Evolution and the humanities
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As a fan of Julian Jaynes and his “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” I conceive of consciousness like ours as being no more than 2500 years old. It springs into view only a few centuries following the invention of alphabetic writing, which allowed us for the first time to record our trains of thought. Our bodies can trace their ancestry back 4 billion years and I expect mind is very ancient and could stretch back to the very origin of life. Compared with that consciousness like ours is a mere flash in the pan, still no doubt a work in progress.
In this chapter I describe the third branch of my triad, a world of creativity and an accompanying consciousness.
Alert: in doing so I’ll be resorting to a Stoic method of reasoning. As I described in Triadism 3, Stoics believed nature had embedded a small portion of its wisdom in each human mind. They could study that wisdom by looking either in nature or in themselves. Whatever they learned from one source they could apply to the other, whatever they then learned about the other they could apply back on the first. Because I've identified their "nature" with our genome, I'm going to assume that whatever I learn about our own minds I can apply to the genome and what I then learn about the genome I can apply to our minds, and so on, back and forth.
Let’s start with genomes.
Dissect a simple creature, a hydra, into a mash of separate cells and in a few days it will reorganize itself back into its original form and resume its usual behavior. Its cells appear able to read each other’s minds, to bring to this group-mind the creature’s original form, each cell learning where it belongs, that cell then migrating through physical space to its assigned place. Cut a planaria worm into two halves and each half will figure out what’s missing and grow it back, precisely, including new eyes and brains, in physical space. Cells, or more liikely the genomes in their nuclei, seem able by reading each other’s minds to become aware of the entire complex creature they’re one small part of.
This ability of individual cells to “know” the creature they’re destined to become could account for the growth of such creatures as whales remaining coordinated from end to end, from the tip of one flipper to the tip of the other, over distances of up to 100 feet.
If over such a distance as that, why not from one creature to another? This could account for the intelligence that insects such as bees and ants display when gathered together in a colony, that they show little sign of as individuals. If so, why not extend it to form a network of minds stretching from cell to cell in individual living creatures and colonies, up to species and eventually up to entire living Kingdoms. Each node in the network would correspond to a distinct mind managing the creatures served by that node and directing their evolution. The existence of such a network could account for much of what we know about nature that we currently can’t explain.
Even though such an idea isn't forbidden by logic, I realize it may serve as a red flag raising doubts about my triadism. I ask you to think of my triadism as an “as if” theory, similar to what Richard Dawkins meant by his title “The Selfish Gene.” What he meant was, the role genes play, it’s “as if” they’re selfish. I'm doing something similar. Because we’ve come across the genome so recently I sometimes mean the roles genomes play are “as if” this or that is true, in this case as if genome intelligences form a network directing all of life’s distinctive functions.
Which of those distinctive functions stands out most? I’d say, life’s creativity. I'm impressed by how immensely varied living and fossilized creatures are. For example, in a similar environment elephants, giraffes and zebras look very different, more than needed to merely adapt them to the environment they share. Peacocks’ tails seem much more extravagantly designed than I’d have thought a peahen could conceive of and insist on in her mates, as Darwin supposed. I'm going to base the next step in my argument on how enormously creative evolution's shown itself to be.
Am I waving another red flag? Saying evolution's creative contradicts a vow we’ve all taken, to defend science against supernaturalism no matter what--to believe that evolution works first through random damage to genes, that damage then being reined in by selection for increased fitness. It's a crude process; even the field’s top authority (Ronald Fisher) makes the selection process only 1% efficient. And it's all purely physical. To believe in it you have to turn a blind eye to evolution seeming to be capable of genuine creativity. But in defiance of that blind eye, I insist, nature’s capable of creating genuine novelty on a colossal scale. And by evolution, as I explained in a previous chapter, I mean the genome. In other words, the genome proves itself capable of genuine creativity, something we've not yet found on lifeless planets.
Have we inherited some of that creativity? I’ve been a professional graphic designer, paid to come up with designs no one’s ever seen before. Can I account for our apparent creative ability by porting over to us some of the genome’s creativity? Why not, how else could we have come by it? Then our acts of creation, too, can result in the appearance of novelties such as have never before appeared in the universe, that cannot be accounted for by only the effect of physical processes acting on prior events. Like the genome we can in our creative thinking defy (to some extent) the laws of physics that woiuld otherwise entirely determine our behavior.
Accept this, and we have two entirely different kinds of thinking available to us. Because autonomic thinking consists of electrical activity flowing through patterns of connection in our brains I said it had to abide by the laws of physics. But I’ve just proposed that we have a second kind of thinking not entirely bound by those laws.
What supports that second kind of thinking, to make it different? For that I draw inspiration from the genome. Remember I accounted for evolution by supposing that, for the genome, thinking about a species is equivalent to that species evolving. Could that be true of us too? Could something in us be a result of something evolving? How about thoughts? Could our creative thinking consist of thoughts evolving, one thought evolving into another, that thought evolving into another, and so on?
That’s one way creative thinking could be different from autonomic thinking, by being driven by something evolving. And what else do we know about it? As I can testify from my own experience and what I glean from reports by others we can be creative only when we’re conscious. It is only when autonomic thinking gives way to consciousness that we can be creative.
So in us creativity comes associated, somehow, with consciousness. Can we now port that back to the genome? Since we get our creativity from the genome, the genome’s creativity could resemble ours. One way would be by the genome experiencing consciousness as it creates.
Something else we experience as we engage in conscious thinking—what we refer to as free will, at least some degree of freedom from physical determinism. While I’m conscious, I can turn my attention, of my own free will, wherever I want. When I do, my eyes adjust their focus: my physical body reads my conscious intentions, reads from them what it is I want to look at, and engages the muscles supporting the lenses in my eyes to bring it into focus. My conscious intentions can engage physical matter. And if in us, in the genome too? Can we suppose evolution has free will? Such a supposition would connect ancient Stoicism directly to modern science.
This is as far as I’ve been able to carry my attempt to account for all my experience. I can’t say what consciousness is but my triadism can provide a context for it that may help us figure that out. Purely physical mechanisms not being able to for evolution may persuade writers of school textbooks to move beyond such mechanisms to ways mind and consciousness could have evolved. That would make me happy.
Physicalists justify giving evolution a purely physical mechanism because, according to them, mind and consciousness can't interact with matter. Yet it's obvious they can. By causing pain the physical world can connect with the conscious world. Through sensation physical phenomena can connect to meanings in mind. A recovering epiphenomenalist will become acutely aware that consciousness can influence body and brain—conscious world to physical world. We can while conscious create new meanings— conscious world to world of mind. There’s abundant evidence that items in all three branches of my triad can interact freely with one another, whatever physicists say.