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Evolution and consciousness

  1. Jan 3, 2009 #1
    I have a small problem I was thinking about earlier..
    Evolution is blind and only rewards behavior. Things like reproduction, fitness, and placing the bodyparts in the right place for survival would be rewarded. All beliefs, cognitive faculties etc would be invisible to evolution and its mechanisms.
    So why do we have consciousness?

    In such a case, consciousness would be unreliable, because given that we have the ability to form beliefs, those beliefs could go in contrast to evolution.
    If everything is materialistic, especially evolution, why would evolution which is the ultimate mechanism for evolving humans, develop this directly against its own purpose and function, and especially if it doesn't reward it or even recognize it?

    Ultimately we all recognize that evolution cannot evolve anything based on the content of the beliefs, the subjective side of consciousness.
    Behavior and physical events MUST guide how the creature is evolving, but then we need some sort of way to reconcile content and beliefs with that behavior.
    Since consciousness is not directly capable of altering genes, the process becomes suddenly much more complicated for evolution. Because if the beliefs go against what seems most likely to cause advantage, the being has to change its own beliefs to change behavior, instead of just changing behavior immediately based on instinct or similar.

    My question is then, are beliefs ultimately a good thing for evolutionary traits, and can someone explain to me how beliefs and consciousness would then work to always achieve reproduction, fitness and other advantages?

    Well, I'm by no means an evolution expert, but here's my proposition, please correct me if I have gotten anything wrong or any other comments you may have.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2009 #2
    In Roger Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind, he argues that consciousness is beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint because intelligence requires consciousness (he argues that consciousness is non-algorithmic and cannot be emulated by a machine). He says that these beliefs are the "necessary baggage" which are carried with consciousness.
    He is therefore saying that consciousness does affect our physical behaviour and hence does affect our genes (through natural selection).
    On the other hand, perhaps these beliefs are not baggage but are beneficial. Our beliefs are part of our societal and cultural makeup and help bind us together as people. This could be beneficial socially.
  4. Jan 3, 2009 #3
    I think consciousness is a sort of "accident" from natures side, its only a product of having large brains. With consciousness came self awareness, and empathy. And with the ability to live ourselves into others situation we have a societal system. Which has its own cultural (as opposed to natural) fitness, competition and reproduction.
  5. Jan 3, 2009 #4


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    Actually, the more relevant book would be Stephen Gould's "The Panda's Thumb". He argued that there are many instances where when one trait has been selected, that trait also happens to have other beneficial effects that was not anticipated by natural selection. An example would be a bird being selected for its large wings so that it can fly further. It could easily turn out that the large wing later on can also allows it to brush the ground in search of food. So that selected trait can also happen to have other beneficial side effects.

    I'm not sure why this is in Philosophy and not in Biology.

  6. Jan 3, 2009 #5


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    It's in philosophy because of the question - "So why do we have consciousness?"


    Which leads to the question - "Is consciousness a good (desirable) or bad (undesirable) characteristic?" (desirable/undesirable in terms or evolution or success of a species).

    Perhaps consciousness is a double-edged sword. There's a good side and a bad side.

    The good side would be in the way humanity positively influences the environment to assure perpetuation of the itself (and also other lifeforms). The downside would be the self-destructive behavior (war, pollution, . . . .) that threatens humanity (and other lifeforms).
  7. Jan 3, 2009 #6
    My opinion is that we will not be capable of answering this yet, because our understanding of consciousness is not sufficient. We would need to know what consciousness is (in better detail than in some vague verbal definition) before knowing why consciousness exists.

    Empathy is part of social behavior. It could also exist in mindless robots (produced by evolution hypothetically).
  8. Jan 3, 2009 #7
    Thanks all.. You got me thinking about social evolution.

    It appears that while reproduction is valued by natural selection still(i mean it's the most fundamental thing for any species to survive), the other traits have somewhat taken a spot in the shadows. We take care of the people who are ill, or who carry traits which in another world would not have stood a chance in the long run, and they reproduce too.
    So maybe the natural selection has stepped it up a notch and infiltrated the social arena.

    Since intelligence was originally a very good advantage in humans, to create technology of all sorts (including weapons, houses etc) consciousness must have gotten an advantage, and thus the brain developed to become better.
    So maybe as mentioned above, consciousness is a side effect, and self awareness, social behavior, empathy, and all this stuff is just an unpredicted side trait of what was originally planned to be more intelligence.

