February 8, 2009

What is the evolutionary advantage of consciousness?

One of my readers recently made the comment on my recent protopanpsychism re-post: "...it is not clear what the evolutionary advantage is of subjective states and therefore how they evolved."

To answer the question I will borrow a quote from neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman:
The evolutionary advantage is quite clear. Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan. Let's take a lioness ready to attack an antelope. She crouches down. She sees the prey. She's forming an image of the size of the prey and its speed, and of course, she's planning a jump. Now suppose I have two animals: one like our lioness, has that thing we call consciousness; the other only gets the signals. It's just about dusk, and all of a sudden the wind shifts and there's a whooshing sound of the sort a tiger might make when moving through the green grass, and the conscious animal runs like hell but the other one doesn't. Well, guess why? Because the animal that's conscious has integrated the image of a tiger. The ability to consider alternative images in an explicit way is definitely evolutionarily advantageous.


Random Stuff said...

This confuses planning with consciousness. When Deep Blue beats Kasparov at Chess, it is planning but it is not conscious.

Nic Shakeshaft said...

I have to agree with Random Stuff's comment. Further, there is growing evidence (using EEG and, more recently, fMRI) that decisions are made unconsciously, long before they are acknowledged consciously. See this New Scientist article for some fairly recent research.

The thing is, at the moment, no one really knows what consciousness is, or what it does. A speaker at last year's British Psychological Society annual conference argued that it is merely part of the perceptual process, and that its supposed control over decision-making is entirely illusory.

Whatever the truth, it seems impossible to speculate meaningfully on the evolutionary advantage of consciousness (or, for that matter, on whether it could still exist if the brain were simulated in different substrates) until such time as we have a better idea of what it actually does.

Mac said...

Have you read Peter Watts' "Blindsight"? It's a feast of a novel.

George said...

@Mac I have not, but I'll be sure to look that up.

Mac said...

Watts has made the book available for free online in various formats: http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm