Why did Consciousness Develop from Living Things?

As children, many of us would play with insects, often in a way we might consider cruel as adults. Yet it was an object of fascination whenever a fly would struggle onwards and devote all of its tiny being to survival, even if it was missing legs or wings. This is not to say we ever supposed that a fly felt pain or sensations of urgency in the same way as humans. However, we did discover that any random housefly possesses a pure drive to live. One might be hard pressed to find a human who clings to life with the undivided intensity of a fly.

In bacteria even we see the same drive to survive and reproduce. Every living thing strives for the same objective: to produce copies of itself until it has overrun the universe.
When this objective is achieved, then what? That’s it. No life form has a plan beyond extending itself whether human or microbe. Certainly, the ultimate unopposed life form would doom itself to total extinction. As we see in any smaller environment, a life form that grows without constraints soon destroys itself.

Since bacteria and insects are so driven and efficient, why would more complex forms of life ever come into existence?
Why when a bacillus or a fly struggles relentlessly, unhesitatingly to live would there ever arise a creature capable of doubting itself or committing suicide?

What does the force of life get in return for putting more eggs in one basket, countless eggs to assemble even relatively simpler multi-cellular organisms?

Energy conservation would seem to be part of the answer.

Just as buying in bulk reduces the expenditure per unit of a corporate body, the same principle applies to the design of a biological body.

Big organisms are more energy efficient than smaller ones.
One might compare a thick log to a cloud of fine sawdust.

What happens to each when combustion occurs?

Greater exposed surface area means greater net energy needs and faster energy use. It doesn’t take much energy to get started, though.

Less surface area needs a greater inertia to get started but needs less energy to sustain itself while lasting far longer.

It seems to make sense that life would have to start out at the simplest possible form and would then develop into progressively more complex forms to conserve energy.

When life becomes big enough, there’s a lot of lot of living energy at stake in every single specimen of an organism. Leaving things completely to chance is not necessarily the best approach any more.
A more complex life form made of millions of cells becomes more like a bank.
Plants for the most part seem to have placed all their bets on passively holding one position.
Animals on the other hand are living things that have generally adopted a more aggressive and interactive approach to their environment.
For animals, it seems the bank often did best when managed by a banker.

What started out as simple emergent algorithms to facilitate survival seems to have led to central nervous systems in some animals.
Brains are able to do more than react based on the probabilities of survival. They provide the possibility of situational reactions to the environment, a much more precise approach than the general heuristics defining the strategies of other living things.
Thus a complex animal with a brain might have very few offspring relative to trees or jellyfish but the precision of nuanced conditional behaviors ensures that the survival rates will be many, many times higher than those of life forms without complex central nervous systems.

Survival calculators seem to have become more complex until we start to see the emergence of the phenomenon we call consciousness.

Becoming self aware marks a critical point.

For most creatures, it seems to be in their best interest that their brain has no self awareness. This way, its energies are fully and explicitly directed towards the causes of survival and reproduction.

Thus any measure of self awareness for the brain comes as something of a surprise.
It would seem at first to be a liability for this servant to become capable of any degree of autonomy.

Having any degree of self-awareness comes with substantial risks and drawbacks. Such a brain houses an awareness capable of performing actions directly against the interests of its own body. Suicide actually becomes possible amongst human beings.

Giving the brain a degree of freedom allows for multiple, radical changes in survival strategies within the space of a single generation. In all other living things, speed of adaptability is the span of time between the current generation and the next. Perhaps humans combine energy efficiency with the ability to mimic the short generational spans that allow very simple, energy intensive living things to adapt to new stressors overnight.

Human consciousness is a tradeoff between adaptability and unpredictability.
The same creativity that allows for improvisation in tough situations also seems to allow the brain to engage in evolutionarily unforeseen activities with relatively low survival value such as watching TV or staring at paintings.

The more elaborate the brain and the further it operates ahead of natural selection, the more “unintended” properties and “bugs” there will be.

The ironic result is a living thing that has some capability of at least imagining an end purpose besides making endless copies of itself.

More intriguing still, it’s often the less explicitly “useful” activities in life that make us feel that life is worth living.

If optimum survival and reproduction were the only goal of human beings, we certainly would go about it differently than we do now.

Part of the “problem” seems to be that natural selection lets through anything that manages to survive and reproduce. It doesn’t ask why. It doesn’t make design decisions or plan for compatibility with future developments.

