The evolution of consciousness

Velmans, Max. 2012. The evolution of consciousness. Contemporary Social Science, 7(2), pp. 117-138. ISSN 2158-2041 [Article]

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There have been various attempts to apply Darwinian evolutionary theory to an understanding of the human condition within psychology and the social sciences. This paper evaluates whether Darwinian Theory can explain human consciousness. Starting with a brief definition of phenomenal consciousness and the central features of evolutionary theory, the paper examines whether random variations in the genome that confer a selective, reproductive advantage can explain both the emergence of consciousness and its varied forms. To inform the discussion, the paper reviews what is known about the conditions for consciousness within the human mind/brain, understood in both structural (neural) terms and functional terms (in terms of human information processing), and concludes that “random variations in the genome” provide no explanatory mechanism for why some neural activities (but not others) are accompanied by consciousness. The paper then evaluates the many functional advantages that have been proposed for various forms of phenomenal consciousness once they emerge, and concludes that, on close examination, phenomenal experiences themselves do not carry out the information processing functions attributed to them, which challenges the Darwinian requirement that they could only have persisted (once emergent) it they enhanced reproductive fitness. The paper turns finally to what can be said about wider distribution of consciousness in non-humans, contrasting discontinuity theories with continuity theories. Discontinuity theories argue for a critical functional transition that “switches on consciousness” while continuity theories argue for a gradual transition in consciousness from unrecognisable to recognisable. All theories accept that there is an intimate, natural relationship of conscious experiences with their associated material forms. Consequently, as the material forms evolve, their associated experiences co-evolve—suggesting an indirect mechanism by which the emergence of species-specific forms of consciousness can be influenced by Darwinian evolution. It also allows a non-reductive understanding of human consciousness within the social sciences.

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5 May 2012Accepted
31 May 2012Published

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15 Mar 2019 13:33

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15 Mar 2019 13:33

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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