The cause question

Someone on a television nature program says something like, “the stag feeds, he needs to eat well in preparation for the mating season.” My husband’s anger rises and he shouts at the screen that the stag eats because it is hungry and is not thinking about preparation for the mating season. And I answer that what the stag thinks or feel has nothing to do with the ’cause’ of his action, they are the ‘how’ not the ‘why’. The why is the probability of success in mating, the how is the chain of – being in good shape by eating well due to hunger etc. We have this argument often. I admit that the voice-over was not that clear and could be misinterpreted but I will not accept that the commentary was wrong. The, THE, cause of biological behaviour is evolutionary and not about mental activity. The mental activity is the means.



I was reminded of this difference in how to look at cause, when I read a blog posting on sleep. It was Bora Zivkovic’s blog in the Scientific American (here). He was pointing out that the primary reason for the evolution of sleep is to be inactive when it is dangerous to be active.

Let me put it simply: sleep makes you sit still and be quiet at times when it is dangerous to move around and there is nothing else important to do. All the other functions were added later due to either timing (some things are better done at certain times of day that coincide with either sleep-time or wake-time and the two processes get linked) or particular brain states (i.e., some functions, for instance the consolidation of memory, are easier to perform at times when the brain is NOT receiving much input from the outside environment):

The theory does not so much contradict other theories about the role of sleep as much as place them in context: “What I am saying is that it is not that sleep has been adapted to allow some vital function to be fulfilled, but the core function of sleep is to adapt animals to their ecological niche,” Siegel said. “Given the animal is inactive for a certain period of the day, certain functions will migrate to that period because it is more efficient” to perform them at that time.


So I wonder, what about consciousness? Is it something that has been added to the non-sleep state after sleep was established? Or was it something that existed that has been migrated out the sleep period to be concentrated in the wake period? After all, an organism could be inactive but still aware. Awareness would be not very useful during enforced inactivity but could become more elaborate if confined to the period of activity. We have no answers of course but they are interesting questions.


(This is this blog’s fourth birthday – it does not seem that long)



One thought on “The cause question

  1. I think it depends whether ’cause’ refers to a physical mechanism or a theoretical explanation. Both are valid interpretations of the word.
    However strictly speaking, it’s the mating success of its ancestors that are the cause of the stag’s hunger, which in turn is the cause of its eating, not any probability of success in the upcoming mating season.

    My interpretation of consciousness is that it is a coordination of an organism’s interactions with its environment. Obviously, sleep and consciousness are opposite states of mind: there is no interaction during sleep. Awareness is always intentional, and an organism can’t be “inactive but still aware”. At least is it vigilant, which is a form of activity.

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