Life, Evolution & Consciousness

Life flows directly out of the laws of physics: abiogenesis can happen only when a certain set of very delicate circumstances is present, but when it is, the appearance of life out of inanimate matter is unavoidable. Groups of molecules coalesce, begin, accidentally, as a result of some traits they possess, making copies of themselves, and this – self replication – is one of the most basic characteristics of life.

So, life is a completely physical phenomenon, and it evolves according to the laws of our auld acquaintance, physics, and mathematics, its ordained prophet. Every change to the organism, or to its blueprint – when the two became separate – every mutation, was, and still is, judged by a very simple principle: does it facilitate the propagation of more copies of itself in the next generation of such organisms, or not?

According to some abiogenesis theories life began in the form of genetic molecules: nucleotides of either RNA or of early DNA, which strung together and gained the ability to replicate and thus started evolution. According to Dawkins, when, finally, genes appeared, they were basically variants of those old molecules that served as blueprints for proteins and for various RNA molecules that made it possible for them to create ‘vehicles’ for themselves, in the form of living organisms that facilitated the genes’ spread in the world.

Thus competition, another vital principle of life, was introduced, or maybe it had already been present in the previous phase. Organisms need energy, they need to eat, so we have a metabolism. What do they eat? Soon enough other living/replicating matter becomes the only viable food source, for all but a few very ancient organisms that live in unique biospheres (such as volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean). Violence. Competition becomes exacerbated.

Organisms interact with their environment. The early organisms’ interaction was based completely on their structures – a lump of molecules floating through the primordial soup, chemically binding to food, absorbing and digesting it, automatically. Viruses are an example of such very simple organisms but they are a later addition, evolved in a time when unicellular organisms had already existed. They are deemed to be not quite (or not entirely) alive, and, indeed, they do not possess a consciousness. They are not aware. They drift and infect (all done automatically) in huge numbers, they don’t need to make decisions.

In my view awareness appeared when organisms became too evolved to rely solely on structure to generate behavior. Decision making mechanisms appeared. How these early ‘bug brains’ were constructed I have no clue, but I would like to venture a guess concerning an aspect of their operation.

In my view, this is when a primitive version of the self was created, possibly in simple organisms (even, maybe, in unicellular organisms, at least, in some of them). Something that could feel pain and try to avoid it, and pleasure – and try to obtain it. this primordial self responded to impulses that signaled to it where lied danger and where there was benefit to be had – food, safety, cover. Those impulses acted on the self, the self weighed the strength of the different impulses and acted upon the most potent one of those. And this is a basic principle in the operation of decision making neural networks to this day – an Ancient Greek style of democracy, a competition of shouts in which the loudest side forces its views on the decision making mechanism.

I guess voluntary movement through a medium (for early life this medium was water) was one of the earliest forms of decision making, but, of course, this was only the beginning. As organisms evolved and began cooperating, behaviors became more complex. However the early mechanisms generating those behaviors were built, they all used certain basic principles that are still in effect in our brain, to this day (in my description I will be focusing on the human brain, or mind – to distance myself somewhat from the actual wetware).

First and foremost of those is that the organism must be conscious and must posses a ‘self’. It seems amazing – almost miraculous – to us that consciousness would be born of a mere combination of atoms and chemical or electrical charges (or however it is actually implemented). We cannot fathom it…. and yet this must be so, or else we will have to assume the intervention of something supernatural, a proposition that makes even less sense, to us.

The ‘self’ lies at the core of our ‘brain logic’ – the algorithm our survival computer is running, constantly, serving its agenda.

To somewhat simplify it – our brain is an automaton operating on impulses. Impulses can come from the peripheral neural system; they can come from within – hormonal changes/signals, anything the brain monitors, and it monitors pretty much everything; they can also come from within the brain itself.

The impulse is, initially, evaluated by the subconscious parts of the brain. The parts that make pain hurt, that tie certain things with feelings of pleasure, that make you want to avoid to lose things you value – the parts that wire all your genetic agendas into the fabric of your mind. It then generates an emotion, and the emotion acts on the ‘Self’.

So, what is an emotion? There is love, need, revulsion, fear, pleasure, envy and all their classical companions. But I’d like to broaden this category, to make it encompass the full function of this phenomena, within the mind. An emotion is what we feel when our hand gets burnt in a fire even as our reflexes are forcing us to pull it out of it. It is what we feel in response to the impulse that is hunger – we feel hungry, we think of food. It’s every urge, basically, every inkling, every intuition we get. The interpretation of an impulse in the subconscious creates the emotion. The emotion acts on the ‘Self’.

The ‘Self’ evaluates the emotion based on the simplest principle of all: it weighs its pain-vs-pleasure potential. Let’s say we’re a cat walking through my landlady’s garden. The cat smells food. This generates an impulse that, when processed by the subconscious, which evaluates our general need for and attitude towards food and the quality and quantity of food apparently available, creates an urge to move in the direction the smell is coming from and consume the food. This is the raw emotion. In a sense, it is the only thing that drives any living organism to do any of the things it does.

So we move in the direction of the food, but then we sense a motion, say, to our left. Now the emotion is danger, we freeze – this is our wired and learned response. We become aware of the place the noise came from, waiting for more input. More impulses come, our subconscious interprets them as natural noises, so we resume our progress towards the food. Then we sense motion: a person appears somewhere along the the path leading to the food.

The intensity of the sense of danger we will fell will depend on many things: how we are genetically wired to respond to this kind of creature; on top of that, every individual creature gets ‘programmed’, undergoes a process of fine-tuned adjustment to its environment through early life experiences. This particular cat may feel comfortable around humans, but for the sake of our example, lets say it does not.

Two emotions, generated by 2 separate impulses, are now weighing on the ‘Self’: one says ‘go for the food’, the other says ‘run from the danger’. Though I prefer not to speak too much about things I am not proficient in, such as how the wetware actually does this, there is probably a separate neural network behind each of those emotions: one sensing danger, and one for sniffing out food. It’s screams its own emotion, and the loudest scream decides what will be done. Simply put.

In response to the emotions that act on it the ‘Self’ generates emotions of its own. These require action, and like the former ones, they carry a charge. The charge defines the necessity, of the urgency, of the action to be taken. An organism that is complacent about its own survival is not an organism that survives. If the emotion generated by the self is not met with the appropriate action (or one of those, in case there are several to choose from), a charge remains in the mind, tension calling for action. Stress. It cannot just be ignored, it needs to be discharges.

In the case of the cat, it will either go for the food or flee. Then the ‘Self’ will receive a signal that the action it required has been carried out, and the cycle of the impulse will subside, its charge will dissipate. But what happens if you can’t act on that ‘secondary emotion’? It’s easier to imagine such a situation arise in the human world, in the world of closely collaborating social animals that live in huge, hierarchically structured, herds.

We often find ourselves resisting the urge (‘secondary emotion’) to punch our boss, or anyone in a position of authority, in the face (provided they are not too physically threatening, in which case we might be more inclined to want to flee), because we have a different urge telling us we really don’t want to lose our job or go to jail, and that urge prevails. Then we come home and take it out on members of the household, because the urge still requires expression. It might be repressed, but it cannot just be ignored.

I will go into that in my next article: Repression and the Mind.

Peace out.


(Next: In Tristitia Veritas; Previous: Determinism and Free Will)

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