Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right – and that has yet to be determined – then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
I know this really isn’t what you’d generally expect to be posted here, but the concept of consciousness – one of a small set of words in the English language I cannot spell from the top of my head without making errors – is one of those things that, when you think too deeply about it, you enter into a realm of thinking that can get deeply uncomfortable and distressing, like thinking about what’s outside the universe or what “existed” “before” (quotes intentional) the big bang.
Personally, I’m one of those insufferable people who ascribes the entire concept of consciousness to the specific arrangement of neurons and related tissue in our brain and wider nervous system – I don’t accept religion or some other specific magical thing that makes us humans (and dolphins? And chimpansees? And whatever else has some level of consciousness?) more special than any other animal in terms of consciousness.
I also don’t like the controversial concept of splitting consciousness up into an easy and a hard problem, because to me, that just opens the door to maintaining the religious idea that humans are somehow more special than other animals – sure, science has made it clear some other animals have easy consciousness, but humans are still special because we are the only ones with hard consciousness. It reeks of an artificial cutoff point created to maintain some semblance of uniqueness for homo sapiens sapiens so we can feel good about ourselves.
You can take the whole concept of consciousness in every which way, and one of my recent favourites is CGP Grey’s video The Trouble With Transporters, which, among other tings, poses the question – if you interrupt your consciousness by being teleported or going to sleep, are you really the same person when you rematerialise or wake up?