Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It?

By Malcolm MacIver | March 14, 2011 6:58 pm

Update 5/24/11: The conversation continues in Part II here.

I recently gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America as part of a panel on the “Science of Cyborgs” sponsored by the Science Entertainment Exchange. It was a fun time, and our moderators, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from the HowStuffWorks podcast, emceed the evening with just the right measure of humor and cultural insight. In my twelve minutes, I shared a theory of how consciousness evolved. My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness, maybe this will help us envision new ways our consciousness might evolve further in the future. That could be fun in terms of dreaming up new stories. I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.

This idea is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve not yet been able to find it already in circulation.

The idea is this: back in our watery days as fish, we lived in a medium that was inherently unfriendly to seeing things very far away. The technical way this is measured is the “attenuation length’’ of light through the medium. After light travels the attenuation length through a medium, about 63% of the light is blocked. The attenuation length of light in water is on the order of tens of meters. For a beast of a meter or two in length, which moves at a rate of about a body length or two per second, that’s a pretty short horizon of time and space. In just a few seconds, you’ll reach the edge of where you were able to see. If you’re down in the depths at all, or in less clear water, you may reach the edge of your perceptual horizon in about a second.

Think about that: life is coming at you at such a rate that every second unfolds a whole new tableau of potentially deadly threats, or prey you must grab in order to survive. Given such a scenario, we need to have highly reactive nervous systems, just like we revert to when we find ourselves driving in a fog or at night along a dark and winding road. The problem is that there was no respite from this fog. It was an unalterable fact of how light moves through water, relative to our own movement abilities and size.

But then, about 350 million years ago in the Devonian Period, animals like Tiktaalik started making their first tentative forays onto land. From a perceptual point of view, it was a whole new world. You can see things, roughly speaking, 10,000 times better. So, just by the simple act of poking their eyes out of the water, our ancestors went from the mala vista of a fog to a buena vista of a clear day, where they could survey things out for quite a considerable distance.

This puts the first such members of the “buena vista sensing club” into a very interesting position, from an evolutionary perspective. Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer. Here’s an illustration of the two scenarios:

On the left, we have the situation when the distance we sense is close to the distance we will move in our reaction time (our reaction time is about 1/3 of a second; from that point to when we will stop is a bit longer– like those diagrams you see of stopping distance when driving at night show). There isn’t a whole lot of space to plan over. On the right, we can fit three very different plans to get to our prey: b1-b3, among others.

So what does this have to do with consciousness?

In 1992, psychologist Bruce Bridgeman wrote that “Consciousness is the operation of the plan-executing mechanism, enabling behavior to be driven by plans rather than immediate environmental contingencies.” No theory of consciousness is likely to account for all of its varied senses, but at least in terms of consciousness-as-operation-of-the-plan-executing-mechanism, due to some very simple “facts of light,” dwelling on land may have been a necessary condition for giving us the ability to survey the contents of our mind. “Buena vista consciousness,” for lack of a better term, might have been the first kind of consciousness that selection pressures could have brought about.

Given this picture of how a certain kind of consciousness came about, what are the knobs we might twiddle, either for the love of story making, or so that our transhumanist future selves might be conscious in a different way?

Let me borrow a moral quandary from philosopher James Rachels. Maybe you’re eating a sandwich right now. There is a child, far away, who is not, and who is about to die for lack of food. Surely, if that child were beside you, you would share your sandwich. But, then, what’s keeping you from sharing that sandwich anyway? The shipping costs? That’s easily avoided – we find someone on the ground who can buy the sandwich locally. If you think through the various possibilities, the only answer you eventually come to is that the starving child is too far removed from your state of awareness to really matter to you. Likewise with any number of a host of environmental devastations that are going on at this moment.

So, what if we massively expanded the blue space in the picture above, our sensorium? I don’t mean watch video of distant places (which surely is part of the way), but use artificial retina technology to directly pipe visual images from a disconnected place directly into your brain? Say, of the rain forest that is currently being destroyed so that an industrial meat producer in Peru can provide fast food chains in our country with low cost beef? This would be disruptive technology on a big scale.

Here’s another thought experiment: Notice that there is only one being in the pictures above. Consciousness does seem to be for one being at a time. What if we reengineer things so that we see what others in our group see, or so that when you do something good, the entire group feels good, rather than just you? This kind of consciousness has been explored in science fiction (The Borg on TV),  and in art (Mathieu Brand’s Ubiq). We even know mechanisms of how something like the hive mind of bees work, such as regulation of the division of labor through various genes and hormones. Could something like this be the antidote to the endemic selfishness of Homo sapiens?

