(continued) Chapter 3. Long Evolution: Life Emerging
The complexity-consciousness gradient
In our continuing examination of the context of evolution, I wish to raise here a thought scenario which might perhaps wedge a few mindsets a tad more open. We’ve discussed complexity at various stages from big bang to present. This thought scenario will now examine “complexity” in relationship to something we call “consciousness” – a term about which we understand little though it is central for our understanding of evolution.
“Consciousness” has as many definitions as there are dictionaries. Since every dictionary worth its salt gives multiple meanings, the result is an ultimate absence of definition or meaning. Such confusion reflects the fact that no one really knows what consciousness is, and those who think they know disagree with each other. No two philosophers, scholars or plumbers can be found the world over who quite agree on definition or understanding of consciousness, and their quest for its elusive meaning is called “the hard problem.” This is a not-insignificant fact in our quest to understand long evolution and mindsets.
If you try to understand consciousness via the back door by looking at possible synonyms, you will encounter a menagerie of terms such as “mind, self awareness, spirit, essence, soul, wakefulness” and a good variety more. You moreover will find their definitions are interrelated and circular – i.e., all are ill-defined and, in multiple and convoluted ways, they all cross reference each other, thus leading ultimately nowhere. To illustrate the point, here is a sampling of the leading terms in a table I constructed and labeled Gradations in Circularity of definition on Matters of Ultimate Importance:
Forms of being (nouns): consiousness; mind; spirit; soul; angel; ghost; being; essence; and life
Ways of being (adjectives): conscious; aware; awake; alive; and sentient
Expressions of being (verbs): think; understand; comprehend; know; and apprehend
Others related: free will; knowledge; comprehension; and understanding
If the reader harbor any doubt, I recommend an entertaining few hours looking up these (and others of your own choosing) in several dictionaries, making notes and cross referencing as you go, until eventually the veracity of my point is personally experienced. To progress in this discussion of consciousness, we thus are forced to adopt a working definition – good enough for now, subject to revision later. The definition I choose…
…is “mind.” Consciousness, for now, means “mind” – whatever that is. Notice I did not say “brain” – I said “mind.” There is quite a difference. One is material, the other is not.
And so to the thought scenario. Imagine a ten-foot board lying on the ground between us. You lean over and pick up your end of that board, holding it at waist level. The board’s other end remains on the ground beside my toe. The board’s slope is a gradient. On this gradient we are going to meaningfully array our new subject, “consciousness,” alongside the familiar subject “complexity” already much discussed in relation to evolution. The gradient ranges between LOW (almost no complexity or consciousness) where one end of the board rests on the ground, and HIGH (very much complexity and consciousness) where you are holding up the other end at waist level.
On this sloping board we are going to display all living things according to their complexity. And, like scientists everywhere, we are going to make an assumption. Based on a gut feeling that just somehow feels (scientifically) true, we shall hypothesize that this poorly understood term “consciousness” directly correlates with “complexity,” a term we understand better. Here is the hypothesized correlation:
If complexity is low, consciousness is also low; if either one is high the other is also high; at all points between low and high on the gradient, complexity and consciousness correlate with each other.
To begin: at the extreme LOW end, we now place that complex molecule which became the first living thing. At the HIGH end we place humans – without any bragging, we are indeed the most complex, highest consciousness creatures on earth. Now, on the remaining gradient, between “almost none and “very much,” place every other thing that is alive on earth today according to its complexity.
Starting at the bottom end, barely uphill from that smart molecule, place the bacteria and the hosts of other one-celled thingies which are quite as alive as you and me but have not yet evolved very far above their ancient minimal complexity and consciousness. Close by the bacteria, very slightly uphill, place the mushrooms, sponges and other dimwits in the lower ranges of the plant and animal kingdoms. Proceed a bit higher up the gradient with the higher plants and lower animals by increasing order of complexity. You may find some difficulty in making decisions – i.e., which is more complex thus more conscious: a sponge (an animal) or an oak tree (a plant)? A jellyfish or a fern? Among these four, which do you think is the most complex? Where on the gradient do you place the highest-consciousness plant (Venus fly trap? Sequoyah?) and the lowest-consciousness animal (sponge? nit? two-toed sloth? Congressman?)? And what of the corals…?
They are part animal, part vegetable and part mineral, at once teeming with life and, at the same time, mostly dead.
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction
Using your logic and God-like reason, continue up the gradient in order of increasing complexity – foraminifera, creepy-crawlies, bug kingdom, et al. As you proceed up the board you must decide where to place ever more complex creatures. Their bodies all now differentiated into parts, some more complex organisms have organs, and backbones – and these also have more consciousness than things lower down the gradient. Stand back and take in the whole scene: the one-celled life forms in their near infinity; the bugs and insects in their endless variety; all those animal oddities that inhabit the sea floor; worms; vertebrates; fishes; amphibians; the reptiles; the birds; the mammals, and – ahh – there they are, just the two of them, perhaps wearing fig leaves in their embarrassment now that they’ve become conscious of nudity and snakes that talk.
