Evolution of Consciousness

Seems like this new thing in the Atlantic’d be up y’all’s alley:

http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/how-consciousness-evolved/485558/

A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved

Michael Graziano

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?

The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species…..

37 thoughts on “Evolution of Consciousness

  1. It didn’t evole anymore then anything else. Thats guessing about the far distant past.
    This dismisses the soul. So if too much info comes in then either soul must process it or something else.
    I say the memory does all processing and our soul just looks at priorities.
    The memory of man and beast is ignored mostly in these subjects. They see the memory as a sidecar to the real machine called the brain. Yet the bible hints, and people conclude, the brain is just a giant memory machine.
    Simple.

  2. Perhaps needless to say, I disagree with this theory.

    In particular, I disagree with “too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed.” The theory is equating information with signals passively received, and that’s where I disagree. I tend to support the “poverty of stimulus” argument, that passively received signals are insufficient to account for perception.

  3. It’s an attractive synthesis of how internal models enhance predictive processing, but it won’t persuade anyone who is already convinced that the hard problem of consciousness is a real thing.

  4. Byers babbles:
    I say the memory does all processing and our soul just looks at priorities.
    The memory of man and beast is ignored mostly in these subjects. They see the memory as a sidecar to the real machine called the brain. Yet the bible hints, and people conclude, the brain is just a giant memory machine.
    Simple.

    A ” giant memory machine” which is garbage at memorizing things.

    What does it even mean to say, “the memory does all the processing and the soul just looks at priorities”? So the memory and the soul are distinct entities? What is the soul prioritizing?

  5. Graziano seems to have a monthly Atlantic column espousing his views; also Aeon and Huffington articles.

    We’ve also discussed him before based on an NYT article. He had just published a book on his AST theory.

    He has a while to go yet before he catches up with Dahaene or Damasio.

    I take these high-level views as fun philosophical speculation based on some current neuroscience. Compare Michael Tye’s views on which creatures are sentient and which have beliefs, and which seem to push the evolutionary argument back to the common ancestors animals share with fish:

    Fish have experiences. Plankton don’t. Honeybees have experiences. Caterpillars don’t. Caterpillars are zombies. Fish have eyes and ears (though not external ears but hidden ear-like structures) and a sense of smell, and the behaviour they engage in on the basis of the information they glean from these senses shows considerable flexibility. Fish learn to recognise markings and patterns, to avoid artificially colored, unpleasant-tasting fish they would normally eat, to solve problems in order to reach feeding places. Fish can find their way through mazes and they defer to other fish that are better at finding their way through when they are in groups. Cumulatively the evidence seems best explained by supposing that fish often make cognitive classifications or assessments, directly in response to the information conveyed to them by their senses, and that these, together with their goals, often determine their behavior.

    There may be some reluctance to say that fish have beliefs. Clearly, a fish cannot believe that a hand is dangling in the water. Fish lack the concept hand. And, in general, it seems unlikely that fish share many concepts with us. But the fact that there are striking conceptual differences, that our concepts are much richer and more articulated than theirs, does not show that they lack any concepts at all.

  6. Some here may be interested in hearing that Tye has published a couple of papers on the experience of orgasms.

  7. BruceS: Fish have experiences. Plankton don’t. Honeybees have experiences. Caterpillars don’t. [BruceS is quoting Michael Tye]

    I’d mostly agree — except about caterpillars. I’m not at all sure about that one, though I would guess that they might have experiences.

    I take consciousness to require more than having experiences, so I’m not at all sure on consciousness for fish.

  8. My own take on consciousness is that it involves anticipation in the absence of immediate environmental cues. I’m not sure how far back that goes, but certainly animals that makes tools qualify.

    Some birds, certainly. Dogs.

    I haven’t seen a cat make a tool, but cats are masters at escape, and are good at solving puzzles requiring route planning.