More details on the idea of buena vista consciousness can be found on pages 492-499 of this chapter I wrote in 2009.

UPDATE: A more technical paper describing how to quantify sensory and movement spaces is here.


Comments (42)

  1. Peter Ellis

    OK, that’s one sense. What’s the perceptual boundary for hearing underwater? Or electrosensing?

  2. Charles Schmidt

    We do things for the good of our group at our expense like a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit and others as well. But you are saying that we extend our group to encompass the world yet, doing a good thing for one person or group of people may be at the expense of other and at a greater cost than the good done. The idea is good but are we as a species ready and able to make the right choice without causing more problems then we solve? I don’t think so.

  3. If you’ve ever fished for wild brook trout, you know that they can hear your footfalls quite aways away. Same as in a canoe if you accidentally hit your paddle against the gunwale or drop something in the bottom. Sound for a fish is a much more useful sense than the visual light spectrum. Humans’ sense of hearing and smell are greatly atrophied in favor of visual acuity. Also, fish have lateral lines that are very sensitive to changes in water pressure against their skin. We have no analog for that.

  4. Also, surface feeding fish like trout have obviously adapted some very clever ways to get around the refraction which occurs at the water/air interface, which allows them, among other things, to estimate the trajectory of a mayfly or other insect flying above the water and figure where and when to jump to catch the fly in mid air. Author Vincent Marinaro of Pennsylvania did a good book on this in the 1970s called “The Trout’s Window.”

  5. Scott

    My concern is: what impact on one’s individuality? Besides our need for social bonds, we also hold a lot of value in uniqueness, freedom, independence. As a plugged-in borg-like consciousness, I agree we’d have greater concern for the big picture; but what would be the cost? Is mob-mentality a good thing? Not usually. Sharing a bed with a complete stranger is reprehensible to most…how about a mind? A rapid evolution in the idea of “self” is required, I think, for this to happen. Perhaps it’s already happening with the internet, social networks, and our increasing loss of privacy. At present, we have tools like satellites to increase our environmental awareness while retaining our individuality. Maybe that’s as far as we should go for now…

  6. This doesn’t take into account other senses. Humans are very sight-centric, however other creatures make equally efficient use of other senses which are not impaired under water. If consciousness were not as useful underwater, we should see evolutionary loss of intelligence in creatures such as cetaceans, but that is not the case.

  7. Malcolm MacIver

    @Van Waffle – it’s not just humans that are sight-centric. I’m a big fan of other sensory modalities (and spend a lot of time on one we don’t even have – electrosense). But, in terms of range for detailed imaging, there is nothing that beats vision. Underwater sonar is impressive — and it’s pretty interesting that we only find that in animals that first got used to having giant sensoriums on land first (mammals that returned to the sea, such as cetaceans). Odontocetes have sonar ranges on the order of 150 meters for prey-like objects, way better than vision can do in water.

    @Peter & @Douglas – the perceptual boundary for hearing is vast. But our ability to resolve the location of a sound goes down strongly with distance. So it can generate homing behavior, which is different from detailed sensory inputs that enable planning multiple paths to a goal. Electrosense is really poor – in fact, it was studying electrosense that brought me to this idea (this is spelled out in the chapter I link to at the end of the post). Lateral line is as poor as electrosense – their governing equations are not that different (a paper I co-authored on that: http://is.gd/JeKdXE).

    @Scott – these are really good questions. If you value individuality, anything Borg-like will be abhorrent. Some balance is needed. But the problems we face may require more group cohesion to come to the consensus we need than individuality may afford.

  8. Skrim

    Very interesting article.

    The cetaceans have an immense advantage over fish which never left the water through their sonar vision. They can not only see much farther, but also communicate and coordinate at ranges far outside the ken of fish, even sharks with their strong sense of smell. It’s no wonder that they have far greater sensoriums, larger more powerful brains and dramatically more complex social and adaptive behaviors – upon returning to water it seems, instead of devolving those powerful mammalian traits they were lucky enough to evolve the sensory ability needed to maintain them.
    Octopi are pretty well renowned for being smart but they can’t match the cetaceans – even if their neural structure permitted such adaptations, they simply lack the sensory capacity to promote the evolution of foresight. So they just have powerful reactionary brains instead.

