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How can we study something we're as ignorant of as how mind evolved? Fortunately, we already have the ideal subject for study in hand. That's us. We experience the processes of evolution from the inside, in how it feels, in what we're aware of. It's already two centuries since we discovered we evolved. It's time we drew on that discovery to enrich our sense of ourselves. Given how poorly equipped science is for that study, I suggest we engage Henri Bergson's "intuition."
Here is what intuition tells me about mind: mind originated as living creatures evolved, in four stages. Stage one is evolution from scratch up to the creation of the genetic code, stage two is the evolution of single-celled creatures, stage three is the evolution of multi-celled creatures, stage four is the evolution of us humans.
I know only three things about Stage One. It began with ordinary non-living matter. It ended in a multitude of microbes. And their properties came coded for them in their genes.
Turning non-living matter into life is quite a challenge. Even the most primitive living creature has to resist being dissolved away into just the chemicals it consists of, while having to expose itself enough to its surrounding to take in more of just those chemicals, and grow. When it’s grown enough it has to know how to divide into two or more creatures like itself. The appearance of creatures satisfying those basic conditions tells us that from the beginning evolution’s been very ingenious.
The process of evolution seems able to impose order on nature as if by intelligent decision-making. For creatures to divide into two or more creatures like themselves, their characteristics must be replicated in their progeny. Instead of letting this problem take its natural course, by living creatures becoming simpler, evolution “chose” to make them much more complicated. It devised a way of coding creatures' characteristics in long molecular strings, genomes made up genes. Then, by duplicating these strings, with minimal errors, and passing one on to each of its progeny, a creature could pass on to them specs for all its characteristics. But now, to those specs evolution had to add instructions for reading and executing the code, and instructions for how to make copies of those molecules and how to distribute them.
More remarkably, characteristics of living creatures became spelled out along the chromosome in combinations of the same set of molecular sub-units. How a characteristic was spelled shouldn't have made any difference to how "fit" a creature was, it would remain the same characteristic, as “dog” and “chien” are the same thing only spelled in different languages. Any of billions of different ways of spelling genes would have done just as well. But something extraordinary happened. Characteristics of all living creatures got written out in the same particular highly specific “genetic” code. The very slight variation that has been found (between bacteria and the archaea, for example) shows that variation was possible, but the variation is so slight it suggests something “decided” to limit all living creatures to the same code-spelling. Since all spellings would be equally fit this uniformity raises the question, who decided which spelling would become the standard? Who else was there to make the decision but the process of evolution itself? It "intelligently decided" that all living creatures' genes be written in the same language. All living creatures' genes would "speak" the same language.
All this made living creatures much more complicated. But it also provided evolution with new tools for making creatures with even more varied, even more elaborate characteristics, more accurately reproducible. This is an example of what I call “engines” the process of evolution can forge to give itself new powers.
So in my story evolution begins perhaps many times, through processes long since lost to view. Then I imagine one line of evolution migrating from its original chemical medium through a succession of substrates until for its fuller expression it settles on life as we know it, coming up for creatures’ genes with a universal language that will become evolution's physical substrate for Stages Two and Three. The process of evolution could then evolve rapidly to become increasingly creative, ingenious, intelligent, and able to arrive at its own decisions. Putting that "arrive at its own decisions" in terms of our own mental capabilities, it became "conscious." At some point it must have become able to transact in consciousness, to be able to make us conscious. To make powered vehicles you need power tools.
From Stage Two onward we have two mechanisms of evolution to choose between. One is the mechanism behind today's scientific theory of evolution. This involves a combination of random damage to creatures’ genes, and selection of those creatures according to how that damage increased or decreased they chance of surviving to reproduce and pass those genes on. Genes for characteristics that make creatures fitter will tend to be selected, their genes appearing more often in future generations. .
It's theoretically possible that damaging a creature's genes will make it fitter. But fior this to work individual genes must code for particular characteristics, and that seems to be the exception. Usually, genes work together to code for individual characteristics, and each characteristic is coded for by multiple genes. Given that, the scientific mechanism can't work.
The other mechanism available to us is the agent I came up with for Stage One--creative, ingenious, capable of conscious decision-making. I see no reason why, having shown such powers in Stage One, it would retire in Stage Two to leave science’s mechanism in charge. Since my mechanism appears to be the more potent of the two, I will assume it continues to be the effective driver of evolution through Stages Two, Three and Four. Logically some genetic damage and natural selection is bound to occur but that doesn't make them what drives evolution. They may no more account for evolution than friction between tires and roads can account for what drives automobiles--such friction is bound to occur but it’s not the driving mechanism.
