An Essay on the Origin of Consciousness

By: Michael  C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Whidby Island Conference, August 2000


An Essay on the Origin of Consciousness. 1

Introduction. 1

I. The Emergence of Life and Minded Systems. 1

Strategy. 4


II. The Strategic Emergence of Consciousness. 6

III.  The Problem.. 8

Conclusion. 9

    Bibliography. 9


As a primordial constituent of human existence, consciousness eludes ordinary processes of comparison, differentiation, and description. Accounts of its origins are foundational, belonging to that level of discourse described variously as myth, metaphysics, religion, or worldview. Consciousness has featured prominently in human self-description: depending on the tradition, we glory in one form or another of conscious activity we take to surpass that of other life forms, be it in thinking, or in loving, or relating to others socially, or being ripe for enlightenment. Each of these accounts is intimately associated with a larger framework, such as Greek philosophy, Christianity, Confucianism, or Buddhism, stories or frameworks within which we live and find guidance for our existence. Guidance, of course, suggests a problematique, something about life that calls for conducting ourselves one way rather than another. One can, in fact, approach the various great traditions as differing not so much in their answers as in the positing of the fundamental human problem.

The second half of the twentieth century has thrust a new and rather unprecedented sense of problem upon us as our vigorously expanding population and even more vigorous GNPs visibly and critically impact and transform the entire system of life on the earth. For perhaps the first time in the history of civilized thought we are being led by our experience to question our role and place in things in a way that challenges the traditionally unquestioned (though variously explicated) centrality of human beings. Some even go so far as to regret our human presence, seeing the system of life as essentially problem-free except for our endangering, hyperactive presence.

The great traditions of human thought and religious life bring their resources to bear on this problem with varying degrees of effectiveness, and are themselves impacted by the insertion of this new problematique in different ways. One limitation they share is that the eco-problem is inserted into a framework which originally was animated by a different problematique (salvation, enlightenment, sin, delusion, etc.), and the associated assumptions about human centrality tend in various ways to mute the radical nature of the eco-problem rather than to explicate it. Anthropocentrism is a much-denounced source of systematic distortion, but even the least anthropocentric traditions do little to illuminate the nature of the problem: that we are parts of a great organic unity, or brothers and sisters of bears and otters decentralizes our place but offers scant guidance as to how to go about being human in our contemporary circumstances.

  The anthropocentric traditions typically glory in our unique consciousness, while the less anthropocentric gloss the all too evident fact that we do something with our minds which puts us in a different position from any other form of life on the globe at present. In sum, the eco-problem invites us to reexamine the systemic place and function of our form of consciousness in terms germane to the nature of the ecological problematique itself, rather than borrowing assumptions that may be more of a distraction than a help.

I. The Emergence of Life and Minded Systems

At any given time and place, the symbiotic web of life and its geo-systemic context gives us the object of ecological concern and inquiry. Ecosystems are synchronic cross-sections of the diachronic process by which life evolves, so the evolutionary story of how the system came to have its present shape is essential for any deep understanding of an ecosystem. Evolution and ecosystem thus give us the fitting framework for our inquiry. Addressing the question of the rise of consciousness in this context  joins it to the question of the arising of life.  It has been common, at least since Pierre Teilhard deChardin, to treat the emergence of both life and consciousness in terms of the notion of complexity. Whatever it is we mean by physical matter, it seems to be the kind of stuff that, when it reaches a condition of sufficient complexity, exhibits recognizable characteristics of life. And at a further, much more complex level, this life manifests forms of consciousness that finally culminate in the full self-awareness of human beings. One might infer that somehow life and consciousness are not alien epiphenomena, but emergent characteristics of complex physical systems.

Insofar as it might lead to a thoughtful reconsideration of what we mean by “physical” or “material,” there is some usefulness in this analysis. For too long we have labored with a notion of  matter bereft of an inherent capacity for life or mentality, which have been attributed to spirit rather than matter. If we are to get along without this traditional dichotomy, the lifeless matter in need of “animation” by some spiritual principle must be rethought.

But for our purposes, the analysis also misleads. Under the guise of complexity, it smuggles in traditional notions of directionality and value. The upshot of this is the identification of human consciousness as the crowning achievement of evolution (as if evolution were bent on achieving something). The analysis also assumes that the human version of consciousness is the main or most advanced and inherently important instance of a phenomenon that otherwise might be framed as a complex and multi-branched development. There are no grounds for asserting that this view is incorrect, but neither is there any compelling reason to say it is correct. At the least we must notice that such an assumption takes us rapidly down a quite traditional path that could well explain why the earth should rejoice in our emergence, but sheds little light on our evident role in trashing the system. Weak in a sense of problem, this analysis of the emergence of consciousness in terms of complexity really offers little guidance. Further, in this focus on ramifying complexity, there is little hint that collapse may be as native to systemic behavior as growth. If, as described by theorists such as Stuart Kauffman, complex systems self-organize and evolve “at the edge of chaos,” (Kauffman, 1995, pp. 86-92) the knowledge that we represent the cutting edge of an evolutionary probe into a unique kind of complexity should perhaps evoke a certain apprehension along with our sense of ourselves as an extraordinary achievement.

