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20191229 – The Evolution of The Sensitive Soul


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Authors define the main idea of this book as attempt to answer the question: “How did minimal animal consciousness originate during animal evolution?”
. This attempt is based on identification of a marker that indicate transfer from preconscious to conscious animal. Overall authors define three levels from self-maintaining activities to complete consciousness: “nutritive soul” – plants, “sensitive souls” – animals, and “rational soul” – humans. Authors define this marker the following way: ”the evolutionary-transition marker for consciousness is unlimited (open-ended) associative learning (UAL). This, we argue, was the phylogenetically earliest manifestation and driver of the evolution of sustainable minimal consciousness. UAL refers to an organism’s ability to attach motivational value to a compound, multifeatured stimulus and a new action pattern and to use it as the basis for future learning. We argue that UAL is a good transition marker because the features that neurobiologists and philosophers regard as essential for consciousness are also required for UAL. If UAL is accepted as a transition marker, one can identify this capacity in different taxa and provide an account of the distribution of consciousness in the animal world—a major issue with important biological and ethical implications.“


Introduction to Part I: Rationale and Foundations

Here authors discuss main ideas of the book and present brief descriptions and objectives for each part and chapter of the book.

  1. Goal-Directed Systems: An Evolutionary Approach to Life and Consciousness

Here authors describe their evolutionary approach and provide nice picture of Aristotelian approach to differentiation of all things living:

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After that authors discuss some epistemological issues of defining life and present table of history for this in XX century:

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2. The Organization and Evolution of the Mind: From Lamarck to the Neuroscience of Consciousness

In this chapter authors go through work and thinking of outstanding researches: Lamarck, Spencer, Darwin, William James, Pavlov, and Skinner reviewing developments up to the recent time.

3. The Emergentist Consensus: Neurobiological Perspectives

Here authors review contemporary status of the field and identify areas of consensus. Here is the graphic representation:

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Authors link UAL to consensus of seven properties characterizing consciousness:

  1. Global activity and accessibility of information
  2. Binding and unification
  3. Selection, plasticity, learning, and attention
  4. Intentionality
  5. Temporal thickness
  6. Emotions, goals
  7. Embodiment, agency, and a notion of “self”

At the end authors suggest:” that UAL is the transition marker for consciousness has obvious implications for the distribution question. Discovering whether or not UAL occurs in different groups could provide an answer to the question about which animals can positively be said to possess minimal consciousness.”

Introduction to Part II: Major Transitions in the Evolution of the Mind

Authors start by presenting 8 levels of genetically supported information processing in living objects identified by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry:

(1) From replicating molecules to populations of molecules in compartments (protocells);

(2) From independent genes to chromosomes;

(3) From RNA as both an information carrier and catalyst to DNA as the carrier of information and proteins as enzymes;

(4) From prokaryotes to eukaryotes;

(5) From asexual clones to sexual populations;

(6) From single-cell eukaryotes to multicellular organisms with differentiated cells;

(7) From solitary individuals to colonies with nonreproductive castes

(8) From primate societies to human societies with language

Then they discuss their approach to research as development-oriented (evo-devo), in which they identify 5 research themes:

  • First, using the comparative method, it is developmental processes from the fertilized egg onward that are being compared, rather than the biological features of adult animals.
  • Second, there is a strong focus on the effects of genetic variations on embryonic development and recognition that some variants can have large, saltational outcomes.
  • Third, the role of developmental plasticity—the ability of the same genotype to generate different phenotypes in different environmental conditions—and the primacy of developmental responses in evolution are highlighted.
  • Fourth, the generation of developmental variations and their maintenance and inheritance within and between individuals—play a role in evolutionary explanations.
  • Fifth, physical, chemical, and cybernetic constraints on the direction, mode, and tempo of development, and their role in evolution, are emphasized.

Then they discuss role of phenotype in selection and model of exploration – stabilization perspective on selection.

Authors also provide here brief description of remaining chapters of the book.

6. The Neural Transition and the Building Blocks of Minimal Consciousness

Authors start this chapter “with the building blocks of learning, provide an overview of the transition to neural animals, and discuss the molecular and behavioral components found in cnidarians, from which simple forms of associative learning, and later UAL, probably evolved. Authors link the evolution of the nervous system with the evolution of mobility and muscles. They also stress the problem mobility opened up: once moving macroscopic animals had evolved, they had to distinguish between the sensory effects of their own movements and those that were independent of their own actions, a difficulty that led to the evolution of new modulatory interactions between sensory and motor neural centers.”

7. The Transition to Associative Learning: The First Stage

In this chapter authors ” describe the evolution of limited associative learning and the problem that this great adaptive innovation brought about—the problem of overlearning. This stumbling block was partially overcome by restricting learning to surprising, newsworthy discrepancies between expectations based on what has been learned and the actual, current effects of a new stimulus.”

Here is graphic comparison of authors’ model with previous:

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8. The Transition to Unlimited Associative Learning: How the Dice Became Loaded

“Building on the discussion in the preceding seven chapters, this chapter considers the transition to UAL and to minimal consciousness. Authors describe the functional neural architecture that constructed UAL, which, they argue, is the architecture underlying the simplest mental representations, and describe the different realizations of this architecture in vertebrates, arthropods, and mollusks. UAL led to a great increase in adaptability, but like limited associative learning, it also led to a severe problem of overlearning, which was evolutionarily solved by modulating the animals’ memory and their responses to stress.”

Authors also discuss UAL in Bayesian terms, somewhat linked to AI developments and provide nice graphic presentation of functional evolution:

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9. The Cambrian Explosion and Its Soulful Ramifications

Here authors position their “evolutionary proposal within an ecological context. They suggest that the evolutionary emergence of limited and unlimited associative learning had dramatic effects, acting as an adaptability driver of the Cambrian explosion. Once in place, the evolution of UAL led in some lineages (notably, birds and mammals, but also in the very different cephalopods) to the emergence of “Popperian” animals, creatures endowed with imagination.”

Here is general presentation of author views on Cambrian:

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10. The Golem’s Predicament

In this final chapter authors “discuss the continuity between life and consciousness, examine the possibility (and implications) of constructing artificial conscious beings, and outline a further stage in the evolution of consciousness: the transition to the human “rational soul,” to human symbolic-based cognition, and to human abstract values. This last chapter takes the form of a dialogue, with a critical reader who questions authors’ interpretations and who wants to understand the implications of our proposal for neural and cognitive consciousness studies, for the philosophy of mind, and for ethics.“

Here is the table authors compiled to present totality of development from non-living materials to rational (human) consciousness:

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This is very well researched, logically constructed, and very convincingly presented view on evolutionary development of rational beings. I pretty much agree with authors approach and I think that presented understanding of interaction between genotype and phenotype is very plausible and probably quite close to reality. The limitation of this book to sensitive soul and especially final discussion shows authors understanding, that I fully agree with, of necessity of expanding research into group functionality in order to fully understand evolutionary meaning of rational soul. I really hope that authors will move into this direction and produce as well researched and analyzed book on this next step, as this one.


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