Consciousness Comes from DNA
By CARL SAGAN AND ANN DRUYAN (EDITED BY JOHN HARTMAN)
Added: Fri, 11 May 2007 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to John Hartman for this edited article.
Consciousness Comes from DNA
Excerpts from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / A Search For Who We Are by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Selected, edited, and updated with new evidence by John Hartman / May 8, 2007
Is the origin of consciousness an unfathomable mystery? Does it require the insertion of an immaterial soul into each human being, but no other animal, at the moment of conception?
Consciousness and self-awareness are, in the West, widely esteemed as the essence of being human (although the absence of self-awareness is considered a state of grace and perfection in the East); the origin of consciousness is imagined to be a unfathomable mystery, or — not so different — the consequence of the insertion of an immaterial soul into each human being, but into no other animal, at the moment of conception. Consciousness may not be so mysterious a trait, though, that supernatural intervention is needed to explain it. If its essence is a lucid awareness of the distinction between the inside of the organism and the outside, between you and everyone else, then, as we've argued, most microorganisms are to this degree conscious and aware; and then the origin of consciousness on our planet dates back more than 3 billion years. There were vast numbers of microscopic creatures then, buffeted by sea swells and ocean currents, reveling in the sunlight, each with a rudimentary consciousness — perhaps only a micro consciousness, or even a nano — or picoconsciousness.
If the information in the DNA has come to be through the patient evolutionary process, why is a god needed to explain the injection of data, genes, or souls in the first place?
So could souls have provided consciousness back then? A deity responsible on a case — by — case basis for precision injection of souls into this immense host of tiny creatures over the full range of geological time would be a very fussy as well as a very inefficient creator. Why not design it right from the beginning, and let life run by itself? Would the god responsible for the subtle, elegant, and universally applicable laws of physics do such slapdash, error ridden, journeyman work in biology — requiring hands-on attention to every pathetic little microbe when they already know perfectly well how to reproduce themselves and vast stores of information? Instead, all the god has to do is to encode directly into the DNA of a few ancestors whatever information souls are required to know. Souls and consciousness could then pass, on their own, from generation to generation, freeing the god for other matters, perhaps some of greater urgency. But if the information in the DNA has come to be through the patient evolutionary process, why is a god needed to explain the injection of data, genes, or souls in the first place?
Is the ability of a cell to distinguish itself from another cell evidence of consciousness and self-awareness?
Every cell in a healthy human body can make the distinction between itself and others, and those that cannot, that suffer from auto-immune diseases, quickly kill themselves off or fall prey to disease microorganisms. But maybe you're thinking that a cell distinguishing itself from another cell (in your body or in the primeval sea) is not what is generally meant by consciousness or self-awareness, that even for the exceptionally unreflective humans there's more to it than that. Yes. As we've said, only the most rudimentary kind of consciousness can be imagined in the early history of life on Earth. Of course, there's been substantial evolution since then. Do we know — it might be a very hard thing to know — whether any other animals have our kind of self-awareness?
Is there compelling evidence chimps, orangutans, and dolphins are conscious and self-aware?
In 1977 the psychologist Gordon Gallup published an article entitled "Self-Recognition in Primates." When chimpanzees born in the wild were confronted with a full-length mirror, at first — like other animals — they thought the reflection was someone else. But within a few days they had figured it out. Then they'd use the mirror to preen, and to examine inaccessible parts of themselves, looking over their shoulders to view their backs, for example. Gallup then anesthetized the chimps and painted them red — in places that they could see only in the mirror. Upon regaining consciousness and resuming the pleasures of self-examination in the mirrors, they quickly discovered the red marks. Did they reach out to the ape in the glass? Instead, they groped their own bodies, touched the painted areas repeatedly, and then smelled their fingers. They trebled the time they spent each day examining their mirror images.
Among the other great apes, Gallup found mirror self-awareness in oranges, but not gorillas. Later, he found it in dolphins. We are conscious, he proposes, when we know we exist, and have a mind when we monitor our own mental states. By these criteria, Gallup concludes, chimps, orangutans, and dolphins are conscious and have minds.1
What would it mean if elephants could pass a mirror self-awareness test?
