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At Mind Matters News: Did minimal consciousness drive the Cambrian Explosion?

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Eva Jablonka’s team makes the daring case, repurposing Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti’s origin of life studies:

A minimal life form must show the ability to learn but it must also be a “subject of experience.” After all, as Ginsberg et al. point out, the MuZero algorithm can beat humans at any number of games but it is “as conscious as your washing machine.” They argue that “The evolution of learning drove the evolution of consciousness and the cognitive architecture of complex learning in living organisms constitutes basic consciousness.”

News, “Did minimal consciousness drive the Cambrian Explosion?” at Mind Matters News

Where their approach differs from many is that they do not try to identify a mechanism of consciousness. In fact, they write,

The next step we took was search for an evolutionary transition marker that requires that all the characteristics we listed are in place. We looked at genes, proteins, anatomical brain regions and neurophysiological processes, but none of the many possibilities we examined entailed all the characteristic of consciousness.

SIMONA GINSBERG, EVA JABLONKA, AND ANNA ZELIGOWSKI, “THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS: IDENTIFYING THE EVOLUTIONARY MARKERS OF WHEN CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLODED” AT IAI.TV (AUGUST 20, 2021)

They are looking, rather, for transition markers between one stage of consciousness and the next, in terms of actual behavior. They settled on the concept of unlimited associative learning (UAL). That’s an interesting shift in emphasis if we recall a 1998 science wager between two big names in consciousness studies:

TWENTY years ago this week [1998], two young men sat in a smoky bar in Bremen, northern Germany. Neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers had spent the day lecturing at a conference about consciousness, and they still had more to say. After a few drinks, Koch suggested a wager. He bet a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain. Chalmers said it wouldn’t happen, and bet against.

PER SNAPRUD, “CONSCIOUSNESS: HOW WE’RE SOLVING A MYSTERY BIGGER THAN OUR MINDS” AT NEW SCIENTIST (JUNE 20, 2018)

Well, the wager has only two years to run now and, barring a sudden, dramatic discovery, it looks as though consciousness may not be a “specific signature” at all.

The principal authors’ forthcoming book, 2022

One reason for doubt about such a signature is provided by Ginsberg’s team’s findings: Were a physical “signature” the explanation of consciousness, we might expect to find that consciousness follows simple rules of heredity: But when the team tried to determine, from behavior, which life forms over evolutionary time have demonstrated at least minimal consciousness, they found,

Our survey of the vast (yet very patchy) learning literature of the last 100 years revealed no evidence of UAL [unlimited associative learning] in most animal groups, including medusa, flat worms and slugs. It has, so far, been found only in three groups: most of the vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals), some of the arthropods (e.g., crabs, bees, crickets, cockroaches) and some mollusks (the cephalopod – squid, cuttlefish and octopus).. We discovered that although the brains of these animals are anatomically very different, they have similar functional units that generate models of the world, the body, and prospective actions, a memory system that can store composite representations, and an integrating and flexible system that evaluates and updates them. This cognitive architecture gives us a clue to the function of consciousness: it enables the organism to make context-dependent decisions that are based on its subjectively-experienced perceptions and motivations.

SIMONA GINSBERG, EVA JABLONKA, AND ANNA ZELIGOWSKI, “THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS: IDENTIFYING THE EVOLUTIONARY MARKERS OF WHEN CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLODED” AT IAI.TV (AUGUST 20, 2021)

If the life forms’ brains are anatomically very different, it makes more sense to track consciousness by evidence from behavior, as the researchers are doing, than by the long-sought evidence from anatomy. But that entails decoupling consciousness from a specific physical structure. That’s a different direction from the 1998 wager. More.


Takehome: The researchers point out that life forms that show minimal consciousness have very different brains from each other. Behavior, not brain anatomy, is the signal to look for.


You may also wish to read: Science journalist: No hype! Consciousness is a hard problem. Michael Hanlon reflected on the many futile efforts to “solve” consciousness.

One Reply to “At Mind Matters News: Did minimal consciousness drive the Cambrian Explosion?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    “This cognitive architecture gives us a clue to the function of consciousness: it enables the organism to make context-dependent decisions that are based on its subjectively-experienced perceptions and motivations.”

    This is inadequate.

    Simple mechanisms like hydraulic brakes or vacuum windshield wipers or mousetraps can make context-dependent decisions based on their subjective perceptions and motivations. There’s no need for a separate internal observer who can stand back and look at the mechanism “from outside” while still inside.

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