Congratulations: using bodily complexity as a distinguishing criterion, you have ranked all living things by their complexity and thereby displayed complexity’s correlation with a continuum of consciousness – from almost none at the bottom of the gradient to the-most-we’ve-seen-so-far at the top. Life at the bottom is that first simple but slightly conscious living molecule which somehow arose from non-living non-conscious mineral molecules, the same one that first reproduced itself for no reason we can divine other than the fact that all evolution exhibits an upward trend – “it just does,” as the scientists say. Next upward are the other one-celled plants and animals, side by side, indistinguishable without a microscope but all of them conscious. Then come multi-celled entities, each a bit more conscious as we proceed up the board from the simplest to the more complex. And there, quite nearby and rubbing elbows, is something with little or no brain but displaying animal-like attributes no plant can claim. And so on, all the way to the top, displaying more complexity – and greater consciousness – at every step.
Now think. The living creatures at the top of the gradient evolved from ancestors which were themselves evolved, ultimately, from that first living creature at the very bottom. Thus every last thing alive on earth today is evolved from that first-ever molecule which somehow “became” conscious. Therefore every conscious thing on earth is related to every other conscious thing on earth. Aside from their immediate parents and siblings, all living things on this planet are cousins at various removes. We are all one family of life.
There’s more. Consciousness, like complexity, is genetically inherited, passed along via DNA from parent to child, in both plants and animals. The creatures at the top of the gradient have consciousness; nobody questions it even if they can’t define it. Those topmost creatures – us – received their consciousness, along with their complexity, from their parents. The parents received their consciousness from the grandparents – and so on: it’s turtles, “all the way down.” Consciousness therefore is and has always been in all life, all up and down the gradient. The most consciousness we know of so far is at the top of the gradient. There’s very little of it at the bottom, but, however miniscule, it is down there. It has to be, because life at the top, which clearly is conscious, is derived ultimately from the first life at the bottom. So 1) all living things not only are relatives, 2) they also all have consciousness to some degree.
Just like complexity, consciousness is a continuum, and to be alive is to possess it in some measure however slight or great. Algae and grapes and bacteria and people all have it. Even Congressmen, coral polyps and disgusting slugs.
The fine print
Of course you know I’ve made all this sound easier than it really is. For clarity in understanding consciousness and all that is implied by having it, let us consider the wisdom of Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. de Waal is among that handful of scientists (their numbers are growing) willing to spend professional lifetimes studying non-human animal cognition and – apparently – consciousness. Anyone intrigued by the intelligent thinking so obvious to those who truly watch animal choices and free-will behaviors will find much affirmation in the writings of these open-minded researchers. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? de Waal writes:
[E]very species has its own story to tell. Each organism has its own ecology and lifestyle, its own Umwelt, which dictates what it needs to know in order to make a living. There is not a single species that can stand model for all the others… Animals learn what they need to learn, and have specialized ways of sifting through the massive information around them. They actively seek, collect and store information.
To which I would add: each species does it in its own way. The open-minded close observer will attain knowledge and real understanding about each dog’s uniquely personal consciously thinking way of expressing its dogginess, each cat’s personal expression of its cattiness, likewise for the consciousness and personal expressions of dolphinness, whaleness, crowishness, mousiness, gray parrotness, warthogginess and all the other creatures awaiting seat assignments on our gradient. The science news media are brimming with news of animal cognition these days, each wondrous new revelation making some people gasp in astonishment while others frown and press their heels firmly down, rejecting out of hand the burgeoning evidence that since these our fellow living creatures think, as they obviously do just as we do, then obviously they are conscious.
Pause for perspective. Many curious, clever and thinking people have spent centuries identifying and classifying life on earth, and even so a majority of living things remain undiscovered today – much less ranked on a gradient according to their complexity and consciousness. Historically things been classified mostly according to their shape, which we know was a big mistake now that we’ve learned how DNA spells out the only true classification of living things. For almost all this long learning curve there was no such thing as ranking life according to consciousness – good Christian men and women all knew that only human beings had consciousness, animals had none, and don’t even mention plants, what nonsense. It’s all right there in Genesis. That fellow Darwin had the temerity to claim that lower animals – which means all non-human creatures – are conscious and can think, but Genesis overrules him. Obviously.