  9. It’s magic. At least in the article it is, since it’s hardly getting to any sort of physics/physiology.

    It’s also BS in the obvious sense that we are conscious of all sorts of superfluous (save for context) details. You’ve got the awareness/consciousness issue involved, as awareness can and does mark off some information as very important, while we’re barely (yet obviously) conscious of any number of, say, visual phenomena.

    It might say a bit to the question of awareness, but it’s not telling us anything about consciousness per se.

    Glen Davidson

  10. walto:
    Some here may be interested in hearing that Tye has published a couple of papers on the experience of orgasms.

    Please tell me you meant “organisms” .

  11. walto:
    Some here may be interested in hearing that Tye has published a couple of papers on the experience of orgasms.

    Pro or con?

  12. GlenDavidson:
    .

    It might say a bit to the question of awareness, but it’snot telling us anything about consciousness per se.

    Glen Davidson

    He’s assuming his theory of consciousness and then asking how the physical substrate which supports it could have evolved.

    Not that I am supporting these theories.

    I have not read Tye’s papers on orgasms, but I know he is an intentionalist about experience: he thinks the phenomenal content of a conscious experience is exhausted by what it represents.

    Now it is fairly easy to see what a visual experience might represent, but exactly what does an orgasm represent? Presumably some kind of body state (the good kind).

    Philosophers can never leave well enough alone (or they scold each other for trying to over-philosophize such things)

  13. Kantian Naturalist:
    It’s an attractive synthesis of how internal models enhance predictive processing, but it won’t persuade anyone who is already convinced that the hard problem of consciousness is a real thing.

    I imagine most such people will, almost by definition, shrug off any scientific explanation of consciousness by insisting correlation with body/world states is not explanation of first person-experience.

  14. BruceS: he is an intentionalist about experience

    A man after my own heart! And, IIRC his theory has the acronym PANIC.

    He’s kind of a character. There’s a 3AM interview with him, I believe.

  15. BruceS: I imagine most such people will, almost by definition, shrug off any scientific explanation of consciousness by insisting correlation with body/world states is not explanation of first person-experience.

    And that seems right to me.

    These days, I think that “the explanatory gap”, correctly understood, is just the psychological fact that we don’t seem to have the cognitive ability to integrate into a single framework both third-person perspective explanations of objective phenomena and first-person position descriptions of subjective phenomena. And that’s all that “the hard problem of consciousness” amounts to. It’s not a problem to be solved; it’s just a fact about our cognitive limits.

  16. BruceS:

    I take these high-level views as fun philosophical speculation based on some current neuroscience.Compare Michael Tye’s views on which creatures are sentient and which have beliefs, and which seem to push the evolutionary argument back to the common ancestors animals share with fish:

    Fish have experiences. Plankton don’t. Honeybees have experiences. Caterpillars don’t. Caterpillars are zombies. Fish have eyes and ears (though not external ears but hidden ear-like structures) and a sense of smell, and the behaviour they engage in on the basis of the information they glean from these senses shows considerable flexibility. Fish learn to recognise markings and patterns, to avoid artificially colored, unpleasant-tasting fish they would normally eat, to solve problems in order to reach feeding places. Fish can find their way through mazes and they defer to other fish that are better at finding their way through when they are in groups. Cumulatively the evidence seems best explained by supposing that fish often make cognitive classifications or assessments, directly in response to the information conveyed to them by their senses, and that these, together with their goals, often determine their behavior.


    There may be some reluctance to say that fish have beliefs. Clearly, a fish cannot believe that a hand is dangling in the water. Fish lack the concept hand. And, in general, it seems unlikely that fish share many concepts with us. But the fact that there are striking conceptual differences, that our concepts are much richer and more articulated than theirs, does not show that they lack any concepts at all.

    I enjoyed that article, thanks.

    I especially enjoyed the tagline for that magazine:
    WHATEVER IT IS, WE’RE AGAINST IT.

    🙂 🙂

  17. walto: There’s a 3AM interview with him, I believe.