Elephants have recently demonstrated they too are conscious and have minds. "We report a successful mirror self-awareness elephant test and report striking parallels in the progress of responses to mirrors among humans, chimps, orangutans, dolphins and elephants," said Diane Reiss and her researchers. Their findings were reported in the October 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study, three Asian elephants were introduced to a huge, 'elephant-resistant' mirror at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The female elephants, Happy, Patty and Maxine, were observed while they interacted with the mirror.
Humans, chimps, orangutans, and dolphins typically go through four stages after being introduced to a mirror. In most cases, an animal will first engage socially with the reflection through visual, vocal or agonistic displays. Interestingly, the elephants in this study showed no social interaction behaviors.
The second stage of mirror self-recognition is physical inspection of the mirror. Maxine and Patty both threw their trunks over the mirror, reared up on their hind legs in order to peer over the top, and knelt down in front of the mirror, attempting to get their trunks underneath it.
The third stage is repetitive testing of the mirror. Each elephant tried out some vertical and horizontal head and body movements in front of the mirror, moving in and out of view of the mirror. The elephants also used the mirror as a tool to investigate their own bodies. They brought food over to the mirror and watched themselves eat. They also inspected the insides of their mouths and pulled on their ears with their trunks.
The fourth and final stage is a test. For the scientists to be sure that the elephants were recognizing themselves in the mirror, they had to pass the standard 'mark test'. The elephants each had two marks painted on their heads. A visible X was painted on the right-hand side and an invisible mark was painted on the left-hand side. The elephants were only able to see the visible mark if they looked in the mirror. The scientists observed the elephants to see if they would touch the visible mark.
Happy repeatedly touched the visible X after seeing it in the mirror. The other two elephants did not touch the visible mark on their foreheads, and none of the elephants touched the invisible mark.
"Only one elephant, Happy, passed the mark test," explained Reiss. But only one elephant needed to pass the 'mark test' to demonstrate that elephants are capable of self-recognition and self-awareness. "This is consistent with reports of tests with the great apes. Not all of the apes that are tested pass the mark test, nor do all children it turns out," she said.
According to the Reiss, this study shows that the ability to distinguish one's self from others has evolved independently in several branches of animals. "This is a marvelous example of cognitive convergence," she said.2
Does the DNA of humans, chimps, orangutans, dolphins, and elephants provide the instructions for these species to become conscious and self-aware?
Yes. The mirror self recognition tests provide us with the compelling evidence we need to believe this is true for all of these species. It is clear the ability to distinguish one's self from others has evolved independently in primates, dolphins, elephants and their DNA encoded cells.
1. Sagan, Carl. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Chapter 19. What is Human? Pages 377-379. (2002) http://www.amazon.com/Shadows-Forgotten-Ancestors-Carl-Sagan/dp/0345384725
2. Hayes, Jacqui. Elephants Possess Self-Awareness. Cosmos Online. (2006)http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/812
Hannah Krakauer - New Scientist Comments
Kanzi the bonobo is able to create and use stone tools
- - URMC Comments
Newer Imaging Technique Brings ‘Glymphatic System’ to Light
- - The Royal Society Comments
Research suggesting that grey parrots can reason about cause and effect from audio cues alone- a skill that monkeys and dogs lack- is presented in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today.
- - Science Blog Comments
Why, after millions of years of evolution, do organisms build structures that seemingly serve no purpose?
Charles Choi - CBS News Comments
Four decades ago, in 1972, the Koobi Fora Research Project discovered the enigmatic fossilized skull known as KNM-ER 1470 which ignited a now long-standing debate about how many different species of early Homos existed.
Adam Cole - NPR Comments
One day in May of 2011, Shaun Winterton was looking at pictures of bugs on the Internet when something unusual caught his eye. It was a close shot of a green lacewing — an insect he knew well — but on its wing was an unfamiliar network of black lines and a few flecks of blue.