Our mental infrastructure can’t ever have known there would be a consciousness.

Thus we’re impelled towards many survival behaviors by indirect stimuli, usually a first cause in a desirable chain of events.
For instance:

Strong pleasure incentives drive us towards sex, but not so strongly towards having children.

In previous species, getting a creature to have sex was a sure initial cause that would result in offspring.

Humans, however, have always known ways to get the pleasure payoff of intercourse without producing the consequences. That way they can keep getting more of the pleasure without pregnancies or responsibility for children.

Thus the mechanism that ensured other animals would reproduce can be gamed by humans, especially in a society where contraception is both simple and socially acceptable.

Still our initial issue lies unresolved: why did the tendencies of living things cause them to move beyond bacteria that are resilient, adaptable, and all but ineradicable. Surely if life was just about being survival and reproduction, bacteria already do it best.
Is even moving into less energy intensive forms really a satisfactory explanation if it results in organisms that are less adaptable, more easily eradicated, and even more perplexing: capable of unproductive or counterproductive behavior.

One of the founding laws of classical physics: something that is at rest tends to stay at rest.

We’re also told that our universe tends towards entropy. Things tend to be no more complex or structured than they have to be.

We wouldn’t expect water that has settled into a state of equilibrium under the influence of gravity to suddenly start spilling upwards.

So why would the most efficient living things diversify into more risky, more complex, less efficient forms?


6 responses to “Why did Consciousness Develop from Living Things?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Linkfest

  2. Nice thoughts. My two $0.02:

    The universe as a whole tends toward entropy–this fact does not exclude the possibility of pockets of order. The minuscule life on our tiny planet and the order it brings is nowhere near the magnitude of entropy dispersed by the massive bodies of the cosmos. We and our planetary brethren will eventually succumb as well.

    With regards to the development of more complex organisms, I would say your focus is too exclusively broad—there are local selection pressures as well. Why have chlorophyll? Well, some areas of the Earth are very sunny. Why have mitochondria? Because many places on earth have oxygen and using oxygen to break down sugars provides literally dozens of times more energy (ATP) than trying to harness ATP from sugars anaerobically. With chlorophyll and mitochondria, you have organisms better adapted to a given environment than the previous bacterium. Sure, they may die in areas without sunlight or oxygen where the old bacterium may survive, but they are energetically wealthier than the bacterium could ever been in their given locale and niche.

  3. I’m very interested in chaos and order in our universe.
    I suppose the beginning moment is considered by some to be the moment of absolute order and everything after part of a process of inevitable decay. Thus, a universe that gets old and dies, governed by the same principles as govern us?

    As for pockets of order, might we consider them as steps in the process of disassembly? Thus a move towards order occurs to enable further disordering?

    I suppose my reasoning is that there is only one reason that complex life can exist.
    It was the path of least resistance for an inherently lazy universe.
    The leap to mitochondria and organelles seems quite fathomable with your explanation. And from there, I suppose, micro-organisms tended towards colonies as people are driven into cities.
    And like city dwellers, became increasingly specialized…

    But this conclusion is also a bit counter-intuitive because the path of least resistance for this universe is supposed to be moving away from order and towards the dispersal of energy. Yet life has evolved consistently towards the increased production and conservation of energy.

    I guess my concern is reconciling two different patterns that ought to be closely related.

    Since you’re someone with a science background. I was wondering if you might also illuminate:

    -What is the exact difference between a colony and multicellular entity? After all, many colonies are capable of sophisticated behaviors with different species of organisms functioning almost like organs.

    and especially:

    -What is the scientific community’s present stance on instinctual behaviors:(i.e. web weaving in spiders)
    How are they transmitted from one generation to the next?

    • Hmm. I think of the entropy issue more as… perpetually bouncing balls in a box. Imagine the beginning–the big bang. All 10 balls start from a single point in the left side of the box. They will be expelled from this point, but before they reach a state of maximum chaos, any two (or even more—however unlikely, but possible) balls might come into contact—a chance event of order in a system progressing ultimately to complete disorder.
      Now the universe is taking MUCH longer to reach its absolute disorder than 10 balls bouncing in a box and our DNA-organized lives are around for a good bit longer than the split-seconds of ball-contact, but… consider the age and size of the cosmos compared with the age and sizes of life on earth (or better yet human life). How much order do we bring to this universe?

