Evolutionary biology is a veritable geyser of story-telling. “Just-so stories” is the term evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould used to describe the many fables that biologists concoct to account for the astonishing specified complexity of living things.
While modern [evolutionary] hypotheses may seem a little less far-fetched [than children’s fairy tales], they are no less fanciful — in part because modern scientists are sometimes so focused on “What adaptive advantage could this trait possible give?” rather than determining how said trait could have arisen and been passed down by other means. In addition, so often these hypotheses are untestable, so in actuality they’re not even “hypotheses”. They’re just interesting thoughts.EMILY CASANOVA, “THE ABSURDITY OF “JUST SO STORIES” IN EXPLAINING EVOLUTION,” AT SCIENCE OVER A CUPPA (MAY 22, 2016)
It is inevitable that Darwinian storytelling would be applied to the most remarkable and scientifically intractable characteristic of higher animals — consciousness. How is it that some living things, and especially man, became conscious?
Believe It or Not
There is actually a discipline in science called “evolutionary consciousness.” Two of its prominent practitioners, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, have published a book on their research. Here’s the introduction to an excerpt from the book:
What is consciousness, and who (or what) is conscious — humans, nonhumans, nonliving beings? Which varieties of consciousness do we recognize? In their book “Picturing the Mind,” Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, two leading voices in evolutionary consciousness science, pursue these and other questions through a series of “vistas” — over 65 brief, engaging texts, presenting some of the views of poets, philosophers, psychologists, and biologists, accompanied by Anna Zeligowski’s lively illustrations.
Each picture and text serves as a starting point for discussion. In the texts that follow, excerpted from the vista “How Did Consciousness Evolve?” the authors offer a primer on evolutionary theory, consider our evolutionary transition from nonsentient to sentient organisms, explore the torturous relation between learning studies and consciousness research, and ponder the origins and evolution of suffering and the imagination.INTRODUCTION TO SIMONA GINSBURG AND EVA JABLONKA, “HOW DID CONSCIOUSNESS EVOLVE? AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE” AT THE MIT PRESS READER (JUNE 24, 2022)
Ginsburg and Jablonka begin their essay with the obligatory paean to Charles Darwin (1809–1882) in a flowery rehash of the theory of common descent and heritable variation with natural selection. Then they ask: how did consciousness evolve?
Unusual for Evolutionists
Interestingly — and this is quite unusual for evolutionary biologists (who are generally ignorant of metaphysics and classical philosophy of any sort) — they invoke the ancient philosopher Aristotle’s classification of the souls of living things. Aristotle proposed that souls can have three general powers:
- powers necessary for basic functions of life (e.g. nutrition, excretion, growth, reproduction, etc.), that is, a vegetative soul
- powers necessary for sensation and locomotion, that is, a sensitive soul, and
- powers necessary for abstract thought (i.e., intellect and will), that is, a rational soul.
They propose that an evolutionary transition from vegetative to sensitive to rational souls has taken place. That is, evolution from unicellular organisms to non-human animals to human beings.
They then ask, “What single tangible property marks all living things that have consciousness,” and their answer is: unlimited associative learning. They propose that unlimited associative learning is the “transition marker” to the evolution of consciousness. They then proceed with the usual confabulations about selective advantages conferred by learning. It’s a lot of rhetorical flourish with vanishingly little logic or science.
Their hypothesis goes awry in several obvious ways.
Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.