  Perhaps a more useful way of framing the question of consciousness within an evolutionary context would be to address it from the direction of function. Function, unlike the notion of progressive process, relates closely to the dynamic of natural selection, the lifeblood of the evolutionary process. It is undoubtedly shortsighted to assume that every wonderful capacity in living creatures must be explained in terms of an advantage it confers with respect to an adaptive fitness manifest ultimately in superior reproductive success. But it is even more certain that broad categories of evolutionary development cannot be divorced from that question. The shape of birds’ beaks and mammals’ teeth develop in close relation to their aptness for available food supplies. Guppies sacrifice the bright coloration that makes them sexually attractive in direct proportion to the intensity of predators to which it makes them more vulnerable. The ability to move fast in pursuit or flight is an obvious advantage in predator-prey relationships, but stillness and camouflage may serve a similar purpose. The context-sensitive nature of functionality serves as a useful corrective to our inclination to establish easy hierarchies of value or assume that more is better, for adaptive fit eschews any such abstractions.  With this in mind, we are forewarned that whatever consciousness is, the notion that “more” of it is better must be submitted to a contextualized examination.

Questions posed in terms of function have the added advantage of broadening the scope of inquiry beyond barriers intuitively grounded in morphology.  Legs seem to be one thing, fins another, but they share a common function in rendering their owners mobile in their respective environments. Indeed, legs take on a new meaning when assessed in the comparative perspective of the many strategies to achieve advantageous mobility in differing environments. And the commonality with fins disclosed by the functional consideration paves the way for understanding even deeper connections when we address the question of water-based life evolving into land-based life and find fins evolving into legs. If we can see consciousness in the context of its function, we might be equally freed from the morphological assumptions that limit us to identifying it particularly with its human manifestation and our close counterparts. Perhaps we can even discover a functional basis for consciousness that can equally apply to the emergence of awareness in micro-organisms and termites, as well as humans, allowing us to trace among them a connected but differentiating evolutionary trajectory.

Whatever the function served by awareness, it certainly has something to do with life, so our heuristic path in search of an evolutionary account of consciousness might well begin with reflecting on the question of what is involved in the most elemental level of being alive. Biologists and others intimately involved with the investigation of living organisms have had to make do with no precise definition of what it means to be alive. In any case, contemporary epistemology knows too much about the relational, contextual, and constructive elements of cognition to seek traditional Aristotelian essential definitions. No single characteristic defines life, nor is it possible to draw a clear and indisputable line between that which is living and that which is non living. But difficulties of delineating boundaries do not mean that differences are unreal, any more than the difficulty of saying when an adolescent becomes an adult means there is no difference between the two conditions.

One way we recognize life is through death: a thing must be alive in order to die. Life is survival, death the termination of surviving. But the meaning of survival for a living organism is something different from its meaning, for example, in the case of a radioactive isotope. The isotope is a relatively complex physical system that endures for a certain length of time and then transforms into something else. The same might be said of a flower. But we do not consider radioactive decay as death. What is the difference?

The answer takes us one step further towards a description of life. There is something about the way the living system maintains itself which is different from the way a non-living system maintains itself. A balance of physical forces may constitute a relatively stable and complex system, but only when we discern some sort of activity aimed at maintaining that system do we start to think of life. Survival is an achievement for a living system, a happenstance for an atomic particle.

Some might argue that the implication of purposive effort here is an anthropomorphic projection. I would, however, suggest the opposite: that we are looking at the systemic, structural root of a situation that eventually is manifested, among its many other forms, as conscious, purposive activity. Probing a bit deeper into what is involved in “activity aimed at maintaining a system” will help explicate this. Reproduction, eating, and the associated metabolic processes are activities of this sort commonly cited as indicators of life. Reproduction maintains species or kinds as well as individual organisms, and we shall return to that level of consideration later. Eating relates directly to maintaining individual life and also highlights the structural novelty of life. Aimed activity (vs. random happening) is clearly evident when a mobile organism goes after its lunch. But directed and selective motion is an evolutionary development that only makes manifest a more fundamental structure relating “aim” to the processes by which life is maintained.  Most fundamentally, life as we know it seems to be a non-self-contained energy system. Living organisms not only happen to feed on outside sources, they need those sources to maintain their constitutive processes. The need and consequent aim are structural factors, not mentalistic projections: organism A is the kind of system that is literally structured in terms of specific items (nutrients), that are other than itself. Even when feeding is just a matter of nutrients floating in through a semi-porous membrane, there is a selective and specific use made of what floats in: the system “expects” certain things and not others by the very way in which it is structured. It is an instructed system.

It may be that life, whatever it is, extends to regions where there is no such nutritive metabolic process. Viruses pose the classic borderline question. But for our purposes the important thing is to note how the maintaining process structurally reaches beyond the immediate living organism. This feature plays a central role in the evolutionary development of life as we know it. At the macro level we see it in our understanding of food chains or nets or trophic pyramids, key concepts in our grasp of the systemic development and elaboration of life. At the micro level it provides an enlightening nexus with information theory.

Physicists have introduced the term “information” to discuss differing degrees of freedom in physical systems. But Gregory Bateson’s suggestive definition of the most fundamental unit of information as “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson, 1972, p. 315) is perhaps better suited to a discussion of life processes. A strength of this definition is that it immediately pinpoints an often-ignored difference between information and simple physical processes. The latter can involve myriad differences, as force interacts with force, chemical with chemical etc., all in ways that can in principle be mathematically calculated and predicted. But the difference made by a piece of information (because it makes a difference) can in no way be calculated in the manner one calculates the impact of a body of mass x moving at speed y.  Attempts to reduce conscious processes to electrical impulses coursing through neural nets, for example, confuse the physical electrical differences with the information they carry: the information, not the electrical impulse that conveys it, makes the difference. Presumably the patterns of verbal stimuli that convey the news I have won the lottery, travel similar neural circuits as electrical impulses of a like magnitude that communicate a death in the family. But the response to these different pieces of information (vs. response to the electrical activity) is vastly different. As far as we know, information is conveyed only through physical differences, but the difference it makes belongs to a different dimension than the world of physical differences and their proportioned magnitudes.

