Evolution and Consciousness

Eors Szathmary, Department of Plant Systematics, Ecology and Theoretical Biology, Eötvös University Budapest 


There are two different approaches to this topic: (i) the role of evolution in the rise of consciousness and (ii) the relation between consciousness and (putative) evolutionary search in the brain during cognitive processes. I shall discuss both in turn. (i) How did consciousness evolve? If it did, is it a spandrel (an unselected by-product of evolution) or has it been positively selected for? If the latter, consciousness must be efficacious. (ii) It is an exciting question how the brain arrives at solutions to complex problems (such as natural language acquisition or insight tasks). The idea that bona fide evolutionary dynamics at the millisecond scale might complement other suggested component processes requires close scrutiny. There is a constraint, however. Evolutionary search loses its force without real parallelism. If such search happens in the brain, it cannot be conscious, only a limited number of promising candidate solutions can be uploaded into explicit working memory. A crucial corollary of this idea is that its realisation in brains would go beyond conventional evolutionary algorithms,  because candidate solutions arise and “live” in a mental ecosystem, hence they are expected to have collateral properties that can serve as un-prestatable predaptations to problems. This is a key feature that seems necessary for productive open-ended evolutionary dynamics in brains, just as in ecosystems in the wild.