2014 BSJ Blog

Evolution and Consciousness

Archaeopteryx, found in 1861, was the first transitional fossil discovered that suggested intermediate forms between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. Unearthed just years after Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, Archaeopteryx seemed to support Darwin’s theories about evolution. Since then, 28 other transitional species between birds and dinosaurs have been discovered, as well as countless other transitional forms, such as the Tiktaalik (fish to amphibians), Eupodophis (lizard to snake), and Lycaenops (a mammal-like reptile), which can only confirm the theory of evolution. Why, then, has the public recognition of evolution not grown?

The overall acceptance that humans have evolved has remained at 60 percent in the past four years, while the divide between Republicans and Democrats has widened to a 24 percent margin from a 10 percent margin in 2009. Although the acceptance of evolution is significantly higher in young adults, there is a disturbingly large number of people who dismiss evolution as “just a theory”, revealing perhaps the biggest flaw in the Theory of Evolution – its name. In everyday jargon, a “theory” refers to an unproved assumption, or a speculation. However, in scientific terms, a “theory” is a set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events in detail, as in the Theory of Relativity.

The other reason evolution is dismissed so easily is because it is often portrayed misleadingly by uniformed opponents. As an incredibly egotistical race, humans dislike the idea that we “evolved from apes” because it seems preposterous and hurts our pride. Yet this idea that evolution is linear, as shown in the picture below, is not entirely correct.

We did not evolve from the modern day chimp – we evolved from a common ancestor. A more accurate portrayal would be the one shown below, an evolutionary tree.

There are many other, perhaps more appealing, hypotheses out there about how we came to be, including creationism, intelligent design, punctuated equilibrium, and theistic evolution, but these speculations are not as grounded in experimental and observational practice as mainstream science is. However, the reason these other alternative theories are perhaps so appealing is that the Theory of Evolution cannot (yet) account for the existence of human consciousness. If evolution happened via natural processes, where did human consciousness come from? How are we aware that we exist?

Many scientists agree that self-awareness evolved because of the benefits it contributes understanding others and social situations, implying that self-awareness is intrinsically connected to other-awareness. This suggests that there was an advantage for the individual in understanding others, and therefore that competition and cooperation played a pivotal role in how human evolution progressed. Consciousness, then, is an experience, and our capacity for mental construction and time travel allows us to compare current situations with past and future ones. Mental trial and error is much more efficient than actual trial and error, so this part of the decision making process greatly reduces the chance of failure. This extends to our interactions with others – we use our own experiences in order to predict the behavior of others. Mirror neuron experiments in humans and monkeys favor this view.

Mirror neurons, or F5 neurons (in the ventral premotor cortex of the monkey) fire both when the monkey performs a certain action, and when it observes the same action being done by another monkey. According to Gallese and Goldman (1998), this extensive mirror neuron research in humans and monkeys support the simulation theory of mindreading, though the mirror neuron system (MNS) is observed to be more primitive in monkeys. While the MNS alone does not lead to action understanding, it helps create an action execution plan that is available for processing when needed.

The “why” of human consciousness has now been answered – among other advantages, it allows for social cognition and simulation of experiences. How this self-awareness evolved, though, is a much more complex question to deconstruct.

It is known that in evolutionary history, the human brain swelled up to enormous proportions, and at some point, consciousness seemed to just appear. Psychologists and linguists have hypothesized that the human brain is programmed to acquire and understand language – language (used here to describe a complex system of communication) is, after all, a defining characteristic that sets humans apart from all other species. Sometime during the development of language and communication, the need for greater cooperation arose, and thus, we began to develop self- and other-awareness. The only flaw in this theory is that language only suggests cognition, whereas consciousness is slightly more complicated. It consists of the individual experience: what it is like to be something, to feel something.

It may be a theory, but the idea that language contributed to the evolution of consciousness doesn’t tell the whole story. We still don’t have enough data to develop a comprehensive theory. Until we develop a way to measure consciousness universally and quantitatively, we will continue to formulate hypotheses that are difficult to test. Perhaps when we do find out, it will enhance our understanding of the natural world, and we will be able to uncover a theory that is both comprehensive and universally intelligible. Until then, however, the search for answers continues.