More needs to be said about that odd property of living things that we call “instinct”—and never pause to think about what instinct is. Established about life so far is that 1) organization (template-based, ascended from that first life), 2) survival (danger avoidance and throughput of energy-providing food) and 3) exponential reproduction constitute observable and distinguishing characteristics of every entity we can all agree is “alive.” But there is a fourth characteristic which is seldom discussed, even by those who understand evolution very well indeed, and so we shall now discuss it.
I have spoken above of each living organism’s inner “urge” to accomplish life’s simple mandates. It is clear that this urge exists, otherwise the brand new infant still inside its egg would not bother to peck its way out. Why bother? “The urge” forces us to bother. Without this compelling urge none of us would bother to get out of bed each morning. But we do. We each and every one have a compelling urge to get up and go.
And there is plenty of evidence that this urge is “built in.” When spoken of at all it’s referred to as “instinct,” though that word fails to explain anything at all. Instinct is easy to see in the animal kingdom, where “animals” are things that, in general, can move about from one place to another, unlike plants which mostly cannot. Without being told, the new first-time mammal mother lays on her side and turns her mammaries toward her new babies—and they struggle to grasp the teats with their little mouths, and then they suck. These things happen “instinctively” in every mammal species—no exceptions. This characteristic we call “instinct” is not as obvious in plants as it is in ambulatory animals because plants, being “planted” so to speak in one place for a lifetime, don’t much move. But it’s in there all right, vigorous and self evident in every living plant on earth, all doing much more than you’re aware of to achieve their mandate to survive and reproduce. So what is it, this irresistible primal urge we call instinct?
It goes by many names. All are poorly defined and include words without any real meanings, such as “life force” and “consciousness.” We all agree that something called consciousness exists, because we’re quite sure we ourselves have it inside us—we personally experience it. Life force is a little shakier. Bearing comparable uncertainty is “intelligence,” that indefinable something which is plain to see in our children but not in the neighbor’s heathen whelps. And what if I said “spirit,” or even “soul.” How about photosynthesis? Is life force okay? Is your mindset open today? What is instinct?
Have you ever looked deep into the eyes of your dog and seen intelligent adoration looking back? Have you watched deer younglings at play, leaping, twisting in midair, frolicking joyfully in a big pile of leaves, mama deer standing sedately, protectively nearby, watching the kids play? Watched a crow use a stick-tool to pull in some tasty edible? Seen grieving elephants solemnly laying branches over one of their kin who lays there newly dead? Talked with a parrot that clearly understands and uses syntax, an undeniably sophisticated feature of human language? Seen a chimp mother crying over her dead baby for weeks after it died? Watched a worm learn and remember its way through a maze? Seen what dolphins can do, how they act, seen the evidence of how smart they must really be if we could but understand the way they think?
This is a true story; there of hundreds of stories like it. In the mid 1990s Lawrence Anthony bought a five thousand acre tract in South Africa as a refuge for wild animals, especially elephants he loved and wanted to save from poachers and abusers. He and his wife lived and worked on the refuge, and he had daily contact with the elephants. In March 2012 Anthony died of a sudden heart attack. Within two days wild elephants began arriving, marching slowly in single-file formation, from all over the refuge. For twelve hours they continued arriving until a herd of thirty-one elephants surrounded the home where Anthony’s body lay. And there they stood, silent, unmoving and without eating, for two days and two nights. Onlookers were astonished, experts dumfounded, Anthony’s wife was deeply touched. Their vigil then complete after two days, they dispersed back into the wild. But the question they pose remains: How did they know? And what cultural ritual was in their minds as they stood there, paying their respects?
Have you read how potted plants made a lie detector meter jump off the scale when told, by the experimenter’s unspoken thoughts, that their leaves would be harmed by a knife or a flame? Most of us encounter hundreds of stories like these, anecdotally or as random articles in science magazines and other credible writings. Like Clive Backster’s years of experiments with potted plants, such results get pooh-poohed and fade from public mind while most of us don’t pay attention or connect the anecdotes and articles into a pattern.
