What is consciousness? That is a question that has stymied humanity for probably as long as we have been conscious, whatever that is. And with theories ranging from the purely mechanistic to the deeply spiritual and everywhere in between, it doesn’t seem that we will be converging on a definitive answer any time soon. For my own interests, however, the question is not so much the how, but the why. I am not so much interested in how we are conscious, but why we became conscious and, building on that, where consciousness will be taking us in the future.
In discussing why we became conscious, a good starting point is to examine the evolutionary basis for consciousness. There is still a quite robust debate as to whether consciousness is, in itself, a selectable trait or merely a consequence of something else, but let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that there is an evolutionary advantage for consciousness; that being conscious gives us a competitive edge. If so, then why might that be?
Let’s consider the need for adaptability.
There are two reasons why adaptability is important. First, change is a fact of life, so adaptability is the means by which a species survives so that it can propagate. Species that can adapt to change successfully propagate, those that can’t become extinct. But adaptability itself unfolds during two different timescales: over the long run through the forces of evolution and natural selection, and over the immediate through real time adaptation to the daily grind for survival.
If we think of evolution as a multi-generational process for optimizing the survival of living systems for a given set of environmental conditions, then evolution will work, through natural selection, to adapt a species over the long haul to long term changes in the environment. However, evolution needs two things in order for this to happen: time, and, assuming that a species has the capacity for genetic mutation, a high enough survival ratio so that hereditary adaptations can “stick” and propagate through the species. In other words, if evolution can adapt a species faster than the environment is changing, then, over the generations, an evolving species would maintain some level of optimal survivability with respect to its environment.
However, in a more rapidly changing environment, the slow optimization through which evolution of a species occurs may not be enough and the ability of an individual organism to adapt to change in real time would become as important a survival characteristic as long-term evolution of the species. If the change is continuous, then the capacity for “real time” adaptability itself would become a trait for natural selection. Species that could not adapt quickly enough in real time would not be able to propagate at a sufficiently high enough rate to allow evolution to take its course.
The second reason that adaptability is important is that the more complex an organism is, the less hardy it is. Humans, for example, may be exceptionally adaptable, but the range of environmental conditions for which we can survive unprotected is far narrower than for the simple organisms that live in volcanic vents, or even for our companion rats and roaches. Thus, the higher on the complexity scale a species is, the more important that adaptability to real time conditions becomes as a survival trait. Indeed, real time adaptability is most certainly a prerequisite for complex organisms to survive and sustain themselves over the long haul.
So how does consciousness relate to adaptability? First, the ability to respond in real time is directly related to awareness of one’s surroundings. The more aware a creature is, the more responsive it is. Second, it is important to understand that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing trait. Most scientists who study consciousness now agree that there is a continuum of awareness and consciousness; from purely reflexive behaviors, to behaviors driven primarily by what is called access consciousness—awareness of something—to behaviors driven by phenomenal consciousness—awareness of self, or what most people refer to when discussing what it means to be conscious. Thus, there are levels of awareness and consciousness that relate to species’ need to adapt to survive, from the lowest level of purely reflexive responses without awareness of context (pre-awareness), to reflexive response with context (semi-awareness), to learned responses and responses generated through contemplation and simulation (awareness and pre-consciousness), to, finally, a state of behavior driven by self-identification and reflection (consciousness).
At the bottom of the awareness/adaptability chain are organisms that can only react via a programmed response to stimulus without any actual perception as to the context of the stimulus. Think of a tick that drops from its perch in response to sensing a pheromone. Whether the pheromone comes from a mammal or a cotton cloth, the tick will not only respond by attempting to insert its head, but that is the only response it is capable of. In a sense, it has been “hardwired” by evolution to respond to a fixed set of factors with a fixed set of responses. If no mammals were to walk underneath it, it would never reproduce. From an awareness perspective, this could be described as pre-awareness: what it exhibits is purely reflexive behavior without consideration.
Next up the awareness/adaptability ladder are species that still execute a reflexive response, but in reaction to some limited perception of the environment. For these organisms, it is not just the environmental factors that trigger a response, but also the context of the environment. This is the first step towards true awareness: a wasp may choose not to pursue its prey with the intention of laying eggs, for example, even though the sequence for doing so is reflexive, programmed behavior. This would tend to enhance survivability by providing a menu of pre-programmed responses to choose from based on some primitive evaluation of environmental factors.
At the higher end of the reflexive behavior scale are species that can alter programmed responses through learning. Locusts, for example, fly utilizing a programmed sequence, but older locusts have shown the ability to fly better than younger locusts, demonstrating some method of utilizing experience to improve their reflexive flying behavior the more they fly. Obviously, this would work to their evolutionary advantage, as being able to adapt reflexive behavior in real time would likely improve survivability and the chances of reproducing.
Next comes a big leap in awareness and adaptability: evolving from reflexive to contemplative behavior. Species at this level are fully aware of their environment: they respond not with reflexive programming, but with actions determined by some conceptual model of the world that is produced through learned behavior. Their responses are not pre-programmed by evolution, but are programmed in real time by their environment. A dog that has been raised in a nurturing atmosphere, for example, will organize a response to a set of circumstances much differently than a dog that has been abused every day. As will people, for that matter.
There are several advantages to this from an adaptive standpoint. Organisms that can operate via an internalized, alterable model of their environment can accommodate change much more readily than those that cannot. They can conceptualize problems, solve them, and learn from them; obviously an important improvement for survivability. They can also anticipate and plan, which are advantageous traits to have when competing for survival and reproduction. This also sets the stage for the next level of adaptability: simulation.
Simulation is an important survival trait because it allows one to not only anticipate, but to model alternative scenarios before taking action. It also marks a leap from awareness to the beginnings of consciousness: the difference, for example, between “seeing” the color red, “feeling” the color red, and, by extension, conceptualizing “as if” the color red.
“Seeing” red refers to the low-level biological and physiological processes of identifying something as being the color red. “Feeling” red refers to the emotive response that occurs upon seeing red: love, hate, attack, run away, whatever, and why individuals of the same species might have different responses to seeing the same color red. “As if” red refers to the ability to put oneself in red’s “shoes”: to imagine what it would be like to be red. The better that an organism can do that, the better it can simulate the responses of others and anticipate the best way to respond in return. This is a necessary step for evolving from a reactive nature to a proactive nature; from merely responding to circumstances to being able to anticipate them and plan ahead.
This leads to the next level of consciousness and adaptability: the awareness of self. This has only been demonstrated so far by species at the highest end of the complexity scale: humans, chimpanzees, dolphins and orcas, and elephants. This is arguably an important part of allowing complex organisms to socialize with others in order to collaborate and adapt as a group for survival. And, finally, the level that has, so far, only been demonstrated by humans: reflection of self. This is the “Joycean Machine,” the basis of the little voice in each of our heads with whom we debate and plan our lives, and from which the great works—and disasters—of our species have sprung. Is this a survival trait, or an evolutionary dead end? Food for thought for the next post in this series.