Home Discussion Forum Is from an evolutionary perspective the emergence of human consciousness an advantage?

Is from an evolutionary perspective the emergence of human consciousness an advantage?

We just take human consciousness for granted. But this has developed in time. What are the advantages and disadvantages of human awareness? What purpose does it serve in the cosmos and in time? Is it just that a play demands spectators? But then: what is the play about? Who are we and for what purpose are we here?


  1. It is difficult to answer any question as to the development of human consciousness without reference to religious ideals.
    In trying to secularize your question I see one possible answer. An evolutionary advantage to human consciousness is that individuals will learn to empathize and help others, rather than only thinking of themselves. How does helping others give us an advantage in survival, should not one be only concerned with self preservation? Doing unto others as we would have done unto us is a sort of insurance plan. We do so in hopes that in lean times others will do the same for us.
    If you look at the Lamotrec atolll (in Micronesia), or any other low lying atol (low lying island), in this region they pay tribute to high islands. If there is ever a disaster on the low islands, the high islands are obligated to assist the low lying islands. Did the low lying islands pay this tribute out of the goodness of their hearts? Maybe they think so. Do the High islands help the low islands out of charity, they may also say so because of human conscientiousness, but this is a reciprocal relationship in which empathy benefits both parties more than it would if energies were instead devoted entirely to self preservation.
    This example can be repeated throughout many, if not all cultures, showing that our conscientiousness can be an evolutionary advantage over self interest alone.

  2. This journal abstract might help somewhat…
    It is suggested that the anatomical structures which mediate consciousness evolved as decisive embellishments to a (non-conscious) design strategy present even in the simplest unicellular organisms. Consciousness is thus not the pinnacle of a hierarchy whose base is the primitive reflex, because reflexes require a nervous system, which the single-celled creature does not possess. By postulating that consciousness is intimately connected to self-paced probing of the environment, also prominent in prokaryotic behavior, one can make mammalian neuroanatomy amenable to dramatically straightforward rationalization. Muscular contraction is the nervous system’s only externally directed product, and the signaling routes which pass through the various brain components must ultimately converge on the motor areas. The function of several components is still debatable, so it might seem premature to analyze the global operation of the circuit these routes constitute. But such analysis produces a remarkably simple picture, and it sheds new light on the roles of the individual components. The underlying principle is conditionally permitted movement, some components being able to veto muscular contraction by denying the motor areas sufficient activation. This is true of the basal ganglia (BG) and the cerebellum (Cb), which act in tandem with the sensory cerebrum, and which can prevent the latter’s signals to the motor areas from exceeding the threshold for overt movement. It is also true of the anterior cingulate, which appears to play a major role in directing attention. In mammals, the result can be mere thought, provided that a second lower threshold is exceeded. The veto functions of the BG and the Cb stem from inhibition, but the countermanding disinhibition develops at markedly different rates in those two key components. It develops rapidly in the BG, control being exercised by the amygdala, which itself is governed by various other brain regions. It develops over time in the Cb, thereby permitting previously executed movements that have proved advantageous. If cognition is linked to overt or covert movement, intelligence becomes the ability to consolidate individual motor elements into more complex patterns, and creativity is the outcome of a race-to-threshold process which centers on the motor areas. Amongst the ramifications of these ideas are aspects of cortical oscillations, phantom limb sensations, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) the difficulty of self-tickling and mirror neurons.
    Cotterill, 2001
    Also. the notion of consciousness being rooted in social interactions may also shed some light on the evolutionary advantage… Etymolically, ‘consciousness’ finds its roots in the latin for ‘knowledge shared with another’. Thus, langauge itself hints at the social dimension of consciousness. Also, the sharing of knowledge with oneself (i.e. in consciousness) and with others, in social exchanges, are interdependent: thus, the concept of one’s own mind presupposes the concept of others’ minds. This is empirically supported by studies of abnormal child development, such as in autism, that awareness of the self and awareness of others are acquired in parallel.
    One theory which proposes a role of social interactions in consciousness is Humphrey (can’t remember the date of his article, sorry!). He theorised that the purpose of consciousness is to allow social animals to model eachother’s behaviour on the basis of their insight into its psychological motivation, i.e. knowledge of our own mental states allows us a theory of mind regarding others…
    Theory of mind is a fascinating concept, and especially its relation with newly discovered mirror neurons in the frontal and parietal cortex…
    Theory of mind is “the ability to understand other peoples’ behaviour in terms of their mental states is a major ingredient in successful social interactions” (Frith & Frith, 1999)
    The discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in the Macaque monkey by Rizzolatti and colleagues (1996) in area F5 of the macaque has shed considerable light on the neural basis for both action recognition and imitation (Hamzei et al., 2003). There is a neural circuitry which activates both during action execution and during observation of the same action, indicating that these mirror neurons directly map observed actions onto their motor equivalent (Iacoboni, 2005). Imitation might serve, through development, as an automatic way of interpreting the behaviours of others in terms of their underlying intentions and desires.
    Here’s another abstract, which seems to tie together many of your questions, and the notions of mirror-neurons, theory of mind, and consciousness…
    Menant, Christophe (2005)
    Self-consciousness is a product of evolution. Few people today disagree with the evolutionary history of humans. But the nature of self-consciousness is still to be explained, and the story of evolution has rarely been used as a framework for studies on consciousness during the 20th century. This last point may be due to the fact that modern study of consciousness came up at a time where dominant philosophical movements were not in favor of evolutionist theories (Cunningham 1996). Research on consciousness based on Phenomenology or on Analytic Philosophy has been mostly taking the characteristics of humans as starting points. Relatively little has been done with bottom-up approaches, using performances of animals as a simpler starting point to understand the generation of consciousness through evolution. But this status may be changing, thanks to new tools coming from recent discoveries in neurology. The discovery of mirror neurons about ten years ago (Gallese et al. 1996, Rizzolatti et al. 1996) has allowed the built up of new conceptual tools for the understanding of intersubjectivity within humans and non human primates (Gallese 2001, Hurley 2005). Studies in these fields are still in progress, with discussions on the level of applicability of this natural intersubjectivity to non human primates (Decety and Chaminade 2003). We think that these subject/conspecific mental relations made possible by mirror neurons can open new paths for the understanding of the nature of self-consciousness via an evolutionist bottom-up approach. We propose here a scenario for the build up of self-consciousness through evolution by a specific analysis of two steps of evolution: first step from simple living elements to non human primates comparable to chimpanzees, and second step from these non human primates to humans. We identify these two steps as representing the evolution from basic animal awareness to body self-awareness, and from body self-awareness to self-consciousness. (we consider that today non human primates are comparable to what were pre-human primates). We position body self-awareness as corresponding to the performance of mirror self recognition as identified with chimpanzees and orangutans (Gallup). We propose to detail and understand the content of this body self-awareness through a specific evolutionist build up process using the performances of mirror neurons and group life. We address the evolutionary step from body self-awareness to self-consciousness by complementing the recently proposed approach where self-consciousness is presented as a by-product of body self-awareness amplification via a positive feedback loop resulting of anxiety limitation (Menant 2004). The scenario introduced here for the build up of self-consciousness through evolution leaves open the question about the nature of phenomenal-consciousness (Block 2002). We plan to address this question later on with the help of the scenario made available here.
    Whew, very difficult topic! I’m revising this topic for my exams right now, thanks for allowing me the chance to bring it all together! Hope it helps!


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