    That's all fine, but I'm more interested then in how the natural selection process has saturated into the minds of people, and why.
    If you think about it, most people get bored with stuff, and they move on to new stuff.
    There's always a constant drive to improve everything from products to behavior to vanity, and while this may seem obvious, it's not so obvious why the brain is made in this way.

    While obviously improving oneself and things around oneself, and making everything one touches the most efficient is a product of evolution, and probably why intelligence existed to begin with, it's quite peculiar that we still retain such a strong will to remain like this, and it brings up questions about how 'free' we actually are.

    The way I see it this drive for efficiency saturates our daily lives, all the time. We sit in the chair which is most comfortable, we eat the food which is most pleasant (or which furthers our own agenda in some way) and we ultimately try to find the best way to do all we do, which is ultimately based on beliefs!

    Now if beliefs were to begin with invisible to evolution, and only behavior counted, then how did intelligence decide what the best course of action was?
    Somehow intelligence was controlled or created from an ideology that said 'do what you find best', but at the same time since evolution and natural selection cannot control or work on anything but behavior and events, it never had the control directly.

    So intelligence and mental processing must be a trait which could only do one thing - process the best possible outcome(and thus an advantage to animals) which then saturates later into social and personal arenas as the brain grows bigger and more aware.

    What this tells me is that the fundamental function of intelligence and consciousness in the natural world was set in stone ages ago, and that we haven't changed one bit.
    We're still just running on the fundamental value that everything should be improved, and that a true evolutionary trait wouldn't be the side effects of intelligence/beliefs/consciousness, but rather a whole new trait or an evolution of the brain beyond this basic value.

    That was more on a personal speculative note, but I'm enjoying writing about this.
  9. Jan 3, 2009 #8
    A small update re current thoughts on evolution. Evolution is not result of blind, random changes in genome. Evolution is largely driven by environment. And that means that even single cell organisms react to changes in environment (perception) adjusting their epigenome (expressions of genome) and ultimately genome itself. Metaphorically, we could say that epigenome and genome “describe” organism’s environment and its reactions to it. In single cell organisms, as long changes in epigenome can address relevant changes in the environment, genome does not need changes. (Viruses are rather chunks of genome that propagate themselves in other cells.)

    Although single cell organisms communicate and cooperate, multicellular organisms raised the stakes dramatically. To raise your hand, for example, requires extraordinary levels of communication, cooperation and coordination between huge numbers of cells. (Brain cannot “command” to each of the cells separately.) Multicellular organisms can respond to changes in the environment through combination of changes in epigenome and ways of cooperation, communication and coordination between cells. This reduces the pressure on genome to change. Furthermore, some species demonstrated transfers of knowledge by cultural means (orang-utans, dolphins, etc.).

    Transfer of knowledge (about environment) by cultural means further reduced pressure on genome to change. In us, humans, evolution has shifted from changes in genome to changes in culture. (Cultural changes are still reflected in the genome, but only partly.) This enabled us to evolve with little, if any, physical change in our bodies.

    As for changes in our epigenome and genome, there were several studies of how we (humans) change our epigenome and genome during our life. One compared epigenome of identical twins. Epigenome of just born was almost identical and differences grew with the age of twins. Another practically reproduced Europe’s map by looking at a single letter in a gene.

    You seem to be on right track re consciousness, but some clarifications won’t hurt. There seems to be a growing agreement that we posses two kinds of consciousness. One could be called phenomenal and represents infinitely rich sensations we are exposed to when we open our eyes. Phenomenal consciousness is difficult to tackle and it is entirely subjective experience. Another kind could be called psychological consciousness. (We are not unconscious when we close our eyes.) Psychological consciousness is well measured phenomenon that occurs half a second after a stimulus is received. Its capacity is also well estimated: between seven and forty symbols at a time (depending on method used).

    I assume that you are interested in psychological consciousness and evolutionary “reasons” for its emergence. There is a growing consensus that we (humans) were not conscious when we emerged as species a quarter of a million years ago; at least not conscious in a sense we are now. The first signs of modern consciousness coincided with first signs of cooperation between cultures; some ten thousand years ago. It is hard to tell which enabled the other, but it is rather like chicken or egg question. Some also think that when cooperation between cultures stops, consciousness disappears.

    In simple terms, consciousness enabled keeping oneself in check when dealing with members of other culture. As Libet demonstrated, our consciousness can veto our urges that can offend others; quite useful when dealing with people we do not fully understand.

