Evolution question (consciousness)

As far as I understand, only humans are self-aware and have consciousness. Although it seems that there are no external tests to check if a particular being has consciousness (or none have been suggested so far), I don’t think that the most simple organism (e.g bacteria) have consciousness. That leads me to believe that consciousness appeared in us through evolution.

But! The problem with consciousness, is that as far as I understand, a being either has it, or hasn’t. There are no states in-between (correct me if I’m wrong). I also suppose that consciousness is not a simple feature, that could just randomly appear in an organism through mutation of genes. So… how exactly did evolution come up with consciousness?

It’s really the only question that stops me from disregarding some sort of a creationism theory completely.

Humans may not be the only creatures with self awareness.
Here is a link about elephants.

I don’t think it’s an either-or question, an entity could have a degree of conciousness. For example, does a dreaming person have conciousness? What about someone at the very instant of waking up? Or a baby, what degree of conciousness do they have?

I don’t find it difficult to imagine a species which has a degree of self-awareness, while not having it developed to the same degree as humankind. A chimpanzee might even fall into this category.

First you need to define what exactly you mean by conciousness.

Research indicates that both apes and dolphins are self-aware.

Is a two-year-old child “concious”? Apes are at least as self-aware as that.

Well, human development would argue against the notion that you’re either conscious or you aren’t. At one point a human being is a single fertillized egg cell, which grows into an embryo, then a fetus, then a newborn baby, then a toddler, then a child, then an adult.

At what point does conciousness turn on? It doesn’t happen in one blinding flash of illumination, does it?

It’s pretty clear that chimpanzees and other apes have consciousness in the sense that they recognize themselves in the mirror. A human baby can’t do that.

Consciousness isn’t magic, it’s just an ability to recongnize the self. Social animals need to understand the behavior of other social animals so they can navigate the social heirarchy. And to more completely understand those other social animals you have to understand yourself, since those other social animals have the same equipment you do. If your pack-mates are trying to figure out your behavior, in order to figure out their behavior you have to figure out what they think your behavior is going to be. And that’s consciousness.

It’s not clear if this is the case or not. For example, it’s hard to spend a lot of time around dogs without coming to the conclusion that they have a limited form of self-awareness. I’ve seen dogs act embarrassed – which seems to suggest that they have some limited ability to “step outside themselves” and consider their actions in the abstract.

Here’s my personal theory of how consciousness evolved:

The primary function of the brain in any organism is to predict the future. Sensory data is collected and used to construct an evolving model of the organism’s environment. This model is used to predict future events and allow the organism’s behavior to anticipate them. For a very simple creature this prediction may be nothing more than calculating the trajectory of a prey animal so it can be intercepted and eaten. More complicated predictions may involve very detailed and robust environmental simulations that take into acount wind, weather, time of day, and even the psychological state of the prey.

For social animals like dogs and humans there’s a huge survival advantage in being able to predict the behaviors of other members of your pack or tribe. Not only does it make organized hunting more efficient, but it allows you to “game” the behaviors of your comrades, allowing yourself access to more food and more reproductive opportunities. But if you’re going to simulate the psychological dynamics of your pack, you need to factor your own psychology into the mix. Your brain needs to simulate a crude version of itself in order to predict how other humans around you will behave.

That’s consciousness. We live inside the simulation our brains create from our senses and we’re self-aware because that simulation includes a model of our own mental processes.

What is it exactly, bstenger, that you consider consciousness? By which I mean to ask not for a definition, as such, but… what is it about me (or any other human) that causes you to say that I am conscious?

Is it my use of language? That my actions reflect inner emotional states? That I recognize myself in a mirror? That I resemble you in various ways, in my looks and actions, which allow you to say “Hey, just as I can feel my own mind pumping along, it seems natural to assume this guy has a mind doing the same thing”?

If you were to be more specific, it may help clear up the discussion. It may also illustrate that consciousness, whatever it is you consider to be its signifiers, isn’t as binary as you suppose, for all the various reasons people have mentioned.

You must not have any pets. All of the behavior I observe of my cats is consistent with being very self aware. I would even say that at 7:00 in the morning one of my cats is quite selfish.

ETA - This doesn’t sound like an evolution question.

It’s hard to define “consciousness”, really. It’s the difference between a computer that it as intelligent as a human is, and a human. Basically, in my opinion, a non-conscious mind doesn’t get a choice; it works like a programme; while a conscious mind does have a choice, and can make certain decisions just because “it” wants to. E.g. now I can raise a hand, but there’s no logic or reason behind that. I’ve just decided to.

Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s really damn hard to define it. If anyone knows any good resources where I could read about it, I’d appreciate that.

Surely, you’re not saying that (non-human) animals are automatons in a way which humans aren’t, are you?

Sure, I can raise my hand whenever I want to, for no particularly concrete reason at all. I’ve never seen anything which suggests that, say, a dog isn’t the same way.

And if you can perform that trick in some objective fashion, you’ll be getting an early morning phone call from some guys in Sweden about attending a banquet and taking some money off their hands.

Consciousness is an extremely, almost intractibly difficult process, and despite the o.p.'s statement that “There are no states in-between (correct me if I’m wrong),” in fact we have every reason that there is a vast spectrum of states inbetween sapience and insensibility. Indeed, your own experience is one of consciousness on various levels, from a morning post-coffee hyperalertness to mid-afternoon somnambulism to deep REM sleep at night, and yet it remains a constant or repeatable enough process that you only rarely experience a severe discontinuity.

It’s also not appropriate to attribute consciousness only to humans; certainly, other members of genus Homo experienced significant degrees of consciousness, as does arguably the Great Apes; they certainly display other characteristics of awareness and cognition, including remorse, guilt, fear, enjoyment, pranksterism, et cetera, and to a lesser degree we can say this of many other domestic and wild species like dogs, equines, cetaceans, which enjoy social relations with humans. It also seems very likely, based upon behavior, that other non-social species like octopus or ursines also enjoys a significant degree of congitive capability and no small amount of self-awareness. The notion that only humans think and feel is one emergent of prejudice about our station in life, and is not bourne out in detail studies of other animals.

While the title is misleading, Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is about the best take on consciousness from an evolutionary philosophy point of view. If you want to get more into the technical neurological detail of the brain and the processes of consciousness, I recomment Ian Glynn’s An Anatomy of Thought. (Warning, this is pretty technical, despite being a nominally pop-science book, and you’ll need a basis knowledge in biochemistry and neurology to make good headway through many sections of the book.)

Be prepared to be disappointed, however, in obtaining an authoritative answer; as Nobel laureate Eric Kandel notes in his autobiography, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (also a very good read, and he gets into some of the details about the simple functions that form the basis of memory, which is his area of research), cognition and consciousness are overarching processes that are just too complex to study as a gestalt at this time; we need to understand the fundamental processes of the brain and how they segue together to build larger, more expansive and abstract functions which eventually feed into what we think of as consciousness. It’s not that it’s impossible to understand, merely that we’re as yet too ignorant right now in what we know.

Now, someone (I won’t name any names) is likely to come along and do some kind of handwaving to assert that because we don’t know how it works that it must be some kind of obscure, supernatural, non-biological process that gives rise to sapience, which is a textbook case of argumentum ad ignorantiam. It’s true that we can’t replicate or comprohensively model the processes and so can’t ruled out some kind of ascientific explanation on an experimental a posteriori basis, but as our knowledge of neurology has increased, especially in the last twenty five years, it’s been very clear that many of the things about the nature of mind that seemed formerly inexplicable, like permanent memory, are the result of observable and purely biological mechanisms that don’t require any hazy obtusity about mind/brain duality, nor do they support any hand-waving relationships between consciousness and quantum mechanics. (The only established comparison between the two topics is our vast ignorance of the underlying causes of both.)

Consciousness/sapience/sentinence, however you care to define it, isn’t a single mutant gene that gets turned on or off, but a vast array of orgnaized processes that are seen in greater or lesser degrees in any organism with a large central nervous system, and seems to be an inescapable result (and likely an adaptive benefit) of increasing complexity. We could go on for pages of this thread on the benefits of consciousness, but most are obvious and a reading of the above references plus the many other trestiese on the topic will develop this in a far more regular and organized manner.


I agree that we do not know how it works. Any proof that something is anything other than scientific would be extraordinary. The last issue of C&E News has several very good articles on memory. Consciousnous without memory is an interesting concept, but I tend to beleive the two are inherently connected. The irony is, that it seems they have more difficulty with understanding forgetting.

It is possible to be ‘less conscious’ and still be partly functional in that semi-conscious state - we do it when we’re drunk, drugged, very tired, sick, anaesthetised or suffering permanent or temporary injury to the brain, for example. - given then that consciousness isn’t an all-or-nothing property in modern, living humans, I think that indicates that:

-There’s no reason why the property of consciousness had to arise all at once in humans

-There’s no reason why animals couldn’t also be conscious, to some lesser degree than (most) humans

I also found Consciousness Explained to be a great read and pretty enlightening.

There’s the mirror test.