    I’ll take that comment as humor, perhaps even some kind of obscure allusion to your ongoing battle of wits with other posters regarding belief and knowledge .

    .

  18. BruceS: I’ll take that comment as humor …

    There’s a web site “3AM” which has many interviews with philosophers. I’m guessing that you took “3AM” to be a time of day rather than a web site.

  19. From the Onion

    http://www.theonion.com/americanvoices/fish-can-recognize-human-faces-53062

    Fish Can Recognize Human Faces
    AMERICAN VOICES June 8, 2016
    Vol 52 Issue 22 Opinion

    Scientists have discovered that the archerfish, known for its ability to shoot jets of water to stun prey, can consistently shoot water at the same individual humans, indicating an ability to distinguish and recognize discrete human faces. What do you think?

    “If that’s true, my cichlids are really good at pretending they can’t.”
    Rusty Jenkins Sausage Spicer

    “As I’ve learned over time, you really want to make sure you’re not spitting on the wrong people.”
    Mort Harris Snake Breeder

    “What a shame. True anonymity was the ocean’s biggest draw.”
    Joanne Lennertz Pinata Stuffer

  20. TristanM: A ” giant memory machine” which is garbage at memorizing things.

    What does it even mean to say, “the memory does all the processing and the soul just looks at priorities”?So the memory and the soul are distinct entities?What is the soul prioritizing?

    Yes the memory is a part of the material body. It organizes and processes all information and that into priorities we have also ndetermined and put in thye memory.
    Therefore the soul just watches the memory.
    This is why Jesus, though god, had to learn wisdom as a kid. upon being made into a man he was stuck in a man memory machine and so could not remember anything as God.
    The same with us. This is also why all mental problems can be shown to only be memory problems. That is triggering problems with the memory. Not the memory itself.

  21. Neil Rickert: There’s a web site “3AM” which has many interviews with philosophers.I’m guessing that you took “3AM” to be a time of day rather than a web site.

    No. My point was that Walt was replying to my post and said he believed that an interview existed.

    An earlier post of mine linked to that very interview at 3AM.

    I assume Walt’s point was some kind of New England humor. The alternative is of course that he does not think my posts are worth reading in detail so he missed the earlier link, which I suppose might also be the case.

    Come to think of it, I guess that concern would apply to you too.

    That’s OK, I type fairly quickly so I am not wasting too much of my time by creating these links.

  22. walto:
    You forget another possibility, Bruce.

    I’m old and forgot.

    Well, I am pretty sure I am older than you. But that would be in Canadian years and I don’t know how to compare them to American years.

    In any event, I understand you have to focus your memory resources on dealing with the philosophical conundrums in FMM’s posts as well as on the possible editorial contradictions of various policy enforcers at TSZ.

  23. BruceS: Well, I am pretty sure I am older than you.But that would be in Canadian years and I don’t know how to compare them to American years.

    In any event, I understand you have to focus your memory resources on dealing with the philosophical conundrums in FMM’s posts as well as on the possible editorial contradictions of various policy enforcers at TSZ.

    It is indeed an onerous task, but if not me, when? (or is it how?)

    Re the supposed radical translation problems of Canadian v. U.S. years, I recommend conversion to undetached Slovak months first. I think you’ll find tha everything washes out just as Searle maintained.

  24. These authors trace the evolutionary history of consciousness back to the Cambrian explosion.

    To lamprey-like creatures, in particular, according to this book review.

    The book review also has a nice quote on the fact that consciousness studies were once frowned upon for working neuroscientists:

    “Even a few years ago, consciousness was out of bounds for neuroscientists – to study it was, as one young researcher put it, a Career Limiting Move, suitable only for those retired scientists entering their end of life philosopause“.

    [Emphasis added].