    @ Scott,
    I would see the military taking strongly to sense-sharing technology – they would prefer units to act with a collective mind whenever possible rather than as individuals.
    And besides – I wouldn’t see it as “sharing a mind” so much as sharing senses – what they see, you see, what they smell, you smell, etc. What they’re thinking about it – the actual mind part of the business – you don’t necessarily have to think. You still use your own individual mind to perceive things. I say that brings us closer to our evolutionary origins – as small close-knit tribes where everyone knew what everyone else was doing – the environment that caused us to evolve our empathy in the first place.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Yes, an interesting article. But I have some problems.

    First, I can’t believe this is new. I would have to look for a lot of history I guess, but the idea of fishes being near-sighted and having short memory span remind of novella descriptions. You know, of the kind of “fish in bowl, bumping the glass”.

    (Note that AFAIU both these assumptions are erroneous in cases, surface preying fish have excellent vision (and planning) such as the kinds that shoot down prey insects by spitting water, and memory in fish can be good IIRC articles on experiments.)

    It is my task to track this down I guess, but I have that as an outstanding point for the time being.

    Second, what about octopuses? They can plan, play and so on very well, especially for animals that only live 2-3 years.

    At a guess (well, my guess) the visual horizon can decide the likelihood of occurrences of functional advantage of planning et cetera, but not specific cases.

  10. Malcolm MacIver

    @Skrim – yes, I really do wonder if there is something to the theory that sonar is the only way that odontocetes could get a piece of the giant sensoria they’d gotten used to having on land. Interestingly, the rise in the upper frequency that mammals could hear is thought to be due to some big selection pressures around the detection of prey. The idea is that the species leading to the mammals increased their frequency of hearing to enable the detection of insects and other small prey at night, because dinosaurs ruled the day. It is also thought by some as a way to avoid detection during communication. More details here http://is.gd/2vSLiR. Without these high frequency adaptations in the ear, using sound as an imaging system (at least five times higher in frequency than we can hear) could never have come about.

    @Torbjorn – good points. Archerfish are remarkable animals. My colleague Stefan Schuster has studied their behavior in great detail (http://is.gd/cDTNQl). Octopuses are as well. It’s incredible what being an unprotected blob of delicious protein will get you after eons of severe predation stress. They, by the way, have the largest eyes known (basketball size in the biggest deep sea species). Apparently, they use these to detect the very distant silhouettes of whales, their biggest threats, against the light of the surface.

    The theory is committed to the idea that the advantage of planning will be proportional to the margin of where you sense relative to where you move in your reaction time. It then identifies one period in our evolutionary past when there was a massive change in this relationship, and suggests this might have been key to the development of this capacity. It’s interesting that octopuses and archerfish tend to be still before executing their actions. This maximally leverages their relatively small sensoria. There may be other ways, in other words, for animals trapped in the fog of water to get a big enough sensorium relative to where they are moving to help with planning.

  11. So all fish and sea animals are not conscious? Both dolphins and sharks have been shown to plan group attacks on fish, which by definition requires some level of planning ahead. As was mentioned by another poster, sight is only one sense, smell, and electrosensing are others that can be used to sense at long distances.
    I do get the wider point you are making though, I just don’t see the need to dismiss the entire ocean population as not being self aware because of the limited vision under the water.

  12. Colin

    Use of sonar would go a long ways toward explaining dolphin’s relative intelligence, while compatible with this theory.

    I like the theory…there are major stepping stones of evolution that essentially provided the nervous system more time think, or at the very least made it less essential for the nervous system to be constantly reacting to external stimuli (leaving the ocean, standing on two legs, building safer homes, agriculture vs. hunting/gathering)

    I would think deeper holes in this theory, as opposed to dolphins, would be:

    1. Why were large dinosaurs supposedly not as intelligent (benefitted from relative lack of predators, potential for seeing a vast horizon..though maybe they never had the eyesight, or b/c they were so advantaged by their size, there wasn’t a need for intelligence to be naturally selected).

    2. Why aren’t birds of prey more intelligent (again, relative lack of predators, awesome eyesight, but no intelligence relative to mammals…though again, you could resort to the argument that flying + nests did such a good job at delivering competitive advantages, natural selection never had the chance to operate on intelligence factors as they were of little relative importance).

  13. “My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness”

    We can’t even define consciousness, so there’s not much way to develop a theory of that emerging. At most, this article is a few idea about how one aspect of the functioning of our neural network might have developed.

    “If you think through the various possibilities, the only answer you eventually come to is that the starving child is too far removed from your state of awareness to really matter to you.”

