One of the biggest challenges in evolutionary science is to explain the evolution of consciousness. While that is widely recognized, most evolutionists also take the stand that evolution itself is not, has not been, and cannot be conscious.

Taken together, this leads to an anomaly:

On the one hand, evolutionists recognize the importance of the evolution of consciousness, and on the other hand, most evolutionists deny its importance to the understanding of their own field.

For evolutionary science to play a bigger role in society that takes full advantage of its scientific scope and depth, this anomaly has to end. Evolution can be, has been, and is consciousness.

Part 1: The Evolution of Consciousness

Consciousness can be thought of as the ability to respond to oneself and the environment and the pattern they contain.

When humans and nonhuman animals dramatically decrease their ability to respond (for example during sleep or coma), they are said to be “semi-conscious” or even “unconscious.” In a similar way, as life forms develop more complex ways of responding (for example through heightened senses or increased intelligence), they are said to become more conscious of their surroundings.

Defined in this way, it is difficult to imagine a world in which consciousness didn’t evolve.

This is so because no evolved trait is successful in all environments – it all depends on the context. The particular ways creatures gain resources, reproduce, protect offspring, or avoid predators can only be understood (and are only beneficial) within a particular environment. In a different context, these same traits can be fatal.

The Dodo bird never shied away from bigger animals, because it didn’t have a natural predator. However, once Dutch sailors arrived on the island’s shore, the fearless bird became an easy catch, and quickly went extinct in the 17th century. In other words, an inconspicuous trait became fatal once the environment changed.

Consciousness means being more sensitive to changes in the environment and its impact. This is such a great advantage, that it’s virtually guaranteed to be a core product of evolution. Consciousness, as I’ve defined it, will not only evolve; it’s a key characteristic of complex animals.

But Is Evolution Conscious?

imagine an animal that can detect a predator because of its enhanced eyesight. It is entirely reasonable to say that this animal has evolved to be more conscious of the presence of a predator.

But was evolution itself conscious in such a case?

Variations are blind, and while the heritable changes in the visual system helped the animal to better avoid predators, it was not on purpose. The eyesight did not change in order to detect the predator.

However, there’s more to the story. A well-adjusted visual system requires more than just the right set of genes – it also requires the right developmental process.

If you would sew a kitten’s eyelids shut during a critical period, it will never develop normal eyesight, even if the visual deprivation is only a matter of days.

In principle, a kitten could create this harm by its own behavior. For example, a kitten could close its eyes too much, or hide its face in its mother’s underbelly too much – both of which would interfere with the normal development of its eyesight.

A healthy kitten, however, does not normally do this because it has a natural preference to seek proper visual stimulation. In behavioralese: it’s a natural reinforcer. In other words, evolution created sensory preferences and reward system to ensure that developmental and learning processes can play their role in fostering healthy sensory systems.

While not self-directed in the same way as human action, purposeful behavior is a key element in evolution for all of the animals that evolved since learning by consequences arrived half a billion years ago.

Part 2: What Animals Can and Cannot Do

Animals can learn from the past and change their actions to produce desired outcomes. For example, lots of dogs are more than willing to sit down after hearing the command “sit”, simply because they have learned to get yummy treats afterwards.

This type of behavior is called operant conditioning, and it’s a more elaborated form of consciousness. By contacting regularities between certain actions and their resulting environmental outcomes, an animal can purposefully act and respond.

This type of behavior is crucial in evolutionary processes such as niche selection (seeking out a particular environment) or niche construction (creating long lasting environmental changes such as dens, dams, and the like). We know it started half a billion years ago because all organisms that arrived since the Cambrian period can learn this way, while none that evolved earlier can do so. Major evolutionists have argued that the Cambrian explosion – the sudden occurence of a grand multitude of species – was enabled by the evolution of operant learning that allowed life forms to seek out and stay in particular environments, thus changing the evolutionary selection pressures for new forms and features and eventually new species to emerge.

If we grant that consciousness evolved, and that consciousness impacted evolution, is it necessary to say that organisms evolve consciously?

At least when we’re talking about humans, I think the answer is “yes”.

What No Other Animal Can Do

By 12-16 months, a human infant can do something no other animal can do. When it learns, for instance, that a rubber duck is called “duckie”, the infant will orient itself toward the duck when hearing the name.

This may seem insignificant on the surface, but it’s actually a fundamental step in the evolution of consciousness. From a simple relation (rubber duck – > “duckie”), the infant has inferred a second relation (“duckie” – > rubber duck). No other animal has yet been shown reliably to create this kind of “two-way street” between events.

This derivation is called “stimulus equivalence”, and it is the first example of a learning process that is relational, not associative.

The Limits of Associative Learning

Associative learning is not robustly reversible or combinatorial. For example, when dogs are provided with food after hearing a bell, they will quickly begin to salivate just by hearing the bell. However, they will not raise their ears when food is presented. It just doesn’t work in reverse.

Relational learning, in contrast, can be reversed and combined. If I am bigger than you, you are smaller than me. The derived relation is just as robust as the known relation.

The human infant quickly learns to apply other reversible relations. If a human infant hears an unfamiliar name it will search for an unfamiliar object in its environment and, if one is found, it will derive a two-way relation between the name and the object. As additional types of relations are added (through comparisons, oppositions, contingencies, etc.), vast cognitive networks emerge from very limited environmental inputs.

The evolution of human language and cognition is based on this type of relational learning. We know that in part because children who do not show this kind of relational learning show only limited verbal and intellectual abilities, whereas if they are successfully taught to develop it, they begin to advance more rapidly.

Part 3: How Evolution Became Conscious

Relational learning is the smoking gun of evolution. Through a relational network humans can respond to an imagined future, not just “futures” that have been experienced in the past. We learn relations such as “if …then” or “before … after” and we can apply these to novel situations.

Through a relational network humans can consciously decide on actions to shape and influence their own future. This is huge!

The future that is created symbolically via human language can alter the impact of the current environment. Nelson Mandela can treat a prison guard kindly, for example, because that action brings a just world a little bit closer, even if the guard himself is a source of deprivation.

Said in another way, human cognition can change the “selection criteria” for human behavioral and cultural evolution. Genetic evolution depends on life and death. Human behavioral evolution supplements that process with cognitively available meaning and purpose.

When people consider their future and apply evolutionary scientific concepts to actions and policy choices to alter that future, humans are consciously evolving.

The War on Evolution

I believe this is not only factually correct, but also politically useful, because it might improve use of evolutionary science to the betterment of all.

Only a minority of the US population currently believes that human beings are as they are due to natural processes of evolution. I can’t help but think that is in part because evolution has not yet been shown to matter to the average Joanne or Joe.

For that sad situation to change, evolutionists themselves need to show that they can solve problems of human concern. This, however, can only happen if evolutionists step up to the idea that evolution can be conscious. When businesses know they can apply evolutionary concepts to creating a more cooperative, creative, healthy, and successful team, they will view evolutionary science differently. When people struggling with anxiety, or loneliness, or physical disease know that applied evolutionary science is there to make a positive difference, they will view evolutionary science differently.

The culture at large will not attend to evolution in a major way, until it is clear that humanity has the capacity to evolve on purpose, culturally and within a lifetime.

We have evolutionary accounts of consciousness – now we need evolutionists to apply those accounts to their own assumptions, theories, and purposes. Understanding the evolution of consciousness provides the basis for evolutionary science itself to consciously evolve, and to help human individuals and groups do so as well.