    We also need to keep in mind that consciousness is not fully reflected in our genes. It is rather a cultural or social phenomenon. Just born babies are not conscious. Fully developed consciousness emerges later; between four and six. It is experienced as a picture of ourselves as others might see us from outside, with few symbols of what we noted half a second before. (Some of these symbols may represent an urge we might need to veto.)

    I would also say that seeing ourselves as others would see us is only one side of the coin. The other side is empathy.

    Also. I would not pay too much attention to what Penrose says on consciousness. When Libet started to publish his findings about consciousness he proposed nanotubes for our consciousness to send commands back in time; half a second only of course. And he was ridiculed for this, of course.

    Also. Life in general demonstrates intelligence by adapting. Intelligent behaviour, therefore, does not need psychological consciousness. And when we emerged as species, we had some intelligence with maybe only traces of psychological consciousness. For more than hundred thousand years we just sat along the east coast of what is now South Africa. Only when we started to migrate our perception and thinking (intelligence) started to improve. But this is another topic.

    Kind Regards,
  10. Jan 4, 2009 #9

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    Hi Damir,
    Why just "when we open our eyes"? That statement seems to ignore other sensory modalities, mental states, and bodily sensations.
    Do you have a reference for this? It sounds like you are talking about Sperling's experiments with "iconic memory" (visual sensory memory) here. I understand this to be just a very brief time during which the retinotopic image can be accessed as the receptor activity fades out. Are you just saying there's a lot of "stuff" that briefly enters the sensory store that doesn't make it across the attention filter that should count as a type of conscious experience? I don't know if the "stuff" that is not selected by attention that lingers in the sensory store should qualify.
    This sounds like Julian Jaynes' theories. Is that where this comes from?
    Sounds plausible, but I would think there is more advantage than just keeping us from ticking other people off. Suppression of impulse could be helpful in other non-social risk/reward situations.
    As far as "fully developed consciousness", are you talking about the development of "theory of mind" in children (the understanding that others possess their own beliefs, desires, and intentions)? Or do you mean something beyond that?
    Nanotubes? Where did you find that? I googled. No luck.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2009
  11. Jan 4, 2009 #10
    Dear Math,

    I’m using “open eyes” as metaphor for all of our senses. However, our modern visual experiences do have prevalence over other senses; especially in western cultures.

    For half a second delay of our consciousness see Benjamin Libet’s book “Mind Time”. You can also find many other references if you Google his name. (I did not contribute to article on him in Wikipedia and am saddened to learn that he passed away.)

    There are now several teams of philologists, anthropologists and psychologists working together on Julian Jaynes' theory. Unfortunately, records from periods when consciousness was diminished are scarce, but there are few stories of travellers and priests from dark ages that are encouraging. Stories describe behaviour of people without any signs of suppressing urges. The theory is far from being conclusive, but nobody offered alternative that would explain changes in behaviour better.

    One of indicators of consciousness as others would see us is - use of mirror. It has entirely social dimension and sets veto criteria for antisocial urges. I agree, however, that modern consciousness can have other uses that are not related to social situation. But these are not sufficient for emergence of modern consciousness. Would be interesting, though, to consider a kind of evolution of consciousness...

    [edit: personal theory]

    As for Penrose’s nanotubes, I found the first report in Tor Nørretranders’ “The User Illusion” (1998). Since then, I found many other comments. I have clashed with him (and his friends) directly with a comment on his article on consciousness in New Scientists in 2007. My online comment re implied nanotubes in the article received a reply that was later withdrawn from online archives. Editors may have also come to a conclusion that such articles do not enhance the image of the magazine and that (psychological) consciousness is better left to psychologists and neurologists.

    Kind regards,
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 4, 2009
  12. Jan 5, 2009 #11
    I think beliefs can be unreliable, but so too can our evolved instincts.
    In fact, beliefs are not just unreliable but also easily changeable.
    Instincts take longer to change.
    Beliefs are more adaptive than genetic programming. So having them is an advantage over being a complete automaton. You might better think of beliefs as short term instincts.

    Intelligence and consciousness allows us to be more adaptable, and adaptation is the engine of evolution.

    I'm not sure why you think instinct is easier to change than belief. Our hardwired instincts get us into trouble all the time.

    Think in terms of computers, which is more flexible a ROM chip (instinct) or software loaded into RAM (beliefs)? We evolved beliefs because they allow us to correct errors related to old programming and new situations.