I pick up my story where I left off at the end of Stage One. Once living creatures became defined by a uniform genetic code they could evolve enormously elaborate characteristics. Now, as it grew, each cell became the substrate for its own intelligence. The process of evolution, whatever physical base it had before, now took the form of these intelligences. Because all cells spoke the same “language” and could communicate through chemical transfers, the exchange of viruses, and so on, the process of evolution could manifest itself at ever larger scales, giving the process ever greater vision and vitality.
I'll refer to this intelligence, associated with each cell, as Max.
While Stage One is the most significant for mind emerging in it, Stage Two continues for the longest time, for half as long as the Earth itself has existed. Here are highlights:
First, Max made himself master of physics and the chemical elements. To tap into the energy given off as heat when something burns he devised the elaborate step-wise processes of photosynthesis. Now living creatures could extract most of the energy of a damaging ray from the sun in a series of tiny sips which it could use to build for itself the chemicals it needed for its own growth.
A billion years on, Max devised for himself a new vehicle, a new kind of cell. Gradually, through the experiences of his creatures, Max became aware of the air, and the land, and the sun, moon and stars. He dreamed of migrating onto the land, and into the air, and maybe one day travelling beyond the Earth and among the stars to discover other intelligences like himself. The new vehicle he created for these travels was a colossus, a vastly more complex cell, with a much more elaborate manner of reproduction, managed from a fortress at the center of the cell, the nucleus, where tissues supporting genetic intelligence could grow without limit. In pursuit of this dream, he diversified this new cell into the ancestors of fungi, plants and animals. He began laying down genes for the building of creatures of great size and powers, composed of trillions of these cells, of hundreds of diverse types. Patiently he laid his plans, all the while embedding in these cells, his planetary rovers, new engines of evolution.
Disaster—Snowball Earth. The Earth froze over, the land became covered by miles of snow, the seas by miles of ice. From conquest Max's passion became survival. Survive he did, along with his new creations. But he had to face his fate; if he was to break out of the sea, onto land and into the air and on to the stars, the process of evolution must once more migrate onto a new form of physical support. In a mighty eruption of creativity he laid down body plans for creatures with many different kinds of cells. To the alien intelligences these creatures would support he entrusted the fulfillment of his vision.
Max remained the intelligence within each cell, master of its vast complexity. But the leading edge of the process of evolution would migrate to creatures made up of many cells, vehicles for a more advanced network of intelligences.
There are three kinds of evolution. One is the evolution of one species into another, which I conceive of as nothing more than intelligent agents of evolution simply bringing to mind one species’ characteristics, re-thinking them, and storing them back into chromosomes as altered genes, genes coding for a variation on the original species or even a new species. Second there’s how the agents of evolution themselves evolve over time as they forge new engines of evolution and new mental powers for themselves. Finally there's change in the physical substrate of life that provides the process of evolution with new realms of mind to colonize. That’s responsible for the deepest groundswells in evolution, allowing agents of evolution to imagine and sketch out the chemistry for entirely new kinds of creatures. Such changes mark the boundaries between Stages One, Two, Three and Four.
Processes of evolution are minds. I think of minds as like bank accounts, they don’t have physical properties like size and location, they exist simply as sets of services. As agents of evolution evolve they develop, within mind, services of ever greater power. What they can achieve depends on the powers of the services in mind they have access to. Unlike us, agents of evolution can read each other’s “minds,” and "think" together, so they've each other's powers to call on as well as their own.
In Stage Two evolution’s substrate was the free flow of genetic information horizontally from one microbe to another. Stage Three opens with genetic information being limited to flowing vertically down the generations within channels carved by sex preferences. Along with sex went a new chemistry of cell division that gave agents of evolution more control, during meiosis, over how characteristics of creatures paired up together. Within each channel an agent could devise new engines of evolution that it could communicate to agents in other channels. So a similar organ could evolve within widely separated channels, like the eyes of mammals and mollusks, and creatures in one channel could pre-adapt to environments already populated by creatures from other channels.
I ended Stage Two with Max yielding direction of life to new intelligences entirely alien to him. These intelligences occupied life at scales from Max himself, in each of a creature's cells, up to agents for a creature’s tissues, its organs, individual living creatures themselves, up through species and orders to phyla and the entire living kingdom. In Stage Three this hierarchy of intelligent agents starts out by generating, within discrete channels, the creatures we're familiar with from the fossil record, among them the “chordates,” “annelids,” “arthropods” and so on, continuing up to those we're familiar with today.
At this point we've so much information about which creatures evolved into others that we can begin crafting biographies for each of these agents. Between dinosaur skeletons and those of mammals there's a dazzling leap in refinement of craftsmanship. Trilobites evolved continuously for hundreds of millions of years, sharks introduced many new characteristics at once but then varied little. The lancelot has evolved barely at all in hundreds of millions of years yet continues to be tolerated by creatures with more-recently enhanced predatory powers.
