of the “self” may have originated from the ability to think in a structured manner about our experience, the ability to form narratives.
Finally, memes evolved. Ideas, slogans, religions, ideologies evolved from the early, very basic, concepts of the world. And, again, memes shaped the mind as much as the mind shaped memes.
Today’s mind is the result of the co-evolution of brains, tools, emotions, language, memes.
It was evolution on several parallel tracks.