Monday, March 28, 2011

Awareness and evolution

We wrote last week about the question of the nature of 'awareness' or 'self' in Nature (here and here).  We know our own consciousness, but really not much about that of other organisms--indeed, not really and truly about other individuals than ourselves.

Studying the 'neural correlates' or behavioral indications of consciousness can get us only so far, mainly descriptive phenomenology.  But either religions are right, and there really is something we call the 'soul' that is separate from our biology, or our consciousness is somehow the result of our genomes.  That is naturally one of the biggest prizes for research to try to understand.

But consciousness or other kinds of awareness--self-awareness or otherwise--would seem to be so far removed from the direct level of the genome, so dependent on inordinately complex interactions of components, that it is difficult to see how genomes will ever explain it.  The term for this is that consciousness is an 'emergent' trait, relative to genomes.

There's little if any doubt that we'll learn many genes that, when mutated, damage consciousness or alter states of 'awareness' (we're not talking about recreational drugs here---or are they relevant?).  How can interacting proteins--what genes code for--produce the  kind of self-aware monitoring of the inside and outside world?  We may have to develop some very different ways of knowing, in order to know even what we mean in this kind of research. 

If our basic understanding of evolution is close to the truth, if and when we eventually develop such  scientific approaches, one thing that can be predicted safely is that we'll find the genes, and hence the roots, of consciousness much more widely distributed in Nature than our usual, human-centered view has led us to think.   Indeed, many of the same phenomena may be found in plants--and many precedents suggest we'll find rudiments even in bacteria.

Whether we'll ever be able to ask the carrot how it 'feels' is another question.


Texbrit said...

Doesn't the fact that a cat or dog quickly learns that his reflection in the mirror is "me" prove that he is self-aware?

Let's hold the carrot up to the mirror and see if he ignores himself.

Anne Buchanan said...

This gets tricky. Can't a blind cat be self-aware? If so, this means the mirror test may not be the gold standard, and we can't rule out the possibility that an eyeless carrot could be self-aware as well.

Ken Weiss said...

We know also that to at least a considerable extent, half your brain, if cut off from the 'conscious' part, can be basically fully functional and aware, yet your consciousness side is unaware of it.

If awareness is some emergent phenomenon of zillions of neurons firing--what else can it be?--then who says a carrot can have no self-awareness of some sort?

In any case, if that's pushing it too far for you, certainly it would apply to species with central nervous systems, designed to integrate the organisms awareness of the environment.

You can say that a tree, for example, isn't aware of itself as a giant light-seeking organ, with thousands of facets (leaves). Yet a tree responds to light, and to other things in response to which it sends signals to basically all its parts.

You say that's just hard-wired response? Well, what is a brain except neurons connected by molecules that respond to other molecules?

The questions are, as Anne says, tricky to think about.

Texbrit said...

I would sooner believe a carrot had self-awareness in a religious context. Because carrots don't have neurons, their awareness has to be either physically accomplished through some different biological mechanism; or it has to be bestowed via some kind of soul, which may not need any physiological structures.

I suppose it is like the search for extra-terrestrial life. They're always looking for carbon-based life. Why? Why can't some amorphous gas cloud be capable of 'life'?

(I guess we need to first define 'life', and we've not yet really done that either!)

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, it's rather philosophical. Using neurons as our guide, is of course self-centered, but that doesn't make it wrong. In any case, neurons are just cells that connect via touch or nearly touching, and passing chemical exchanges.

So, it may be right to attribute self-awareness to neurons but that doesn't really explain it.