    And yet, millions of people are donating regular amounts of income every month to Save the Children and other charities to do exactly what you describe: have someone closer buy a sandwich for a starving child. So, there are other answers we come to. In humans, and other species, there is a group level of awareness and action. In fact, it can be argued that this quality of mutual awareness and communication leading to action as a group is the basis of consciousness and what leads to individual self-awareness. And you don’t have to go to science-fiction to study that phenomenon, or even to higher primates. In fact, you can observe it in fish as well as all manner of land animals.

    “Consciousness does seem to be for one being at a time.”

    This whole article is like cocktail party conversation, I can’t imagine why Discover decided to put it here.

  14. Malcolm MacIver

    @Duncan – aquatic animals with sonar – mammals that were once on land and have returned to the ocean – have large sensory ranges because sound in water is like light in air. You can do imaging with sonar, which is in general very difficult because acoustic wavelengths are such that to get decent resolution you have to have sound at much higher frequencies than most animals can either hear or generate. So – I’d certainly embrace planning in dolphins and whales. Regarding other sensory modalities: active electrosense has terrible range. It’s not hard to show that extension of range beyond about half a body length for prey-sized objects would require eating more than the total daily energy budget (see 3rd paragraph of the Discussion section at the end of my http://is.gd/B3oYpn). Passive electrosense can work out to about a meter for most objects. Smell and passive hearing have large ranges, but again, as I mentioned to @Peter and @Douglas above, this gets you homing behaviors (think of the old game of “you’re getting hotter, you’re getting colder”) but not the detail to support planning.

    @Colin – birds are much more intelligent, particularly the corvids, then we’d thought. It looks like they do planning. Whether birds of prey can as well is not yet studied. The spaces they work through offer fewer choices compared to terrestrial ones, due to the lack of obstacles in the air (mere range alone is not enough – you could be driven reactively to attack a distant object if there was no selective advantage in choosing between different routes to the target). I don’t know enough about dinosaurs to comment on your other point.

    @maggie – of course we can define consciousness. Many people do and there are many arguments as to which definition, if any, is valid. It’s an active area of both scientific and philosophical work. I was careful to define the sense I was using since there are a lot of definitions around, just as there has been and continues to be for many phenomena folks work on, like autism. Your point about Save the Children misses the point entirely, which is that if we were more acutely aware, we’d have to be moral monsters to not share the sandwich we eat on a daily basis. That millions do via charities does not satisfy the argument – you’d have to show me that everyone but admitted moral monsters are contributing, which is manifestly not the case. Awareness via images and words helps, but it isn’t as forceful as awareness in its bodily original sense. Finally, I wish I went to the kind of cocktail parties you go to!

  15. William Santiago

    MaggieLee is exactly right. This article isn’t about science, it’s about a political agenda for a politically correct cocktail party. If we know anything about consciousness, we know that awareness includes a broad spectrum of things we are aware of, from self-awareness of individual mortality to the far reaches of empathy/psychopathy, social and political awareness and so forth. Further, this idea doesn’t explain enough: a termite or a scorpion might ‘survey’ several possible courses of action. But ability to plan doesn’t mean the termite or scorpion has consciousness, as we normally use the term.

    The very most this suggestion provides is a basis for the insertion of a moment of hesitation between stimulus and reaction. As others have pointed out, the vibration-sensitivity of sea-going creatures also long-distance perception–long enough to allow for the insertion of that moment of hesitation for reviewing possibilities. The author’s reply that sight is far more sensitive than these other modes of sensation is simply false. Recent work has shown that at least some fish are sensitive to the lowest chemically possible level of chemical concentration for certain compounds important to their survival–very long-distance indicators of an approaching threat or opportunity.

  16. If a creature has eyes or other sensory organs and a brain, even if it is a fish there must be en entity that feel ‘I am’ A computer can have sensors, it can process information based on its sensors and make decisions, however it is hard to conceive that this machine has consciousness and is aware of what it is and what it does and why. Both ‘creatures’ have sensors and capacity to process information, yet only the first has the “I am’ quality. Why a ‘zombie fish’ or human could not function with sensors and processors yet not be aware to exist? What differentiates a biological creature with sensors and processors from a machine that has sensors and processors? Either both have consciousness, or neither or only the biological entity has consciousness. Why and how? The theory that consciousness evolved because creatures went from water environment to ground environment does not stand a rigorous logical analysis.

    A nice future ‘toy’ that would be great to have if it could be built: a consciousness simulator. A machine that allows one creature to experience being another creature. A human could explore how it feels to be a fish. the human consciousness in this machine would process what the fish feels and how its brain processes the information and a fish could experience what it feels being a human and have vast brainpower.

  17. K

    “Surely, if that child were beside you, you would share your sandwich.”

    That really depends! What if I were a child and in the same position (both starving children about to die), would I be expected to share my sandwich still? What if instead of a child, we find an elderly person? I find the use of the word ‘child’ here interesting because we’re all people. If starving children deserve to eat, shouldn’t we all deserve to eat too?

    “If you think through the various possibilities, the only answer you eventually come to is that the starving child is too far removed from your state of awareness to really matter to you.”

    No! Stop trying to take my damn sandwich. Granted, that a person far away from me is much easier to ignore than a person that is near me, but with enough effort it can be done! I’ve seen it before. There was a man last summer with a sign that read, “No Food.” He was standing near an intersection by a fast food place. No body stopped to give him a sandwich.

    Just because something can be seen, it doesn’t mean that it will automatically generate concern. In fact, it might lessen one’s concern. I think that people tend to be more worried about the things that they can’t see readily, than the things they can. There’s a beautiful morning sky above me, but all I’m concerned about to day are deadlines I have to meet. The cars coming from over the hill that I can’t see worry me more than the ones that are parked that I can see. (I had to learn that moving cars are dangerous though. Otherwise either state probably wouldn’t scare me.)

    Life is difficult and complicated. As humans, it might be easy to boast about having “higher consciousness,” but I think it only came about because we were so weak and fragile that we needed to band together.

    If we decide to feed the starving child, we might justify it saving potential. “He or she might grow up to be a doctor some day.” If I were a starving child on the verge of dying, I might give my sandwich up to another child because I’m ready to die and I don’t really want to be a doctor anyway. “I am fed up with being fed and not fed. Finally I can be free of that. Go ahead, you can grow up to be the doctor.”

  18. I found myself enthralled by this article, because it gives such a unique philosophy on human nature that makes complete sense. As a traveler, I can say that once I have seen poverty, I can never take it out of my head. This is because I came face-to-face with it, and the distance was taken away. Great read!

    Teresa Mishler
    Programming Director
    Lifespan Seminar, LLC

  19. Anand

    Very, very nice article, and well thought out rebuttals. I just have one point to make – I don’t think going the Borg way is an answer to our endemic selfishness. I think at some level, all competition (‘selection’) requires selfishness. We can recognize it, and claim that its not really necessary – but do our genes care as long as they keep getting transmitted from generation to generation?

  20. Malcolm MacIver

    @Anand – thanks for the compliments and your idea. My view is that group consciousness is to moral concern what smokestacks are to pollution — it spreads stuff around. If the spread is as wide as the area of concern, then there is never the “tragedy of the commons” situation of one person or entity taking advantage at the expense of the rest. There will still be competition, but it will be group level competition. There’s more that could be said…maybe another post!

    @Teresa – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Re face-to face – I’ve had similar experiences to your own. As much as we try (and sometimes succeed) to extend moral concern through reading and viewing information, nothing can match the transformative power of something entering into your ambient, body-fixed awareness.

  21. Brian Too

    I’m not sure the article’s assertions are fully on-target.

    My father spent some quality time in India 40+ years ago. He was apalled that local poor people would target foreigners for begging, but ignored (and were in turn ignored by) wealthy locals.

    On the home front, how many of us shun or distance ourselves from the homeless?

    Therefore, I’m not sure that merely being aware of and in proximity to poor people, is enough. I’d suggest that some additional factors are needed to make their plight relevant to ourselves:

    – would helping another threaten or disadvantage ourselves?
    – do we feel that our intervention would in fact help?
    – do we believe that, although an individual may be helped, a larger situation exists that will not be significantly changed?
    – do we believe that the needy individual is responsible for, and could correct, their own situation?
    – does the need meet our level of moral sensitivity? I’m reasonably certain there is a threshold of perceived need that is highly variable. Fail to meet that threshold and aid will not be offered.

  22. Malcolm MacIver

    @Brian – other than extreme cases (like the one between a starving child and sandwich eating), the connection between awareness and selection of a course of action is complex. The theory that a larger sensorium may be a precondition to evolving neural circuitry for surveying and weighing different possible futures can’t elaborate this complex relationship. My thought experiments, which were offered as intuition pumps for thinking about the relationship between something being in your awareness and action, are also not an attempt to provide a theory for this relationship. Your points are well taken, though — I can think of many cases where awareness of something is far from enough to do something about it: take smoking, for example. Even after my mother was diagnosed with advanced emphysema and told by doctors that continuing to smoke would hasten her death, it was not enough to stop it. One thing that is fairly clear is that you at least need to be aware of a goal before you can chart a course of action toward the goal.