Convergent evolution and pre-adaptation show us that information can be exchanged between widely-separated channels. But sometimes a new kind of creature may be conceived of, even a creature offering evolution an entirely new substrate, and a complete set of new engines may be conceived for creating such a creature. This must be possible, because it's what made us humans so exceptional.
Here, in more detail, is how living creatures evolve. When we think, when we want to remember something for example, we translate our thoughts into chemistry which we store as memories in brain cells, memories we can later recall. So thinking in us can be translated into chemistry, and back again. If agents of evolution can think like this they'd be about to recall "thoughts" (characteristics) written into their “brain chemistry” (the genes they correspond to), rethink those characteristics, and then store them back into those genomes. Since genes are what define a species, recalling a species’ characteristics, re-thinking them and storing them back as changes to genes is going to create a new species. For agents of evolution, thinking is equivalent to something evolving.
Stage Four opens with agents operating in the channel devoted to the evolution of mammals. They think novel mental powers into their creatures. They made some mammal species social, and gave them enhanced social communications. They added "dreaming," a channel that would open up while the creatures slept, that thse gents of evolution could use for more rapid conscious communications between themselves.
To the agent dedicated to ape evolution this opened up an awesome prospect. If agents of evolution could communicate more rapidly through creatures' dreaming, perhaps dreaming could be made a substrate for the more rapid evolution of the process of evolution itself. In time, perhaps the process of evolution would migrate to this new substrate.
Let’s call this agent of the ape channel “Charlie.” Charlie first imagined a series of steps needed for fulfillment of his vision, and for it he thought into existence a new channel for the evolution of hominids. To begin he "re-thought" into hominid genes many new characteristics. He directed in them the simultaneous evolution of all the talents he could imagine needed for his plan, the invention in the hominid channel of homo sapiens sapiens--us humans--of civilization. And several thousand years ago civilizations did spring up around the world.
As Charlie intended, adapting to civilization plunged the human mind into a frenzied evolution of new powers--technology, logic, maths, art and so on. Just three thousand years ago, he gave humans further scope for the exercise of these new powers by extending into wakefulness the dreaming state. We could now be conscious of our thoughts, as the agents of evolution were of theirs. As, for them, thinking was equivalent to creatures evolving, thinking in us became our thoughts evolving--thinking is one thought evolving into another. Charlie denied us only the ability to communicate with one another through consciousness, to read each other's minds, so we could not read the minds of the agents of evolution. Each human being would be alone in his and her conscious experience.
Finally, technology led us to advances in public health and medicine that within the past century have doubled our life expectancy. A child born today can look forward to an almost certain three-score years and ten. We have removed ourselves almost entirely from predation. Instead our thoughts evolve in our place. We have become agents of the evolution of our thoughts.
Having become agents of evolution we are about to embark on the final step in Charlie's plan, our consciousnesses becoming the substrate for the next stage in the evolution of the process of evolution itself? We will ourselves, each of us, become an agent of the next stage in the evolution of evolution.
This story as an account of evolution
This story can account, in its own terms, for:
- The origin of pre-microbial life forms.
- The genetic code having only one spelling, though in other instances evolution is very tolerant of variation.
- Species typically remaining unchanged for millions of years, then appearing to evolve suddenly into new species.
- The Cambrian Explosion, the sudden emergence of most kinds of animal.
- and so on, up to the appearance of dreaming, and human exceptionalism including the origin of our current state of consciousness and creativity.
Exploring meaning and mission.
An outstanding anomaly in evolution is how rapidly, and simultaneously, we evolved many remarkable new characteristics, such as upright stance freeing our forelegs to develop hands for carrying and toolmaking, mastery of fire for cooking that freed out skulls to accommodate more brain, multiple talents for mimicry, enlargement of the brain and parts of it along with our vocal cavity being reconfigured to manage speech, capacity for developing language, and so on. How eerily efficiently this equipped us to invent civilization and achieve our current creative and technical powers I think should raise a host of questions, as it did for Alfred Wallace. Was this torrent of talents directed? If so, by what or whom? What does all this imply about human nature? How can we not be curious about such issues?
The Ancient Stoic were curious about them. My story amounts to an updating of their doctrines: the process of evolution grants us a share of its own powers, that we can use to learn more about those powers and draw on them to enhance our own existence. Of course that reasoning is circular: we project our intuitions about ourselves onto nature, and then project what we know about nature back onto ourselves. But engaging what we know about ourselves with what we've discovered about nature in this way may be the best we can do so soon (only two centuries) after learning we evolved.
That the methods of science apply only to what's physical disqualifies it from addressing these issues. They would be more appropriately addressed today, as I've tried to demonstrate here, through the methods of the arts and the humanities. For students in the arts and the humanities, consciousness and creativity which are discounted in the scientific account are primary realities. I want to show it's possible to come up with origin stories based on what we know about evolution and ourselves that give those realities due prominence and provide for the humanities new territory to explore.