Other Minds: Consciousness and Evolution

I highly recommend Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It’s a fascinating exploration of the minds of cephalopods, who independently from vertebrates developed sophisticated nervous systems and what any reasonable person would call intelligence. In so doing, Godfrey-Smith explores the tree of life, the origins and components of complex thought and consciousness, and the ways of formless, curious creatures deep below. Read this book!

Other-Minds-Cover-Crop

Godfrey-Smith describes two important revolutionary periods in Earth’s evolutionary history. In each case, a means of communication between organisms became a means of communication within them.

The first is the Sense-Signaling revolution. Roughly 700 million years ago, the first organisms that we could reasonably call animals – sensing and acting organisms – evolved. Just a bit later, around 542 million years ago according to Godfrey-Smith, certain organisms began to develop not only sensing mechanisms, but signaling mechanisms too. Both sensing and signaling, directed outward, provide evolutionary benefits: they help animals navigate and influence their environments. There is another advantage: these same sensing and signaling mechanisms can be used inside the space of the organism to better coordinate its sense-action loop. Input is processed through the senses, and then signaled in a targeted fashion to another part of the organism (be it tentacle, flipper, paw, or hand) to generate a specific response. Sensing and signaling happens inside only higher order organisms like animals. The internalization of sensing and signaling marks the beginnings of the development of the nervous system. Millions of years later, the sensing and signaling mechanisms found in animals are often incredibly complex.

The second is Language. Less than half a million years ago, human language emerged from simpler forms of communication. Language is nothing but an elaborate, auditory form of sensing and signaling. Its more rudimentary forms are used by our primate cousins to warn, coax, plead, and threaten. In humans, these signals became more universal in expressive power, and more nuanced (despite recent examples to the contrary).

Godfrey-Smith, building on Hume, Vygotsky and others, notes that speech is not only for our others, but for ourselves. Each of us has an inner dialogue that runs through our heads from wake to sleep, and even in our dreams. Our inner speech is inseparable from our conscious selves. In a beautiful passage, Godfrey-Smith writes, “inner speech is a way your brain creates a loop, intertwining the construction of thoughts and the reception of them.” This loop not only helps us direct our action, but it can clarify, integrate, and reinforce our conceptions. For Godfrey-Smith and others such as Baars and Dehaene (whom I’ll cover in a future post since Consciousness and the Brain is amazing), our inner speech is a necessary ingredient in our integrated subjective experience as human beings. It helps us to direct our thoughts in a deliberate, planful way – the “System 2 thinking” that Kahneman writes about in Thinking Fast and Slow.

The Sense-Signaling and Language revolutions were both forerunners of radical planetary change. In the first case, the Cambrian explosion, in the second the rise to primacy of homo sapiens.

Speaking of us: it is interesting to compare the revolutions described by Godfrey-Smith to those described by Yuval Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (link). Harari’s, as summarized by Wikipedia, are the following:

  • “The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  • The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of farming).
  • The unification of humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  • The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).”

Harari’s Cognitive Revolution, in my view, maps reasonably well to Godfrey-Smith’s Language revolution. The remaining items in Harari’s list, when considered in Godfrey-Smith’s context, seem like nearly inevitable consequences of the first. Perhaps I am giving us too little credit, or perhaps too much.

Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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