  23. I’ve seen so many times the person in dire need pushed right up against the privileged, without any sharing spurred. On my subway ride each morning and evening for example, in NYC. It’s not just the distance, it’s also the feeling and expression of generosity which can or must be developed in each of us and in our society. Starvation in particular and need in general is very near to us in the city.

  24. C

    “It’s interesting that octopuses and archerfish tend to be still before executing their actions.” The same can be said for military snipers. Being still has a lot of advantages beyond sensory analysis.

    This article reminds me of one of those sci-fi stories where the aliens are about to destroy earth but they don’t because the human heart’s ability to love is just so awesome. Hey, I guess that’s one way to play to the audience, but it’s self-indulgent to think that other beings are not capable of complex states of mind that equal our own.

    Back to the sandwich, I don’t necessarily think that expanding our consciousness to include all suffering is a good thing. We tend to *feel* the suffering of those we see suffering. That much stress is not a good thing.

    Too much exposure would likely harden us and turn us sociopathic (in terms of a lack of empathy) in the long run. I know I feel like quite a different person after I’ve been in a big city too long.

  25. “but use artificial retina technology to directly pipe visual images from a disconnected place directly into your brain? Say, of the rain forest that is currently being destroyed …”

    Artificial Retina Technology and your theory about enhanced sensory capabilities to evolve consciousness is directly relevant to our ever increasing abilities to now experience imagery/video everywhere instantaneously through the web, mobi phones, ipads, video (YOU TUBE), broadcast and ever more emergent communications technologies….augmented reality, etc. It seems we seek this. Here we are now only one step removed…from direct wiring into the brain. Close. As our visual and sensory capacities increase let us hope that our empathy and compassion evolve as quickly. Ethical actions should follow concurrently.

    Check out FUTURE MIND by Jerome Glenn and the evolution of the TechnoMystic. A must in today’s ever evolving whirled….

  26. Christopher Kandrat

    Very interesting article, sorta mind boggling in an odd way. Changes my philosophy on humans in general.

  27. Phil

    I’ve seen a lot of people comment on the fact that extended senses might not augment our sense of empathy and I agree because of all the examples about the homeless in our own city. I believe, though, that it will augment general intelligence in the way that we will be able to plan things farther into the future. The example with the rain forest being burned down in order to make cheaper meat for our fast food chains is a good one.
    If everybody would instantly be aware of the general world condition all the time, like if we had an Earth observing satellite plugged directly into our brain, we would have noticed a long time ago that the climate is changing, that there is almost no more forests in the world and that there is a floating continent of plastic bottles in the pacific ocean.
    I think that we would see the whole mechanism that brings our litter into the ocean, thus there would be a lot less pollution.

  28. David George

    Malcolm McIver wrote, “I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.”

    #13 Maggie Lee and #15 William Santiago — I agree with you. This and the other blogs on this Discovery website are exactly “cocktail party chatter”. But they seem to attract lots of chatterers, like – uh – fish to bait?

    Take the quote from Malcolm McIver above. Talk about a red herring! As if evolutionary origins of “being aware” have any relevance to some currently inhibited “effective action” against the greed, hunger, scarcity and waste promoted by the global social system politely known as “democratic capitalism”, organized and directed by a global sociopathic power. Maybe an “awareness” debate could be directed toward that awareness-controlling gorilla in the room. But how likely is that — if, for example, Discovery is an arm of the gorilla? And for that matter, who would be in charge of the Artificial Retina Technology? The Church of Bleeding Hearts?

  29. MT-LA

    OOhhh. I get it…fish are democrats and dolphins are republicans? Or do the gorillas with artificial retina technology represent the republicans in this insightful analogy?
    Sorry…it’s hard to keep up with someone as intelligent as David George. I mean…he has two first names! How can you compete with that?! He even figured out that it has been the DEMONcrats (did I spell that right?) that have been promoting hunger, scarcity and greed.

    I have an idea, Davey boy. Read the article for its scientific value…this has NOTHING to do with politics. If you want to spew your crazy, I’m sure there are ample other sites for you to contribute your valuable insight.

    And before I get lambasted for not addressing your points: *if* you make a point, I’ll address it. Tell your friends.

  30. Interesting article!

    Assuming your premise is correct, there must be a physical limit on the evolution of consciousness, since there is a speed limit on how fast information travel.

  31. Brad

    Is the author implying that the first animals to come onto the land had the visual abilities of their ancestors that had lived and evolved in air for thousands if not millions of years? That their vision was at one moment myopic and fish-like and the next as sharp as a cheetah’s? This proposal seems to ignore the fact that our perceptual systems evolved to help us survive. Attempting to expand consciousness with artificial retinas or other artifacts would probably be impossible.