One way of describing this difference, as Bateson notes, is that information is acted upon not in terms of its energy but its content, and the energy of the action is supplied by the living organism (Bateson, 1972, p. 452-53). Hence a living, information-based reaction is quite different from a mechanical physical interaction, and any attempt to reduce the former to the latter is bound to fail.

The point of intersection between this approach to information and our observations regarding living organisms is the idea of aim. Living systems aim at maintaining themselves, and something being aimed at seems to be the requisite condition for anything “making a difference.” Absent this, action based on the content of information is inconceivable, for it is the aim inherent in structured self-maintenance that introduces meaningful difference into content. Biologists crystallize this in distinguishing life by the possession of instructions, and it is no accident that the great advances in molecular biology bear more resemblance to the cracking of a semiotic code than to the discourse of physics and chemistry. One may even say the moment a complex physical system becomes an instructed, information-based system, is the moment in which it becomes recognizably alive.

Buried in this account of life and information are the roots of what at later levels of life is manifested in what we describe as seeking, or purposive behavior. This is already carried in the term “aim” introduced unavoidably above. Early on, mechanistic science became highly critical of traditional teleological notions such as purpose or final causes: impressed with the explanatory power of physical mechanisms that operate by transferring forces, the idea of a kind of causality exercised precisely by an absence (hence something to be sought after) seemed altogether too “mystical.” But as we have seen, a life system is structured precisely in terms of that which is beyond itself, i.e. absent, as evidenced in the most fundamental process of selective nutrition. This structuring amounts to a kind of “presence-in-absence” of needed resources that mandates motivated behavior: unlike a molecule, a cell must do something to maintain itself.

And precisely at this point information fits in. Congruent with the structural presence-in-absence of required (and aimed at) energy sources, information renders its content present-while-absent. Information is about something, it is not the thing itself; thus it is the base of informed activity leading to the actual attaining of what is required.

  Consciousness is, of course, par excellence a function of rendering contents present-while-absent, and it is in terms of this functionality that we will investigate it in the context of evolution. That is, we will eventually locate consciousness as one of the emergent strategies in the complex world of information processing which seems to be coextensive with life. Here we note the fundamental framework within which to consider that emergence. With life, an enduring and self-reproducing system that maintains itself in terms of resources beyond itself, comes differences that make a difference. So with the emergence of life the differentiated world of physical and chemical interactions is transmuted into a world of differences that make a difference, that is, a world of information.

Initially a system based on only physics and chemistry may be indistinguishable from one in which information is present. But information exercises a type of causality that, while never independent of the processes of physics and chemistry, is nonetheless quite different. Given time, the difference becomes strikingly evident even in terms of physics and chemistry. James Lovelock, with his Gaia hypothesis, was one of the first to call attention to this fact in literally global systemic terms. Asked by NASA to devise criteria by which the presence of life on Mars might be recognized, he soon realized the presence of life could be ascertained even from earth because any sustained life would alter the chemical composition of the planet into proportions far different from what would be produced by uninformed chemical processes. He describes how life (information) feedback loops soon control and maintain a system that suits and sustains life, maintaining critical temperature ranges, atmospheric constitutions etc. quite at variance from what would be the case in their absence. Thus Gaia, the idea of a globe-encompassing living and life maintaining system, was born.

Lovelock’s work has been received with suspicion and sometimes hostility by a scientific community long habituated to an essentially mechanistic world-view and sensitive to overtones of teleology. Try as he might (being himself a member of that same scientific community) he could not sufficiently strip his insight from the forbidden taint of purposive activity, and hence “mysticism.” Gregory Bateson, working from another vector, arrived at a similarly perplexing point by differentiating information systems from simple physical systems with the introduction of the term “mind”--hence the title of the most influential collection of his essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. For reasons discussed above, we can understand why the discussion of life cannot in the end be separated from aim, and hence teleology, information, and activity informed by aim. Neither teleology nor mind need be mystical unless used to inappropriately read our form of manifesting these characteristics of life and information back into levels from which our form emerged. We pursue the opposite course:  understanding how these characteristics belong to fundamental life/information processes will help us understand the emergence, place, and challenge of our form of purpose driven, goal-setting consciousness.

Initially the use of the substantive noun, mind, is problematic, and we might better begin with a more easily understood adjectival form, “minded.” I distinguish information-based activity as “minded,” because it parts company with uninformed physico-chemical activity precisely in terms of characteristics we associate with the familiar exercise of our own minds. My argument, however, is that these mental characteristics describe our form of mind because they belong fundamentally to information processes, and our minds are one, among many, of such processes. Minded activity does not imply the presence of a mind anything like ours, but our minds are so called, in distinction from purely physical processes, because they specialize in minded activity.

Of the many distinctive minded ways information shapes the evolving world, two merit particular attention. The first is strategy, perhaps the broadest category of informed activity. The second is preference, analytically a subcategory of strategy, but one that so powerfully modifies the living world it deserves separate consideration.  


  One cannot speak long of life processes at any level without the word “strategy” appearing. We describe organs as having healing strategies or defense strategies, AIDS and other viruses as strategically invading us and utilizing our cells for their own reproductive strategies, or life itself as evolving in terms of ever probing strategies for making a living etc. etc. But real strategy coordinates A and B in terms of some purpose--the classic activity of mind. Assuming the absence of mind, or mind as we know it, we try to puzzle out the mechanical processes that could have developed into these strategies and keep reminding ourselves that, however unavoidable our use of the term, “strategy” is only a metaphor.