Facetiousness aside, it’s not only Genesis impeding progress in human understanding. Many eminent scientists – atheists among their theistic brethren – still yet today proclaim a chasm between human intelligence and all other creatures. In common, they Do Not Believe that any animal “lower” than Man has consciousness, or a mind, or can think, or have any mental attribute other than primitive mindless instinct alone. These closed mindsets fervently believe in evolution – or magical creation, as the case may be – but neither can quite join modernity where open minds figure out that consciousness too has evolved right along with all our other attributes over all these millions of years.
The Consciousness-Instinct correlation.
There is yet more. Imagine now a second board lying on the ground between us. This time it’s me who picks up my end of this other board and holds it at waist level. The board’s other end remains on the ground beside your toe. The two boards you and I are now holding form a big elongated “X.” On the first board we dealt with complexity and consciousness. Now, on this second board, our subject shall be “instinct.” And – sticklers always for defining our terms – how is instinct to be (variously) defined?
Instinct is innate unlearned knowledge of what to do and when and how to do it. Instinct is a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity, a largely inheritable and generally unalterable tendency of an organism to make a specific and often complex response to environmental stimuli, without involving reason or thought. Instinctive behavior is mediated by reactions below the conscious level. It’s “just done,” without much thought as to how or why – the possessor of instinct already knows how and doesn’t care why.
Some people believe (in the religious sense of Belief) that all non-human animals behave by instinct alone and have no capacity to think. Such people, being quite wrong of course, are especially concentrated in the academic fields of biology and psychology, particularly in the grievously obsolete subset called “behaviorists.” No matter their behavior, our purpose here again is to illustrate an interesting correlation. This time it’s an inverse correlation:
Living things with very low consciousness are very highly endowed with instinct. And the converse: living things with high consciousness have little instinct.
At my end of this second board, the high end, instinct is very high – it can only go downhill, which it does at your end which rests on the ground. Thus the two boards, with opposite ends elevated, tell us something valuable. Where complexity and consciousness are very low, instinct is very high. But instinctive knowledge seems to just fade away as the mind becomes more highly conscious, hence the converse: where complexity and consciousness are very highly evolved, little instinct remains. And that’s how it is with us humans – we are very complex creatures, we have higher consciousness than any other living thing on earth, and little instinctive knowledge remains within us (but it’s not gone away altogether).
Being of high consciousness, hence more able to think and reason, it follows that the human mind has far less need for instinctual knowledge of how to survive and reproduce. Some instinct certainly remains within us (witness the strong human sex drive; the defensive reflex when a bee buzzes one’s face), but we no longer instinctively “just know” how to build our homes as do the beaver and squirrel without being taught how. At the opposite end of the boards instinct is everything – it is that inner urge which tells the simple lowly creature to eat, avoid danger, reproduce – for it has almost no conscious mind, certainly not enough to reason with, or to think in any way you might notice.
We’ve covered quite a bit on the context of evolving life; let’s pause and recap.
Evolution of life is on a continuum, emerging from evolution of the universe before it:
- Both universe and life evolve by never-ending change which occurs apparently by sheer chance.
- Both universe and life emerge upward toward ever increasing complexity, thus evidencing directionality from less to more, from lower to higher.
- Uniquely among life, the first living thing organized itself, in the same manner as every other self-organizing aspect of the universe at large, by emerging alive from the universe’s non-living atomic/molecular structures.
Evolution of both universe and life evidence comparable basic properties, but life evolution evidences additional properties not found in non-living evolution. All living things display built-in urges. These urges are unlike any other aspect of the parent universe from which life arose:
- All life since the first life organizes according to templates inherited from the first life and has evolved, ever changing, through the millions of generations since. Through much of life’s history DNA has been the template for such inheritance.
- Life seeks to survive by avoiding danger and by extracting energy from the food it passes through itself. Inasmuch as life is a form of energy which animates matter that is itself a complex form of energy conjoined as atoms and molecules, energy thus consumes other energy and converts it into purposeful actions. Seen at this level of perspective, both universal and life processes can seem miraculous, or at least responsive to some sort of higher plan.
- Life seeks to reproduce itself exponentially so that more life will survive.
The spectrum of all life furthermore displays correlations which are self evidently significant, even though we may not have discerned them or considered their significance, and these correlations array perfectly on a low-to-high gradient:
- All life displays varying degrees of complexity, proceeding from simple first life to most-complex human life. All life ascended from that least-complex first life has evolved with steadily increasing complexity, notwithstanding coincidental devolutions and extinctions along the way.
- Unlike non-life, all life is conscious in a degree which directly correlates with degree of complexity, and can be arrayed on a gradient showing continuum of consciousness as a matching overlay on the continuum of complexity.
- All life evidences instinct in inverse correlation with consciousness-complexity. Where instinct is high in early life, consciousness-complexity is low; where consciousness-complexity are high in more highly evolved life, instinct is low.
These are the evolutionary context. I suggest remembering them, for all the rest is details.
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…to be continued in one week…
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