There are skeptical people standing in line to denounce these poignant examples as meaningless, and tell us terms like “life force” are ridiculous. And, misguided or not, their mindsets are not without significance. I have read in respectable publications the words of directors of animal experimentation laboratories pronouncing their “certainty” that “animals don’t feel pain,” that “animals lack anything we could call feelings or consciousness.” *Mygod* I wonder if such mindsets have never witnessed a dog limping from the pain of a thorn in its paw? Or loved that dog after it leaped joyfully, proactively, into a lap, eager to give and receive love? Be assured, gentle reader, such mindsets are with us to this very hour, firm in a belief that our fellow creatures which evolved right along with us “have no feelings, no consciousness.” This mindset actually exists.
The complexity-consciousness gradient
In our continuing examination of the context of evolution, I wish to raise here a little thought scenario which might wedge a few such mindsets a tad more open. This thought scenario will take the “complexity” we’ve been discussing in context of every stage from big bang to life evolution, and examine its relationship to that something we call “consciousness.” We’ve been all over complexity for two chapters now, but what do we really know of this term “consciousness?” The word is deeply involved with evolution.
“Consciousness” has as many definitions as there are dictionaries, and—since every dictionary worth its salt gives multiple meanings—the result is a circular 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. Among philosophers and scholars the world over, there is no (no) agreement on definition or understanding, and their quest for its elusive meaning is now called “the hard problem.”
If you try to understand consciousness via the back door of possible synonyms, some of the terms you’re sure to encounter will include at least these and more: mind, awareness, self awareness, spirit, essence, soul, wakefulness, life, angel, ghost, being—and a good variety more. You moreover will find these definitions are circular—i.e., in multiple and convoluted ways, these ill-defined terms all cross reference each other, leading ultimately nowhere. To any doubter, I recommend an entertaining hour of looking them up in several dictionaries, cross referencing as you go, until eventually the truth of my point becomes self evident. No good, accepted definition of consciousness exists.
To progress, 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 between the two. The brain is a material object. Mind is immaterial.
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 up to waist level. The board’s other end remains on the ground beside my toe. On this sloping board we are going to display all living things according to their complexity. And, like good scientists everywhere, we are going to make an assumption. Based on a gut feeling that just somehow feels true, we hypothesize that this poorly understood term “consciousness” directly correlates with “complexity,” a word we understand well. Here is the correlation we are hypothesizing:
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, complexity and consciousness correlate with each other.
The board’s slope is the gradient. The gradient ranges between LOW (almost no complexity or consciousness) where the board touches the ground, and HIGH (very much complexity and consciousness) where you are holding up the other end at waist level. At the extreme low end, we shall now place that complex molecule which became the first living thing. At the high end we place humans, because without any bragging we are indeed the most complex, highest consciousness creatures on earth. Now, on the remaining gradient, between LOW and HIGH, you place every other thing that is alive on earth today according to its level of complexity.
Starting at the bottom end, barely uphill from that first smart molecule, place the amoeba and the bacterium, 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 very minimal complexity and consciousness. (Ignore viruses, they’re a problem.) 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 rest of the plants by increasing order of complexity. You’ll have to deal with some hard questions, like, which is more complex and thus more conscious: a sponge (an animal) or a grandfather 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? Congressman? two-toed sloth?)? And what of those little animals called 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 now differentiate into noticeable parts, and these more complex organisms have organs; and they also have more consciousness than things lower down the gradient. The bugs and insectoids 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, eating their apples, perhaps wearing fig leaves in their embarrassment now that they’ve become conscious of nudity, an “original sin.”
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 conscious living thing which somehow arose from non-living mineral molecules, the 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.” Next upward are the other one-celled plants and animals, side by side. Then come multi-celled entities, each displaying more complexity as we proceed up the board from the simplest toward the most complex plant. And there, quite nearby and rubbing elbows with it, is a low-complexity animal—something with very little mind 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 the 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” alive. Therefore every living thing on earth is related to every other living thing on earth. Cousins. 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 though 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.” We probably didn’t realize how wise Old Turtle really is.
Consciousness therefore is, and has always been, “in” all life, all up and down the entire gradient. The most consciousness to exist so far is at the top. 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 are relatives and 2) they 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 and coral polyps which may seem dead but aren’t really.