It does not take conscious mind, however, to coordinate A and B in terms of some purpose. All it takes is a self-reproducing system (A) that maintains itself in terms of some external condition (energy source, etc., B); this gives us a difference that makes a difference, i.e. information, and a strategic, minded system has emerged. One critical difference that introduces the element of aim (differences making a difference) and transforms physical processes into strategies would appear to be self-reproduction. A whirlpool formed as the bathtub water goes down the drain is a coherent, patterned energy system maintained in terms of an external flow, and it changes as the water conditions change; but there is nothing there to which this difference makes a difference. A whirlpool is indeed only metaphorically water’s strategy for getting down a drain, or a drain and water metaphorically a whirlpool’s strategy for arising.

Feedback loops are a common feature of such energy processes, but successful reproduction closes the loop in the unique self-referential way that transforms it into information feedback, a system in which differences do make a difference. The critical information, the mother of all information, is simply that whatever is going on works to enable self-reproduction. This minimal requirement transforms any patterned energy system into a system with aim, a system of trial and error. The trial and error, success/failure character of the system emerges not from some inexplicable life force, but from the self-reference of the reproductive loop. The system itself, functioning as it does in its milieu, will reproduce itself, establishing a systemically specific criterion of working or not working. What works for reproduction will continue and its parameters may ramify and develop; what does not work, or work so well, will not recur or recur with less frequency. A selective process is underway with a non-arbitrary criterion of success and failure that transforms differentiated patterns of activity into minded strategies, modes of activity that attain better or more poorly the “goal” of reproduction. Reproduction is not itself a goal of the physical system; but once reproduction is hit upon, it becomes the goal in the sense that the life system is henceforth involved in a feedback loop which will organize it for reproduction. With this, aim, differences that make a difference, information and strategy have emerged.

Information is causal, so the strategic process of the reproductive feedback loop is inherently transformative or evolutionary. Metabolism cannot depart from the constant laws of physics or chemistry, but the reproductive success of a given mode of operation moves the cumulative effects of that mode of operation along a path no longer dictated by chemistry alone. Photosynthesis, for example, has produced an oxygen-rich atmosphere of proportions that would never arise by ordinary chemical atmospheric processes.  And this in turn created new opportunity for organisms that developed strategies for coexisting with and then for utilizing oxygen.

The information contained in the reproductive loop is inherently coordinating and system building, for its selective bearing is not on individuals but on the success of the relationship between the organism and the environment in terms of which it makes a living. In terms of the simple trial and error criterion of what works, there is no difference between strategies that fit the organism to the environment or modify the environment to fit the organism, and life soon evolves to do both. A relational strategy as vague as “whatever works” (in terms of reproductive success) can thus yield highly complex and specialized systems.

This is especially evident as life begins to live in terms of other life, launching both the food chain and interdependent reproductive strategies. The feedback loop of a given organism’s reproductive success reflects the presence and positive or negative consequences of forms of interaction with all other organisms present in the environment, and each of those organisms likewise reflect in their reproductive success their fit with that organism. In this way a complex system of intertwined and interdependent information or informed activity arises. Conditions in which flowers flourish are reflected in the reproductive success of the nectar-feeding metabolisms of certain insects, and the success of these insects is reflected in the success of plants which use them in pollination-based reproductive strategies.

Life itself, as we have seen, is a relational process, and information functions fundamentally to correlate differences that make a difference. The fundamental agent of correlation is the reproductive feedback loop, the architect of informed processes or minded, strategic activity. As information loops become intertwined by cross-referencing and mutual implication, systems of informed activity and organization arise that transcend the immediacy of the individuals of which they are composed, giving rise to systems-wide versions of “what works.”

Considering the inherently relational, coordinating nature of information processes, we should not be surprised to discover that mind, understood as that which guides informed activity, is as much a character of systems as of individuals. Interlocking, interdependent strategies constitute wholes on a new level of complexity with emergent abilities that pertain to the whole rather than any part, and these wholes survive, re-equilibrate, and evolve through analogues of the genetic feedback loop. The so-called “social construction of reality,” much in vogue nowadays as we come to understand the processes that maintain the systemic mind of our communities, is not uniquely or even primarily a human phenomenon.

Strategic processes are naturally agglutinative, building elaborate systems and metasystems through simply taking account of one another. The typical products of such processes have evoked wonder because they assume forms impossible to understand as the consequence of random physico-chemical processes. Complex nucleated cells, the fundamental unit of all multi-cellular organisms, are now understood themselves to be organized communities: the chloroplasts or mitochondria which are their essential energy factories turn out to have their own separate and personal DNA, reflecting their precommunal evolutionary history as independent non-nucleated cells. Now their replication and activity are so intricately referenced to the strategic processes by which the nucleated cell is maintained, we could hardly imagine the larger cell is not one thing, but, as Lewis Thomas marvels, more like “a condominium run by trustees” (Thomas, 1992, p. 22).

Once the phenomenon is pointed out, we discover such manifestations of strategic entwinement all around us in a panoply of varied part-whole relationships. The differentiated organism we call a Portuguese Man of War replicates the form and function of the multi-cellular organisms called jellyfish, but it turns out to be in fact a coordinated community of reproductively distinct cellular organisms, parts that in themselves turn out to be wholes. And conversely, apparently whole individuals may function totally as subunits of larger systems, and only the larger communal system manifests what we more easily identify as a whole mind. The organized behavior that sustains a colony of ants or termites, for example, exists in the information processing of no single individual, and individuals may be so specialized that they bring to mind organs of reproduction, external sensation, defense etc.. Digestive tracts from humans to termites are populated with microorganisms that play a critical role in breaking down food to forms that can be used by the body. We could not be we without them, nor they without us, yet by ordinary criteria we lead separate, though intertwined, lives.