  25. I like this bit especially:

    “As we can’t wind the tape of history back and rerun it, we’ll never be able to be sure that the story Feinberg and Mallatt tell is right in all its details, but their neuroevolutionary approach is the best we will have if we are to respect the power of our own human consciousness and also to locate it within a biological framework. As they cheerfully admit, neuroevolution does not solve the “hard problem”. But then perhaps it isn’t a real problem at all, but a ghostly remnant of a past dualistic way of thinking.”

    I’d have to read their book to know more. As a first pass, though, the review skips over the big differences between bacteria and eukaryotes (like amoebas), between single-celled and multicellular eukaryotes, and between early metazoans and creatures like lampreys. It also seems rather vertebrate-centric — what about insects? Or cephalopods?

    Still, I think it helpful to think about the origins of mind in terms of the evolutionary distance between Hydra and lampreys, rather than in terms of computers or the deliverances of introspection.

  26. Kantian Naturalist: As a first pass, though, the review skips over the big differences between bacteria and eukaryotes (like amoebas), between single-celled and multicellular eukaryotes, and between early metazoans and creatures like lampreys.

    I thought that all “anti-ID skeptics” thought that there are no fundamental differences between Eukaryotes and non-Eukaryotes.

  27. Mung: I thought that all “anti-ID skeptics” thought that there are no fundamental differences between Eukaryotes and non-Eukaryotes.

    I don’t know where you got that idea. Certainly it’s no part of anything I ever said.

  28. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know where you got that idea. Certainly it’s no part of anything I ever said.

    I got that idea from the statements of “ID skeptics” right here at TSZ. Perhaps you didn’t see those statements and thus failed to register your disagreement with them. It happens.

    start here

  29. Mung: I got that idea from the statements of “ID skeptics” right here at TSZ. Perhaps you didn’t see those statements and thus failed to register your disagreement with them. It happens.

    If I took the time to register my disagreement with everything at TSZ I disagree with, I’d spend far more time here than I already do.

  30. Neil Rickert:
    Perhaps needless to say, I disagree with this theory.

    In particular, I disagree with “too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed.”The theory is equating information with signals passively received, and that’s where I disagree.I tend to support the “poverty of stimulus” argument, that passively received signals are insufficient to account for perception.

    How does your approach deal with the fact that half the observers do not even SEE the guy in the gorilla suit?

  31. Flint: How does your approach deal with the fact that half the observers do not even SEE the guy in the gorilla suit?

    That’s a problem for your approach. It isn’t a problem for mine.

    As I see it, perception is a behavior. It involves our actions. What we see depends on those actions.

    So half the observers did not take the actions that would be needed to see the guy in the gorilla suit. So what?

    (I see that petrushka has the same answer, but in fewer words).

  32. Maybe I should say interactive. Stuff impinges on the retina, but what we see is the result of what we have learned to see.

    Watched the Peru game. Apparently everyone saw a handball goal except the ref and the linesman. Sports really accentuate the active aspect of seeing. Most of the time refs see stuff that happens so quickly that an untrained observer misses it entirely.

    We see what we attend to and ignore or fail to see things that are extraneous to attention. It’s not the quanty of data; it’s the meaning.

  33. The article is interesting from a scientific perspective and it points possibly to the tectum as a site for phenomenal consciousness in vertebrates. As kantian mentions, the article is vertebrate-centric and doesnt deal with the “soul of the octopus” or the difference between bacteria and eukaryotes as I do in the following: http://scientificanimism.blogspot.com
    From a philosophical perspective its pure eliminative materialism. Consciousness is just signals in the brain and the hard problems of qualia, binding, identity and mental causation are ignored. Scientists usurp the word consciousness but it is really access consciousness or information processing they are talking about. Unless you admit into your worldview p-conscious entities that actually experience pains and really can do something about them its just a confused use of the term.
    Since things like colors dont exist in the physical worldview today then “I guess they are illusions and dont exist”. Or alternatively the ability of the physical world to generate qualia must have been there all along and brains evolved to put that capabaility to use. To think that the brain created subjectivity de novo when complexity arose and then without any real causal efficacy is absurd.

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