    Let me suggest something. If the author wants to expand people’s consciousnesses, he should advocate widespread use of psychedelic drugs. Note, however, that individuals whose minds truly are expanded while inebriated could not and should not attempt to lead an ordinary life. Their brains are simply not equipped (adapted) to the cognitive upheaval entailed by these drugs. I believe the same thing would occur with an artifice, although it would probably be a lot less fun.

  32. Daniel I

    Good article, and I think it’s a shame so many people are missing the point of it.
    Many of the criticisms boil down to these:

    a) ‘Animal X’ can sense something from far away, but they are not more intelligent, so you are wrong.
    b) ‘Animal X’ is intelligent but lives in water, so you are wrong.
    c) I care about starving children, so you are wrong.
    d) Starving people exist, so you are wrong.

    What I got from the article was that living on land gave good eyesight a chance to evolve. Having good eyesight gave animals more time before they HAD to react to events they saw. Having the time to plan gives planning a chance to evolve. Having the ability to plan gives intelligence a chance to evolve. Having intelligence gives consciousness a chance to evolve.

    The article wasn’t saying that any of that had to happen, just that it allowed it. It made it possible. Of course there are other important steps in the evolution of consciousness, but that doesn’t mean moving onto land wasn’t one of the crucial steps.

  33. Malcolm MacIver

    @ Daniel I – thanks for summing up in such a concise way. You’ve gotten straight to the core – it’s an argument about how this change in our abilities to perceive may have enabled planning and consciousness to evolve. But, as you point out, there’s a long causal chain here with many important players I’m not mentioning.

  34. Friend

    All space/time is only a theory; the way each individual chooses to see their ‘world out there’ is the way it ‘shows up’ for them. The optimist/ pessimist standing side by side watching the same event happen reveal this in their opposite interpretations.

  35. Malcolm MacIver

    Responses to some of the points in the comment thread in Part II, http://j.mp/k9BxYr.

  36. yogi-one

    I think for your purposes your definition of consciousness works just fine. This is a discussion about evolution, not a philosophical/spiritual treatise.

    Also, I think that folks need to distinguish between ‘consciousness’ and ‘self-awareness’. Using your definition of consciousness, an animal can be conscious without being self-aware. In fact a plant can be conscious, because it can sense and react to surrounding stimuli.

    Awareness of self as a separate entity is a different trait, and probably requires some specialized development in the brain. In humans, this trait of self-awareness seems to develop quite late, like 1-year or more after birth.

    In fact, human babies give a good example of ‘consciousness’ being distinct from ‘self-awareness’. Self-awareness, according to this observation, would then be a specialized type of consciousness, but not a prerequisite for consciousness.

  37. yogi-one

    Whoops, now I’m seeing something about my earlier comment: a plant can be passively aware of stimulus, bit it cannot “plan” in the sense that you are talking about.

    For example a Venus flytrap: it has a simple open-shut mechanism that simply closes whenever there’s pressure on the trap. It cannot even distinguish whether the stimulus is prey or not.

    So perhaps there is an even more primary level of awareness that can simply receive information and even react, but not plan for the future.

    So then, you would have three levels of awareness: simple awareness, consciousness, and self-awareness.

    It would be interesting to explore the boundary between simple chemical reactivity and primary awareness. An interesting question would be whether a single cell has awareness, or it is simply a chemical machine. I think the prevailing viewpoint is that processes at the chemical level are pretty much done with no awareness, they are simply driven by the laws of chemical attraction and repulsion.

    But does a one-celled plant or animal have awareness?

    And how would you define awareness so it can be distinguished from simple chemical reactivity?

    The view for AI researchers seems to be that as a system grows in complexity, it develops awareness. In other words, with enough processing power, and enough memory, you could build a fully conscious, self-aware machine.

    This would imply that the idea, beloved by all religions, that something fundamentally outside the known laws of physics is necessary to give rise to conscious living beings, is a fallacy.

    In other words, humans have self-awareness and robots don’t simply because humans are orders of magnitude more complex than the robots we have managed to build so far.

    Also, the way we process huge amounts of information so fast is due to a technology that has so far evaded robotics. The way human nerve cells actually transfer, store, and apply information has no analog in the computer world.

    Perhaps the advent of quantum computing will lead to progress on that front. In other words, humans are quantum computers on a mega-scale, according to this line of theory. Then the line of development from reactivity to simple awareness, to consciousness, and to self-awareness becomes simply a trajectory of rising complexity.