The ongoing evolution of systemically intertwining life strategies demands a balanced combination of predictability and flexibility. Too inconsistent, and there is no ongoing condition that can find its reflection in the shape of the feedback loop of what works; too rigid, and those loops could not modify to become intertwined and continually shifting reflections of one another. We understand consistency and predictability from our experience with mechanical causality, but this ill-prepares us to comprehend the flexibility and relative unpredictability of strategic, information-based systems. We are tempted to apply mechanistic models and expectations to systems that live and develop by strategic response. The difference becomes unmistakable, however, with the emergence of preferences.


  The teleological dimension inherent in life critically wedges life processes from the iron grip of mechanistic predictability. A path of mechanical causality always leads to a determined effect. But a given effect does not predetermine a causal path, for multiple paths may produce a similar effect. This is especially the case when the effect is as vague and yet precise as reproductive success, the critical information loop that sets the limits and even the relative scaling on the measure of what works. The initial process of organic life may have been narrow and predictable, virtually indistinguishable from a purely mechanical process, but billions of iterations tease out alternatives and broaden the scope and multiply the paths of what works. Indeed, as life processes by their presence began to alter the predictable composition of the physical environment, the emergence of layered strategies with flexible options shows up in itself as a selective advantage in the ongoing probe into what works.

The emergence of options, more than one way things can work, introduces a new dimension into the process by which systems are elaborated: preference becomes an important formative factor. When we talk about plants as shade-loving or having a preference for acidic soil etc., our language is metaphorical. But even here it points to a world of more-or-less, where life strategies may have broad tolerances and yet are still controlled by factors that have a clear gradient of working more or less well. Introducing variables such as mobility and sensation further loosens the system: the world starts to be shaped not only by physics and chemistry and biological needs, but by appetite.

Appetites, preferences, proclivities that tilt organisms towards one option or another may in some cases be tightly coupled to survival, but in many cases what works may include potential options that are selected by a random bent in one direction or another. Coevolution means that chicken-and-egg situations are the rule. Creatures may survive because they prefer what is available, but there are also powerful feedback loops that shape what is available in terms of what is preferred. If creatures with a sweet tooth are agents for spreading seeds, fruiting plants become bent towards superior propagation of the sweetest fruits. Eyes that for whatever reason are inclined towards red may become a factor that fills the world with red flowers. Defense mechanisms have a similar effect, though with an opposite rationale.  In the selective process of reproductive success, the repertoire of what works increasingly becomes elaborated in terms of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell: attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain, become critical to shaping the world.  With no ill will, the world also becomes more deceptive as strategies interweave with other creatures' information processing abilities and associated proclivities. Disinformation is a strategy inherent in information referenced to information: whether you are a likely lunch or a hungry lunch seeker, it pays to look like something else, or to be overlooked entirely.

  Having seen how completing the loop of reproductive success gives rise to life as a minded, evolving, ramifying, information-based system of interdependent and cross-referencing strategies, we are now prepared to investigate our own human place within this system. Mindedness, aim, information processing may be considered characteristic features of the entire evolving life system. Mind, in this sense, turns out to be present throughout, manifested in the multiple species and in the emergent eco-systems in which they are interwoven as a continually shifting array of strategic probes into what will work as an informed way of making a living. Our own form of mind, specialized towards self-consciousness, experiential memory, and imaginative flexibility, represents one such strategic probe. From what conditions has this strategy emerged, with what is it enmeshed and cross-referenced, and what are its systemic challenges and likely trajectory?

II. The Strategic Emergence of Consciousness

          Strategies are inherently circumstantial. In order to understand our own form of consciousness as a strategic emergence, we must first step back to view the array of strategies within which it emerges as the cutting edge representative of one sort of evolutionary probe. Perhaps the advent of mobility was the primal step heading in the general strategic direction to which we belong.  In a system of thinning nutrients, the acquisition of mobility would offer a selective advantage.

          And the same fundamental feedback loop, with its bottom line of what works, would likewise govern the selective dynamics by which motion, once available, would become increasingly motivated, i.e. informed and guided by information. At this point a new category of information becomes vitally relevant: anything that will transform random motion to directed motion related to the conditions and sources of survival would give a vital adaptive edge. Everything we mean by senses, sensation, or sensitivity fits this category, especially those that fill the information gap attendant upon spatial separation.

The transfer of information across a spatial gap is typically achieved through patterned variations in some medium. Pattern carries the element of consistency or repetition required for variation to become meaningful. No pattern, i.e. pure difference, like an alphabet of indeterminate size in which every letter is new, can communicate nothing; on the other hand no variation in the pattern would mean no difference that can make a difference. Physical wave phenomena such as sound, light, and heat are ideally suited to this situation. The modulated wave patterns were there all along as physical phenomena; the evolutionary trick was to develop a sensitive responsiveness to their modifications and thus transform them into vehicles of information. 

It is interesting to note that, contrary to unreflective belief, what senses such as sight, hearing, and smell render present is not physical reality but an intricately differentiated pattern of information about “reality.” The modified, patterned wave phenomena or their equivalents that are the basis of sensation-at-a-distance are information about what’s going on, but they are not what’s going on: the map is not the territory. This difference from physical reality is in fact essential to the usefulness of information: if the sight of a tiger were a tiger rather than a rendering the tiger present-while-absent, i.e. an experience that is about a tiger, there would be little point to the whole exercise. Indeed, this difference between information and what it is about allows the freeplay that evolves a world of strategic developments based on the manipulation of information. The same systemic information processes that might select for the recognition of poisonous snakes will also produce creatures that might benefit by looking like poisonous snakes. The very media of information, such as light and sound waves, thus become critical elements of the evolutionary process.

