Learning and the Evolutionary Transition to Consciousness

Eva Jablonka, Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv University

Simona Ginsburg, Department of Natural Science, Open University of Israel


We suggest that the evolution of learning drove the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, we present a set of criteria and identify an evolutionary marker for the transition to minimal consciousness. We propose that the evolutionary marker of basic (or minimal) consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which we call unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. We show that characterizing UAL at the behavioral and functional level helps explain the biological dynamics of subjective experiencing, points to its taxonomic distribution and suggests that it drove the Cambrian diversification of animals.