      A unicellular life-form colony is a grouping of a many identical cells (all a single species)—each of which is fully capable of survival on its own. Multicellular life-forms are, in a manner, “groupings” of non-identical cells that developed interdependently and remain interdependent. Precisely how multicellular life came to be is unknown (google this query for theories).

      How instincts are passed on: DNA and “epigenetic” factors carry in their code not just the information to create different cell types of a multicellular organism, but also the information needed for the function and interactions of the cells. As such, you can imagine the process of natural selection being applied not just to physical traits like color and structure, but also cellular (and with many neuronal-type cells) and organism behavior. You might imagine a silk-producing spider that does not innately spin webs (perhaps it just uses the silk threads for getting around). Then, by chance genetics, one spider is hatched that has in its innate neuro-behavior encoding the tendency to trow down several threads at once forming something of a web—this spider might start to catch things in its web and gain a survival advantage over its non-webbing bretheren.

      For another example: Many instincts are stimuli-based. Take a baby’s suckling reflex. Babies have encoded in their DNA the information that creates neuronal connections that cause the baby to turn its head and try to suck on something when its cheek is brushed. Babies who lack this are at a clear survival disadvantage.

      I guess the short answer is that DNA also encodes for inborn cellular connections—and neural-type connections that guide behavior traits can be selected for and against just like any physical evolutionary trait.


  4. I really like the imagery of order = chance collision of randomly bouncing balls. Good food for thought.
    It had occurred to me that order was necessary in the overall trend towards chaos but you clarify how that might be rather brilliantly.

    The reason I asked about the multicellular and single cellular creatures is because there’s sort of a dividing line between truly multicellular and colonial living things. Take a creature such as a sea pen for instance. It’s recognized somewhat as an organism in its own right. Yet it’s also regarded as a colonial creature with different types of organisms specializing in different tasks. You see the same sort of thing with sponges, coral, or lichen.
    Is it the fact that the symbiotes that form a lichen are a fungus and cyanobacteria? Thus is the dividing line that the organisms forming a multicellular creature must all be of the same kingdom or otherwise closely related? Do all cells have to have a DNA plan for the organism as a whole whereas colonial cells do not? I was just wondering what the exact technical definition is and whether there are any grey cases that are tough to define.

    How is DNA understood or theorized to code for epigenetic factors? My understanding of biochemistry is quite weak, but my tentative understanding is that DNA simply codes for the production of proteins.
    And the orb weaver spider, I think, is a frequently used example in discussions on epigenetics because it’s difficult to figure out how such elaborate behavior could have come about through millions of years of intermediate stages. A few random strands are highly unlikely to catch anything!
    Also, of course, because web weaving is an exceptionally intricate instinctual behavior. It pretty much tells us that there are very precise means of data transmission from one generation to the next. Suddenly, the use of genetic memory as a plot device in Assassin’s Creed doesn’t seem quite as laughable.

    If we suppose that hunting spiders and jumping spiders are the more ancient type, how would they end up producing silk in the first place let alone going all the way to web spinning.

    I suppose we could look to trap door and other burrowing spiders: They use silk as a mean of reinforcing the walls of their burrow. Or possibly, silk simply started out as protection for eggs and diversified in its use from there.

    I digress. The main issues I see:

    -How are complex behaviors transmitted by DNA? Are there other factors that might be responsible for epigenetic traits?
    I mean, actual scientists are looking all around cells for other structured patterns that could possibly be information holders of some sort.

    -How do complex behaviors emerge from DNA heredity alone in situations where there is little to no tolerance for intermediate phases? It already occurs to me that you could have a generalist species that just ends up gradually specializing, but in the case of orb weaving, there’s not too much room for a long process of trial and error.

  5. DNA encodes proteins and also the timing and expression of those proteins. It does so with other proteins, specialized nucleic acids (like micro RNA), and other ways I am not too keen on.

    As such, I suggest that the varied expressions will result in the creation of various inborn connections between neuronal cells that result in inborn behaviors. I wouldn’t consider a spider weaving a web to be truly complex—I’d describe it more as a survival reflex (in response to maturity, need, and a suitable location like a doorway) and so I’d expect such “reflexes” to be easily ingrain-able into innate neuronal circuitry; now, truly complex behaviors like judgment, cognition, decision making, etc, are unsolved riddles.

    The major information trasfer-er is DNA. Epigenetics talks about “the study of changes produced in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence” so at the end of the day it’s still about DNA.

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