     The evolution of organisms that utilize sensation in making a living signifies likewise the emergence of awareness. It is difficult to say whether sensation and awareness initially may be different terms for the same thing. Much is clouded here by our own experience of these phenomena, which represents a particular evolutionary path marked by further forms of emergence.  One might imagine stages of the process, beginning with something like a physical responsiveness to light, heat, or sound, within which responsiveness to differences eventually makes a difference not just physically but as a basis for activity generated by the organism’s own system.

From the point at which awareness might still be considered identical with sensation, perhaps the critical emergence is the incipient differentiation between self and other. We saw this structure already in our discussion of the emergence of life as a system that makes a living in terms of what is other than or beyond itself.  But the physical differentiation between an organic system and its surroundings is not yet information about that differentiation. Particularly for motile organisms, one might consider that difference to be one of the most fundamental items that would “make a difference.” But what could be the bearer of the information that would transform an organic system from simply defacto acting as a bordered system to making that bordered existence a difference in guiding its activity? One might think of sensation as a primary source of this information, insofar as it gives rise to the differentiated world of experience, which in its various modalities includes the experience of one’s own borders. The multiplicity of senses and their simultaneous function translated into a centralized nervous system might well be factors that also contribute in an important way to the emergence of a form of awareness on the road to our much-prized “self-awareness.”

A mosquito that adroitly escapes my descending hand exhibits an awareness in which the self/other differentiation is functionally present; but, presumably, the mosquito is not afflicted with human questions of death, self-worth, envy and the like, which we regard as distinctive features of human consciousness. On the other hand, a gorilla like Koko can pass a mirror, be surprised to see a bow in her hair, and reach up to touch it--not the bow in the mirror, but the one in her hair. In recognizing herself as the source of a visual image, rather than perceiving the image as another chimp, she evidences a kind of reflective self-awareness akin to what we see in ourselves. We certainly represent an evolutionary path on which we are not alone.

At the same time we remind ourselves that the mosquito cannot be considered less advanced than the gorilla; it simply is headed in a different evolutionary direction. Here our functional or strategic approach to the question of consciousness bears fruit. Situating consciousness in the larger functional context of evolutionary strategies leaves room for understanding and evaluating it in something other than the dichotomy of uncritical self-congratulation on the one hand or mechanistic reductionism and vacuous egalitarianism on the other.  As the carrier of information about the world, sensory awareness is a critical means of making a living, as is especially evident among species that can move responsively. Mosquitoes and chimps are both well equipped, and both respond effectively to the varied circumstances that attend mobile lives. But deeper patterns of change and variation raise a strategic question that goes beyond the immediacy of stimulus-response sensory function. In this changing world, the ability to modify response in terms of novel circumstances, that is, learning, is a matter of fundamental importance. It is not the presence and absence of learning that differentiate the mosquito and the chimp, but the fact that they are centered on differently conditioned strategies of learning. If learning ability is intelligence, we might well speak here of two fundamental forms of intelligence, genetic and experiential.

Intelligence, in the sense appropriate to this context, is a matter of taking in information regarding (changing) circumstances and putting forth an effective response. Gene pools contain all the genomes of an interbreeding population. As such they are at the heart of each species’ reproductive feedback loop and might be viewed as the systemic intelligence or mind of the entire evolutionary web of life. At first blush, a genome is a dynamic recipe or blueprint for laying out a given organism. But the pool of such recipes within a species, including the range of available variations and their proportional frequency, as well as additional random mutations, processes a very different sort of information. The simple, selective feedback loop of what has worked well enough to allow reproduction to occur encodes an environment in the gene pool. In a rabbit’s genes there is none explicitly labeled “hawk” or “coyote”, but selection has accomplished the equivalent by sifting the pool to genomes that reflect a degree of successful escape from sudden death from the sky or swift predation on the ground. And the genomes of the hawks and coyotes are likewise sifted for instructions appropriate to the abilities currently available to rabbits: who eats well a particular environment is vividly reflected in the all-important frequency of given genomes within the gene pool. The result is a kind of evolutionary arms race, in which faster sharper predators create more wary and versatile prey and vice-versa.

  Genetic intelligence as a strategy for coping with environmental change serves different species unequally. Our record of success in obliterating microorganisms or insects we humans deem undesirable by the most inimical modification of their environs we can conceive is spotty at best: they evolve around our assaults, genetic intelligence triumphant. On the other hand our attempts to save large furry critters we have endangered by environmental modifications often depend on restoring or preserving conditions of their original habitat. Endangered grizzlies do not throw up mutant grizzlies, they just disappear.  What the information processing of gene pools can accomplish for bears that produce two cubs every three years is drastically different from what can occur for insects that might live two days but produce dozens of offspring.  Put simply, the power of genetic intelligence as an essential adaptive strategy for a species is fundamentally conditioned: it performs brilliantly for those who live briefly and reproduce massively. But the advent of creatures that that can live long and reproduce modestly signals the availability of a further strategy.