  38. Andy

    The root problem with this idea is the assumption that “Consciousness is the operation of the plan-executing mechanism, enabling behavior to be driven by plans rather than immediate environmental contingencies.” It’s perfectly plausible that an unconscious organism, or a machine, for that matter, could formulate plans for its behavior. In fact, in principle, an unconscious being could behave exactly like a human (the philosopher’s zombie). While there are presumably no zombies in existence, we have very powerful computers that are capable of planning multiple scenarios–in fact, are far more capable than individual humans are. Are they conscious? If they are not, could not in principle have unconscious organisms evolved to live on land with highly advanced planning functions?

    Yogi-one gets at this issue in noting that AI researchers assume awareness emerges with growing complexity. But this is a very controversial idea, and many philosophers would argue against it. Searle’s Chinese room argument is perhaps the most well known and discussed argument against it.

    If one understands consciousness as the experience of what it is like to be something (Nagel)–the so-called hard problem of consciousness–then there is a complete disconnect between ability to plan or any other measure of what in effect is intelligence, and consciousness. Not only could be very complex and intelligent behavior be carried out by a machine that we humans would all describe as unconscious, but conversely, relatively simple organisms could be conscious.

  39. Andy

    Having had a chance to read through some of the other comments, I now see that Lila made essentially the same point. I also appreciate that Malcolm is not claiming that this is “the” definition of consciousness. But I do think it’s important to understand that it is only addressing what are sometimes called the functional or “soft” features of consciousness, in David Chalmers’ terms. Fair enough, but I believe when most people think of consciousness, they associate it more with the hard version, the what-it-is-like-to-be aspect. All the functional aspects could simply be called intelligence.

    The best argument I have seen for associating the planning aspect of behavior with actual awareness comes from studies of neurologist and author V.I. Ramachandran, who reported that the ability to experience qualia–which are the essence of the hard problem–is closely associated with the existence of multiple behavioral options. He contrasts responses associated with qualia in humans with the more-or-less stereotyped responses linked to invertebrate vision, which is presumed not to involve qualia. There are some possible criticisms of this conclusion I won’t get into here, but this is an important piece of work that does get at this issue in a novel way.

  40. Andy

    Sorry,correction, I guess there is no editing function? In the previous post, I should have said Ramachandran contrasted qualia with reflexive responses in humans, which do not involve qualia. He then extrapolated from these findings to argue that organisms like insects that have (only) similar reflexive or stereotyped responses can not be experiencing qualia, and therefore are not conscious in the hard, what-it-is-like sense.

    This is a very important piece of research IMO, because it gets beyond pure speculation based on observable behavior of whether other organisms are conscious.

  41. Fred Claret

    I haven’t looked into it deeply but to my mind consciousness cannot be said to have evolved. No matter how low the conscious level it is still consciousness. Surely there is consciousness or not, a scale of consciousness always assumes some consciousness. I think it is interesting to compare say a virus which can be understood as, almost, robotic biochemical reactions to a bacteria which seems to behave more consciously.
    The laws of physics didn’t evolve and maybe neither did consciousness. (btw I am not making a pro God/religion argument here)

  42. Malcolm MacIver

    @Andy – thanks for your thoughtful points. As you say, “there is a complete disconnect between ability to plan or any other measure of what in effect is intelligence, and consciousness.” Any intersubjectively acceptable description of consciousness — in particular, one so precise that it would be the basis of a mechanism for implementing consciousness — would fall short of the “what it’s like to be X” aspect. If this isn’t obvious, just think of the old saw of Mary, the blind neurophysiologist who lives at some future time when we understand everything there is to understand about what happens between the visual perception of a dog, and the emission of the words “there is a dog.” She can give an intersubjectively agreed upon, precise description of every step of the process, so precise that we can make a machine that duplicates the process. Yet, she’ll never know what is like to see a dog – since she’s blind.

    Various responses to this problem include that consciousness therefore forms a logically separate domain (as my old classmate and friend David Chalmers would hold). Another response is that this shows consciousness in this sense cannot be approached scientifically. I’d be happy if Buena Vista Consciousness could contribute to understanding how one aspect of what we mean by consciousness evolved within animals.

    @Fred – I’m not sure I understand your point. If it’s one about the logic of consciousness not being empirically accessible, I could see some part of what you mean about its non evolvability. But, at the very least, we can agree that the biological antecedents — such as, if I’m right, the contemplation of multiple futures — have an evolutionary history.


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