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Did Minimal Consciousness Drive the Cambrian Explosion?

Denyse O'Leary
Photo: Fossil of Opabinia regalis, a Cambrian animal, by Jstuby at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Jablonka is “one of the world’s foremost experts in epigenetic inheritance and evolution” but she has also had a longstanding interest in consciousness studies. She was author, with Marion J. Lamb, of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press 2006/rev. 2014). 

She and neurobiologist Simona Ginsberg, along with illustrator Anna Zeligowski, offer a new approach to the origin of consciousness in an essay at IAI.TV — one with an interesting departure from many approaches to consciousness.

Taking their inspiration from Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti (1933–2009), who posited a chemoton — the minimal life form or protocell — as the origin of life, they first attempt to define minimal consciousness, listing many requirements.

A minimal life form must show the ability to learn but it must also be a “subject of experience.” After all, as Ginsberg et al. point out, the MuZero algorithm can beat humans at any number of games but it is “as conscious as your washing machine.” They argue that “The evolution of learning drove the evolution of consciousness and the cognitive architecture of complex learning in living organisms constitutes basic consciousness.”

A Mechanism of Consciousness

Where their approach differs from many is that they do not try to identify a mechanism of consciousness. In fact, they write,

The next step we took was search for an evolutionary transition marker that requires that all the characteristics we listed are in place. We looked at genes, proteins, anatomical brain regions and neurophysiological processes, but none of the many possibilities we examined entailed all the characteristic of consciousness.

SIMONA GINSBERG, EVA JABLONKA, AND ANNA ZELIGOWSKI, “THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS: IDENTIFYING THE EVOLUTIONARY MARKERS OF WHEN CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLODED” AT IAI.TV (AUGUST 20, 2021)

They are looking, rather, for transition markers between one stage of consciousness and the next, in terms of actual behavior. They settled on the concept of unlimited associative learning (UAL). That’s an interesting shift in emphasis if we recall a 1998 science wager between two big names in consciousness studies:

TWENTY years ago this week [1998], two young men sat in a smoky bar in Bremen, northern Germany. Neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers had spent the day lecturing at a conference about consciousness, and they still had more to say. After a few drinks, Koch suggested a wager. He bet a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain. Chalmers said it wouldn’t happen, and bet against.

PER SNAPRUD, “CONSCIOUSNESS: HOW WE’RE SOLVING A MYSTERY BIGGER THAN OUR MINDS” AT NEW SCIENTIST (JUNE 20, 2018)

Well, the wager has only two years to run now and, barring a sudden, dramatic discovery, it looks as though consciousness may not be a “specific signature” at all. 

A Reason for Doubt

One reason for doubt about such a signature is provided by Ginsberg’s team’s findings: Were a physical “signature” the explanation of consciousness, we might expect to find that consciousness follows simple rules of heredity. But when the team tried to determine, from behavior, which life forms over evolutionary time have demonstrated at least minimal consciousness, they found,

Our survey of the vast (yet very patchy) learning literature of the last 100 years revealed no evidence of UAL [unlimited associative learning] in most animal groups, including medusa, flat worms and slugs. It has, so far, been found only in three groups: most of the vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals), some of the arthropods (e.g., crabs, bees, crickets, cockroaches) and some mollusks (the cephalopod – squid, cuttlefish and octopus).. We discovered that although the brains of these animals are anatomically very different, they have similar functional units that generate models of the world, the body, and prospective actions, a memory system that can store composite representations, and an integrating and flexible system that evaluates and updates them. This cognitive architecture gives us a clue to the function of consciousness: it enables the organism to make context-dependent decisions that are based on its subjectively-experienced perceptions and motivations.

SIMONA GINSBERG, EVA JABLONKA, AND ANNA ZELIGOWSKI, “THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS: IDENTIFYING THE EVOLUTIONARY MARKERS OF WHEN CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLODED” AT IAI.TV (AUGUST 20, 2021)

If the life forms’ brains are anatomically very different, it makes more sense to track consciousness by evidence from behavior, as the researchers are doing, than by the long-sought evidence from anatomy. But that entails decoupling consciousness from a specific physical structure. That’s a different direction from the 1998 wager.

Ginsberg’s team argues for the Cambrian explosion as the first evidence for minimal consciousness.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.