The further strategy is essentially an alternative evolutionary track—a genetically based development towards other ways of dealing with the challenge of change. One development in particular seems to presage our own emergence. We can measure, using fossil remains, the growth of skull capacity in mammalian predators and prey over millions of years. Here the genetically based “arms race” dynamic referred to above plays with the capacities of a central nervous system: the capacities of predators and of their prey keep ratcheting up, but the proportions remain the same.  Herbivores need fewer wits to eat than do carnivores, but they need enough wits to keep from being eaten, which means the carnivores must get even wittier to get their dinner. In this ratcheting process, enhanced physical abilities are conjoined with enhanced mental abilities. We can with justice speak not only of faster, but of smarter predator and prey.

Any number of adaptive evolutionary strategies in various combinations, degrees, and permutations accompany enlarged brains. However the selective pressures that favor the kind of flexibility that goes with learning from experience delineate the strategic trajectory from which we emerge. We can easily recognize ourselves among creatures that exploit strategies that include larger, more complex bodies, longer lives coping with variable conditions, and later, more limited reproduction. Such circumstances weight individual, experiential learning. In this alternative strategy new factors become significant. Sensory awareness is amplified by memory, which makes things present even in the absence of immediate sensory experience. Insects likewise seem able to do this; the decisive parting of the ways is the deviation from the insects’ hard-wired response. Fast genetic feedback operates across multiple generations to tune and keep insect responsiveness on target in changing circumstances; but larger, more slowly reproducing creatures confronted with change may be better served by a less tight responsive linkage to memory: imagination begins to play a role.

Our cat, crouched by our fishpond, clearly remembers the goldfish she caught a few days ago and imagines another catch. Here we enter tricky ground where projection or anthropomorphizing easily slips in. But the ease of anthropomorphizing can as well be based on continuities and differences in degree as upon substanceless projection. When I see the apparent phenomena of kitty boredom, loss of interest, or settling on alternative strategies, the rudiments of my own conscious world seem present. The apparent discontinuities begin to be filled in as research shows creatures such as chimps and dolphins exhibiting degrees of capacities we once considered exclusively our own. We are evidently not the only self-aware, imaginative symbolic manipulators on the planet, though we seem to have left the others so far behind that only in the last few decades have the continuities become recognizable.

Why is there such a gap between humans and other creatures that utilize experiential learning? Systems theorists use the term “threshold” to designate situations in which a small incremental change suddenly transforms everything: at some point, another degree of heat makes water boil into steam, or a degree less crystallizes it into ice. With regards to what it means to learn from experience, the threshold may well be a matter of communication. We can identify such communication thresholds and their dramatic effects within the human community over the last 12,000 years: from oral cultures to writing, from handwriting to printing, to typewriters, telephones, telegraph, recordings, video imaging, computers and on and on.

Many creatures, we now know, learn from experience. And some communicate about that experience. But just where is that degree of communication, that threshold, where the sharing of experience outstrips the attrition of change and death, so that a species moves to continuously accumulating experience as a basis from which to live? Oral language already crossed that fundamental threshold, and our other advances in communication have exponentially increased our accumulation and sharing of what has now become a massive deposit of experience. What is meant by “experience” in this situation is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the more direct and individual experience from which it evolved. The accumulation from which we live and project our future plans has long exceeded what any individual ever could experience, and is creatively interwoven in ways that are no longer grounded in the secure experience of the past. We now look the future to verify what we make of an accumulation that is no longer anyone’s experience, but rather a thick layer deposited between us and direct experience.

This bears closer scrutiny, for we are here on terrain that is recognizably human and a clear matter of the function of our conscious capacities. In particular we should return to the role of imagination. Memory is a deposit of experience. Imagination is an ingredient that goes beyond simple recall to make something of the memory: if I wait by this place, a deer will come again--the strategy of the hunter who hunts with learning beyond hard-wired instinct. We do it, and so do a myriad of our predatory cousins, and so do their prey. Some are better at it than others: it’s part of what we mean by “smart.” But our cumulative learning, conjoined with imagination, has moved decisively beyond this sort of adapting to circumstances to adapting circumstances to ourselves; nature becomes culture, a world of imaginative artifice manufactured on the base of our shared and cumulative learning.

III.  The Problem

  Confident summons for humans to assume their fated positions in piloting spaceship earth reverberate in the same cultural space with alarmist calls to virtually dismantle civilization. The polarization assumes very different things about the status of our awesomely inventive, inquisitive, and acquisitive human consciousness. This evolution-based account of the phenomenon is intended to lay the groundwork for a sober and useful assessment of our situation.

We might begin by considering the fundamental importance of clocks in life systems: rates and scales of change are critical. The knot of our ecological problem is joined and tied when we add the observation that, in systemic terms, humans have evolved into the fastest species on earth. Cheetahs run faster, rabbits breed faster, fruit flies live faster than humans. In the time-sensitive system of evolving life, what is the precise nature of human speed, and what can it tell us about why our ecological fit now seems so problematic?

In our earlier reflections locating human consciousness at the cutting edge of a particular line of evolutionary development, we placed humans among the species that consist of relatively long-lived individuals that reproduce in limited numbers. Such species have much riding on the adaptive fit of individuals to the typical variety of circumstances that occur within this expanded timeframe. One evolutionary probe arising from this moves in the direction of enhancing flexible adaptation to widely varying circumstances. This strategy places a premium on a kind of learning in which individual and immediate experience becomes the basis for modifying responsiveness in future situations. In terms of the temporal framework of life systems, the here-and-now of individual lived experience is the briefest, or fastest, of all intervals. A strategy of adaptively making a living by flexible learned response to such experience is therefore an experiment in speed. As evolved masters of this strategy, we are relatively comfortable with--in fact, inclined to induce--a rate of change that other life forms and systems may find insupportable. We probe the systemic limits of the strategy.