    As to 'improving things', I tend to see quite the opposite in human society. The rare exceptions are the people who try and improve things, most people spend most of their time conforming and fitting into the group. The improvement mentality is really more a function of modernism. Before the renaissance the cultural norm was: the older something is, the more value it has. Its only recently that 'new' has been associated with 'good'. I'd say our beliefs are evolving.
  13. Jan 23, 2009 #12
    Dear all,

    If you wondered why I did not participate lately – I was excommunicated (banned) by Ivan Seeking for “misinformation”. Unfortunately, when the punishment expired I did not find any message that would explain what I “misinformed” about. I have to guess therefore from my last two posts:

    1. Was it regarding evolution and epigenetics? Then Seed Magazine “misinforms” as well: http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2009/01/extending_darwinism.php [Broken] . (Printed version is more elaborate.) MIT might also be trying to swindle $15M using this lie: http://www.broad.mit.edu/news/press-releases/1104 .
    2. Julian Jaynes' theory does not seem a likely candidate. The reason is simple. There is almost consensus between psychologists that at least social aspect of our consciousness appeared and disappeared through history.
    3. Reference to Penrose’s nanotubes is the most unlikely candidate and I cannot imagine anybody to declare it to be “misinformation” (lie). It is true that in his book “The Large, the Small and the Human Mind” he is using term microtubules, but since then even smaller tubes have been found and Penrose and company repeated their claims about backward in time causation, information transfer.

    As you can see, I’m still puzzled. What I did lie about?

    Is it possible that “misinformation” judgement was simply a reaction to me daring to question his holiness Penrose?

    To address this doubt, we better look at Penrose’s theory and how much it holds water. In chapter three, Physics and the Mind, he and his co-authors express disbelief about half a second delay of our consciousness. (The disbelief is strongly expressed at page 135 of my paperback copy.) For them, there must be a way for our conscious decisions to go half a second back in time to compensate for Libet’s confirmed findings. And they offered non-locality and back in time causality as an answer.

    The proposal is quite interesting and imaginative. However, it is impossible to test in any currently available way. Moreover, it does not take into account other findings. One of them I explained in a footnote in my soon to be published book:

    “Roger Penrose, for example, proposed nanotubes or microtubules to pass information from our consciousness half a second back in time to compensate for Libet’s experimentally proven delay. (See his book “The Large, The Small and The Human Mind”. Co-authors were Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright and Stephen Hawking.) You can test their conjecture with a simple, homemade experiment. Take a long stick and ask a friend to hold it vertically and drop it. You can try to catch it first as fast as possible. In average, you’ll catch it in 0.2 seconds. Now try to slow your reactions down. If backward in time suggestion is valid, you should be able to achieve 0.3, 0.4 or 0.5 second reactions. And yet, you will experience reaction times suddenly all above 0.5 seconds. If you were able to catch the stick near the bottom, suddenly you’ll be catching it near the top. This experiment has been conducted and replicated with consistent results before Dr. Libet finalised his research on timing of our consciousness.” (Feel free to try this experiment on your own.)

    I’m not sure that these big names still back their theory, but at least Penrose implied it again in New Scientist two years ago. I also did not hear about any of them publicly withdrawing the proposal.

    Simply speaking, they mislead many young enthusiasts and in the light of facts experiments like this present - they should correct themselves publicly. Anything else is disservice to science.

    I hope that a future plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner (all in one person here) will not jump to a conclusion too quickly. I also hope that moderators will discuss this between themselves and try to be moderators in real sense of the word.

    Kind regards,
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  14. Jan 23, 2009 #13


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    Surely consciousness is the ultimate form of adaptability. Consciousness allows abstraction, abstraction allows tactical planning.
    Nature rewards adaptability when in changing environments. Adaptability can also directly lead to out-competing challenging species and to geographical spread (more environments that are liveable).
  15. Jan 23, 2009 #14
    Dear Dave,

    When we talk about consciousness I would suggest that there are different aspects of it, and not all of the aspects were necessarily present when Homo sapiens emerged. The social aspect (modern form of consciousness) very likely emerged quite late together with early civilisations.

    Earlier forms of consciousness were likely based upon empathy, recognition and cognition. (I make distinction between the last two.)

    The fact is that we just sat in groups along the eastern coast of what is now South Africa. Group as social organisation (like groups of today’s primates) indicates empathy as major social bond. Just sitting around indicates that we were not much used to unfamiliar territories - where we would be required to cognise rather than recognise. (Not much abstraction here.)

    When we finally moved (early migrations), we started to develop cognitive skills. The speed of our cognition was critical for survival during early migrations. Speeding up cognition also sped up recognition. Our lingual expressions also became simpler and faster allowing for groups to grow into tribes. (Much higher levels of abstractions here. In essence, higher levels of abstraction allow for faster cognition and recognition.)

