So you’ve all read Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by now, right? No? You should. Seriously. It pissed me off but it changed the way I thought of the Kafka story I just read. You can’t do much better than that. It opened to me a whole school of thought about thought, (I would prefer not to confuse this with philosophy) with language as a key element. I’m a big fan of language.
Yet here I am picking at the assumptions in the book again. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.
The question for today is “where did consciousness come from?” An interesting idea in the book is that self-consciousness was more or less an event – almost overnight we went from being animals reacting to the environment to humans building worlds in our heads. That’s about when we started drawing pictures on cave walls and making up stories. And look at us now.
Walker Percy, the author of Lost, points out that natural selection really isn’t so good at explaining this event. He points out that most people in the world don’t actually need, and have never needed, as much brain as they have. His position is (I think) that at some point the bigger brain would not have had an advantage, natural-selection-wise, unless there was another force at work.
Pf. Chicks dig poets. Enough said about that, except that I really need to work on my poetry skills.
So here we are, carrying big brains around on our skinny necks, brains so big we sometimes kill our mothers during childbirth, and even then we are helpless for a couple of years because there’s no way our full-grown brain is going to make it out of there. These big brains of ours are nothing but trouble. How did any species evolve where the child killed the mother so regularly? How did it all happen so fast?
The sober among you have probably noticed that I have subtly switched “self-conscious” for “big brain”. I’ll defend that later, unless I forget to.
But even so, how does natural selection, a patient and steady process, explain the sudden and dramatic arrival of something completely new? Being completely ignorant of modern biological theory and even more ignorant of the alternatives, I feel I am the man to answer that question. Challenged by Percy, I turned the question upside-down; where he states evolutionary theory can’t explain this enormous departure from anything that happened before, I asked myself, “what would you have to do to evolution to make it work in this case?”
My answer: the Totally Kick-Ass Mutation. In geekly terms, it’s a mutation that is not an event, but a vector. Once the ball starts rolling, it’s such a great idea that even the slightest variation provides a huge advantage.
I imagine that with genetic inheritance there is ‘noise’, a statistical variation in inherited traits that normally doesn’t mean much. But when there is a new thing going on, that noise can dramatically accelerate change. Let’s say, for a moment, that a flying reptile had a little extra fiber on the trailing edges of his wings, that measurably improved his flying. In the following generations, the ones with the more pronounced wing-fibers simply kicked ass. The tiny variations introduced by genetic noise turned out to be a big deal, the slight variations themselves dramatic improvements, and overnight we had feathers. It all happened so fast that intermediate fossils don’t exist.
So are brains like feathers? I’ve met a few folks where the comparison is obvious. The brain explosion seems to have followed a seemingly innocuous skeletal development. “Idle hands do the devil’s work,” the saying goes, and the fossil record seems to bear this out. With the locking knee, which allowed a fairly typical primate to stand upright, freeing the hands, the brain started to grow dramatically. Causal? Hard to prove, but when you compare a Greg Maddux slider with a monkey throwing poo, you can begin to understand. Free up the hands and you have power, as long as you have the brain to use it. There are physiological differences, but making a good throw requires a lot of brain. Hitting a rabbit with a rock is a massive ballistic calculation, and there’s no time to work out the angles. But if you succeed, you eat.
Introduce also that the larger brain facilitates larger social groups (enter language), and you have a Totally Kick-Ass Mutation, one in which only slight variations can prove to be a huge advantage. I imagine this big-brain trend continued right up to the invention of distilled spirits.
‘Enter language’, I said up there, casually, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s the moment that Percy cites that separates man from the beasts. A singularity. Language is synonymous with self-awareness because the symbolic distillation of the world requires an interpreter: the self. We are unique in the universe (as far as we know) in our ability to completely misunderstand everything.
My use of the word ‘singularity’ is not casual, there is a school of thought that mankind is approaching another singularity in which, either through genetic manipulation or cybernetics or both, we bypass evolution and design our own replacement. The moment when we lose control of this process and become truly obsolete, the moment the new intelligence leaps so far beyond us that we are quaint but clever animals, that’s the singularity. After reading Percy, though, I see that this would be the second singularity.
Interestingly, Percy (with my help) set the definition of the next singularity. The first: self-awareness. The second: self-knowledge. Something will happen, something as unfathomable to us as introspection is to a bunny rabbit, and a new sort of intelligence will be born.
Unless the liquor brings us down first.
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