  The general systemic limits most evidently being tested by us fast-moving humans may be described in terms of the dynamic relationship of continuity and change in the evolutionary process. The genomes in a given gene pool are based on what worked in the last generation, but the products of genomic instructions end up in the future, not the past. In this way the past is in large measure carried into the future: the intertwined genetic feedback loops within an ecosystem are not only predictive in application, but their structure is cross-referenced, ensuring a large measure of continuity that validates the prediction. A degree of looseness is also essential to enable adaptation to ever-changing circumstances. Stability in this case is not so much inflexible stasis as it is a dynamic balance between replication and modification, predictability and change.

From ecosystem to ecosystem, species to species, differing strategies for adapting to change exhibit varying ranges of tolerance, but they always entail a speed limit that brings on collapse when exceeded. Creative transformation gives way to decline and collapse when new generations encounter a degree of discontinuity beyond their adaptive capacities. Throughout evolutionary history transformations of physical and biological environs have brought about extinctions. But never has the transforming presence of a single species wrought such a wave of extinctions as we see at present. We already know from experience we are too fast for many species, and perhaps for entire ecosystems. 

The question of speed limits goes deeper than this, however.  The structure of the genetic feedback loop, with its base in the past and its application in the future, is not limited to the function of genomes. It characterizes information processes as such: their source is always past, their function predictive, guides for on-going living. Radical novelty, like spelling with an alphabet in which no letter is ever repeated, is the equivalent of no information. Information processes necessarily carry some degree of the past, and like genetic systems, can be invalidated when their application lands in a too drastically transformed future. All such processes thus have a speed limit, and in proportion as that limit is pushed, the world becomes increasingly unpredictable, less subject to informed intervention, more a matter of guesswork.

The strategy of adaptive modification based upon experiential learning is fast, but it is not ordinarily so fast that it is in danger of invalidating the past which informs it. However the system is transformed when such learning becomes radically cumulative, as in the human case. The deep-lying necessity of the past carrying forward sufficiently to sustain the fundamental validity of the information process remains. But the true structure of past experience informing present strategic action, as exemplified in the learned hunting skill of wolves, for example, becomes almost a vestigial structure in the contemporary “information age” of human development. Information from across the boundaries of histories, continents, and cultures weaves together into a new kind of fabric that has little to do with the particularities of individual experience. Correlated with this, imagination is freed from the immediately validated task of predicting the behavior of potential lunches or lunchers, and the function of desires or appetites is loosened from the constraining test of adaptive fit to circumstances. We appear to be the first creatures privileged to test a strategy that, in the broadest terms, has become a matter of responding not to experience, but to the beacon of a creatively imagined “better world” formulated in terms of relatively unmoored desires: the strategy, based upon our incredible mass of accumulated information, is not to adapt to the world but to transform the world into what we desire. We can rein in these abilities, but we cannot take them back, because they are us: utilizing some form of this strategy is what it means to be homo sapiens sapiens.


This essay began with the observation that the eco-problem invites a reexamination of the systemic place and function of our human form of consciousness in terms germane to the nature of the ecological problematique itself. Following an approach suited to investigating the dynamic relationships and mutual fit of the elements of any ecosystem, we have attempted to ground our understanding of the powers of our human minds in an evolutionary framework. This has meant keeping in the forefront at each stage of consideration the fundamental but crucial questions, “What is it good for? Under what conditions and why does it work?”  The deeply structured functionality of minded information processing which runs throughout living systems furnished the broad context within which we located the particular conditions marking the evolutionary trajectory of experiential learning from which our human form of mind emerges.  

In experiential learning relatively direct experience becomes a feedback loop informing and attuning the function of desires and imagination to changing circumstances. Human powers of communication have carried this strategy across a critical threshold, moving experiential learning into an exponentially cumulative mode. Systemically this new mode bears the potential to compromise major elements of a temporally conditioned biosphere by elaborating a power to bring transformations of unprecedented speed and scope. In this development the deeper evolutionary experiment is perhaps the critical shifting of the role of guidance, as the cumulative complexity, scale, speed, and scope of the process overshadow feedback from either immediate experience or cumulative experience and place a new kind of weight on powers of imaginative anticipation. 

Cumulative learning has historically had its most notable successes in the physical sciences and related technological developments. The constancy of the laws of physics and chemistry, relatively independent of time and place, ideally suits a form of learning that cumulatively transcends limits of time and space. The transformation speed limit inherent in information systems demands a sufficient relationship between past and future, and it comes into play when we encounter historically contingent, evolved systems, whether biotic or cultural. The rapid change and innovation that is the emblem of power and success in the technological realm may easily be the source of stress and breakdown in life systems, where historical continuity has systematic weight. Science fiction imagination figures this tension in a recurrent motif of space ships carrying off humans as they emigrate from an ecologically and politically wasted planet, physics and chemistry rescuing us from what we destroyed by physics and chemistry.

Imagination is not fate, however. Indeed, its evolutionary function is to open a space that allows apt response beyond the realm of predictable, determinate law.  At this juncture of evolutionary history, far-reaching consequences attach to our self-image, our sense of our abilities and where they might take us, and to our correlative image of the world about us as well. These pages, in essaying an account of the evolution of our mode of consciousness in the context of the minded nature of life systems, underline the challenges posed by that development. The Tao te ching describes the wise person as “cautious and fearful, as if walking on thin ice.” Now, as our cumulative learning exponentially increases the size and weight of the human footprint, that may be just the image we need in our imaginations.


Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thomas, Lewis, The Fragile Species. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.