    But only when we stopped and formed societies of cooperative cultures (not yet civilisation, but close) there was an emphasised need to see ourselves as others would see us (modern consciousness or civility). (High levels of abstractions are here very much related to abstractions of symbols, believes etc. shared by different cooperating cultures.)

    I think that we need to talk about these aspects rather than our modern form of consciousness when we talk about tactical planning, for example. Shall we say that squirrel tactically plans for winter with its food storages, for example?

    Kind regards,
  16. Jan 23, 2009 #15
    Sorry Ivan Seeking. It was Math Is Hard who excommunicated me, but your's reaction was also questionable.

    The circle of plaintiffs, judges, jury and executioners (all in one person) is widening. Although denied a right to defend myself, I ask for public explanations.

    The situation is quite similar to that Galileo was in when facing Inquisition (defenders of faith nowadays). (They did manage to silence him though - but was this scientific?)

    Kind regards,
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  17. Jan 23, 2009 #16

    Math Is Hard

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    Yes, it was me. And the reasons were explained in a PM. Making up your own terminology for cognitive neuroscience concepts that are already defined ("psychological consciousness" for iconic memory) is unacceptable. It just confuses people. So is asserting personal speculation without any substantial references (which I removed).

    Since you insist: the points you earned for the last infraction were added to existing infractions and the total pushed you over the 8 point limit. This resulted in a 10 day suspension.

    Good job. That earns you a +40 on the crackpot index.
  18. Jan 23, 2009 #17


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    No, a squirrel does not tactically plan. Which kind of makes my point.

    Consciousness, in my personal interpretation, is the recognition of oneself as an entity separate from the world around you.

    One of the most intriguing experiments I've heard of (sorry, no citation) is one where they demonstrated that dolphins and chimps were able to recognize in a mirror - not just another animal of their kind - but were able to recognize that that animal is me. Dogs and other species, while recognizing another animal of their kind, did not have this sense of "me".

    I would say that this is a functional litmus test of consciousness.
  19. Jan 24, 2009 #18
    I'm completely ignorant wrt the literature on consciousness.

    What sorts of behaviors indicate that a dolphin or chimp recognizes that its mirror image is an image of itself, and that a dog doesn't recognize that its mirror image is an image of itself?

    I think of my dog as having a sense of "itself". If it acts indifferent to its mirror image, then might there be some explanation for this behavior other than that it doesn't have a sense "itself" that is like my sense of "me"?

    The idea of some sort of hierarchy of consciousness seems reasonable to me -- with the behavior of all organisms displaying consciousness in greater or lesser degrees.
  20. Jan 24, 2009 #19


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    Hi Dave,
    Recognizing oneself as an entity separate from the world around you is just one of the phenomena of conscious experience. Consciousness can be broken down into various experiences, only one of which is that of having a sense of self. Other phenomena include for example, the experience of qualia or the ability to create meaning from symbols such as audible or written language.

    Regarding any ‘functional litmus test’ for conscious phenomena, I don’t think there is one that doesn't have some built in, unprovable assumptions. The test you’re referring to is a behavioral test (ie: a Turing test). It is a test that looks for a behavior that indicates a behavior similar to our own. But a computer animated graphic can easily be made to act as if it has a sense of self, or can be made to report it sees a given color or experiences pain. So in order for anyone to accept that dolphins and chimps have a sense of self when looking in a mirror, we have to also make the assumption that they are biologically similar enough to ourselves (made of neurons, DNA, etc…) such that the behavior expressed is indicative of a real self awareness and not just the self awareness expressed by something that only behaves as if it is aware.

    I don't disagree that the tests you're refering to (which are well publisized) truly indicate that dolphins and chimps have a sense of self awareness, and I don't disagree they are also conscious. It just needs to be clear when talking about the phenomena of consciousness, that there are multiple phenomenon and that we have only very rudimentary tests to determine the possibility that consciousness may exist in a given organism.
  21. Jan 24, 2009 #20


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    In a nutshell:
    - in a group of animals, some were dabbed with paint on their forehead (so that they could only see it in a mirror)
    - so subjects in the group would see some of their brethren with dots and some without
    - when the subjects saw dots on their reflections, they tried to rub them off
    - if they didn't see dots on their reflections, they didn't try to rub them off

    The implication here is that a test subject could tell that that image of a chimp/dolphin is not just any chimp/dolphin, that is me. I have a dab of paint on my forehead.
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