I have decided to do another post on the subject in view of the comments to my last post. I have over 10 times my usual visits and many more comments than usual. This is a surprise to me because I didn’t think this was a powerful or provocative posting. One comment questioned the number of participants who signed the declaration, and he was there and should know. I stand corrected – all participants did not sign.
My impression when writing the original post was that most readers of my blog would find the idea of animal consciousness a bit ‘old hat’. And that seems the case; most comments do not question animal consciousness. But my statement that humans are not uniquely unique did not seem as passe.
Of course I would agree with what was, mistakenly, attributed to Stalin – sufficient quantity has a quality all its own. Really big differences are uniquely unique. We are not alone in the world in having culture because primates and elephants at least have some culture that they hand down the generations. Human culture is on a different scale, so different that it can be thought of as uniquely unique.
But our culture says little about our biology or our consciousness. Culture feeds itself so it needs no biological change to grow, it just needs a biological starting point. Look at a exponential curve. It rises slowly for a very long time before its increasing rate (which has always been there) becomes apparent. Soon it seems to turn a corner (again our imagining a corner) and heads very quickly up towards the heavens. As we share the rudiments of cultural transmission with the great apes, we have probably been on a cultural growth paths for millions of years. Very few biological changes are necessary, a few of course or we would have a level of culture similar to apes, but not many. And certainly I can not think of any changes in the mechanisms of consciousness that would need to be modified.
In the early ’60s, long before they were closed to the public, I saw the paintings in one of the Cro Magnon cave sites in France. It was an epiphany. These paintings were done by people who thought like me, or even better. No one can convince me that we have a better mechanism for consciousness now then we did 30,000 years ago. And I do not believe that each generation of painters learned how to make these beautiful images from scratch. There had to be an apprenticeship; they had a culture.
Forget about jumps and great leaps forward, genes for language, genes of maths. Homo sp. has very little more than we started with. It is culture that gives us language, control of fire, tools, the dog partnership, agriculture, cities, industrialization, finding the Higgs. Each generation standing on the shoulders of the last. Similar brain, similar intelligence, similar biology, but each generation has a larger more sophisticated culture.
Consciousness to about how the brain does a global awareness of itself and its on-going activity in its environment. There is going to be a difference in the content of my consciousness and that of my dog. But there need be no difference in the nature of how the consciousness is produced. Our consciousness as a biological function is not uniquely unique – it is not even figure in the list of what makes us unique as a species. It is the culture that is so different to animals.
If we are going to understand how consciousness is produced, we have to do comparative biology. Culture is easy. We know how it works: communication, example, training and the like. We don’t know how consciousness works. There are many theories, little evidence and no consensus. So it is helpful to get the ‘our consciousness is not found in animals’ business out of the way so that we can better study what is common.
Here are links to some old postings about this subject: