Not going to talk about brain business or about hominid
evolution, see my How Brains Think.
However, at my web pages WilliamCalvin.com, you
will find the full text of all ten books plus many talks from the
last five years.
Going to stick to levels of organization and Darwinian
processes, the what and how of consciousness, a little of the why.
Lingua ex Machina
is my closest book to
The E word: Evolution
just means change, in particular, the unfolding of a new pattern from an
There are less interesting versions, such as what marching
bands do at halftime, grounded in well-practiced naval, infantry, and dance
Biological evolution isn’t all of evolution, is indeed a
special case but one that allows us to see how the crank can be turned.
Darwinian process (later) isn’t only kind of
bootstrapping evolutionary process, just the one we know best. And the Darwinian process may well work in other media than
carbon-based life forms.
the C word is another one of those words with a dozen connotations.
It is not an entity. Beware
the reification fallacy.
quip about C: The boundary between the living
and the nonliving disappearing into so much molecular biology, same thing will
happen to consciousness disappearing into so much neurobiology.
not sure what “higher” consciousness is.
But I’ll have a try at describing higher intellectual function
for you. First a little
stage-setting, concerning levels of organization.
Levels of organization
Fleece to yarn to cloth to clothing
Children and language stages
On the fly levels too, like analogies.
One way of looking at C is as a high level of organization,
though likely NOT the highest.
Higher and Lower C.
have a very practical concern with lower consciousness.
stupor, awake and fully oriented to time and space.
Freeman’s quip about looking for C in the brainstem as confusing the light
switch with the light.
tend to mean focusing attention, almost as limited as the neurologists.
Calling it C is just window dressing.
Further, there is a slippery slope from selective attention to
C with most primitive nervous system?
finding glucose gradient?
irritated rocks produce sparks.
even rocks have consciousness!
extreme of the splitters vs the lumpers.
trapped by words, want to focus instead on functionality.
Awake-aware in Damasio
is more than just being awake, as one of Damasio’s patients illustrates:
"Were you to have interrupted the [epileptic] patient at any point during
the [absence-automatism] episode, he would have looked at you in utter
bewilderment or perhaps with indifference. He would not have known who you were
[nor] who he was or what he was doing…."
He might turn on a faucet or open a door, but temporarily "the contents
that make up a conscious mind would have been missing.… There would have been
no plan, no forethought, no sense of… wishing, wanting, considering,
believing. There would have been no sense of self, no identifiable person with a
past and an anticipated future…. In other words, the patient would have had
some elementary aspects of mind… but he would not have had the contents of
mind I call consciousness."
would not have developed… an image of knowing centered on a self;
an enhanced image of the objects he was interacting with; a sense of the
appropriate connection to what went on before each given instant or what
might happen in the instant ahead."[p.98-99]
is closely related to such prominent background feelings as excitement,
fatigue/energy, wellness/sickness, tension/relaxation, surging/dragging,
balance/imbalance, and harmony/discord.
If this core is the indispensable foundation of
consciousness for Damasio, extended consciousness is its glory.
we think of the greatness of consciousness we have extended consciousness in
mind. [It] goes beyond the here and now of core consciousness, both backward and
forward. The here and now is still there, but it is flanked by the past, as much
past as you may need to illuminate the now effectively, and, just as
importantly, it is flanked by the anticipated future…. The time scale is no
longer the fraction of a second that characterizes core
WHC comment on Damasio
Damasio generally chooses not to complicate his extended
consciousness story with all that language adds. Thus, in [his] book, there is
little elaboration about how consciousness is further expanded by structured
thought processes, the sort of thing we see best in language with syntax,
alternative agendas, games with arbitrary rules, chains of logic -- and our
fascination with discovering hidden patterns, whether in listening to music or
doing puzzles or laughing at the punch line. [Will elaborate in a minute.]
Damasio’s autobiographic self
Close my intro to the C word with Damasio’s
"autobiographical self," always under reconstruction. This poignant
passage recalls his earlier description of Alzheimer’s dementia: "When we
discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a
ceaseless process of building up and tearing down, and we realize that life is
at the mercy of that never-ending process. Like the sand castles on the beaches
of our childhood, it can be washed away. It is astonishing that we have a sense
of self at all…, [astonishing that we have the] continuity of structure and
function that constitutes identity [and the] stable traits of behavior we call a
That’s the C word. Now
for the E word, and I start with a caution.
Sidesteps in evolution
How do you get new functions in evolution?
Not as mutations but as a secondary use of an existing structure.
Darwin cautioned about going overboard on adaptation for a function,
saying conversion of function was so important.
You have to invent a new function before you improve
Can get new functions for free.
Curb cut is for wheelchair use, but 99% of its use is for
things that could never have paid for it.
Secondary improvements are like adaptations:
Airport curb cuts widened to avoid queues.
Language too has probably paid for improvements in brain
machinery for planning ballistic movements like accurate throwing, itself
originally developed through hunting payoffs.
Even language areas have “kept their day jobs” (Liz
So watch out for reification: the name isn’t the thing. Brain things are multifunctional.
Structured thought’s objective aspects
examples from language but carries over to planning, games, music.
limited to short sentences which don’t require structuring.
allows very long sentences, all sorts of contingencies and qualifications. “I
think I saw him leave to go home.” 4-in-1.
just speak but think in a structured way. Think before speak.
cuts used for lots of things besides wheelchairs, same with brain’s machinery
for planning movements and hearing sequences.
Higher intellectual functions
(not just words or short sentences but long sentences with recursive embedding
of phrases and clauses),
planning for uncertain futures (not just
the seasons) and their associated agendas,
logical trains of inference
that allow us to connect remote causes with present effects (and a propensity to
guess at them, useful both for doing science and for fooling yourself).
games with made-up rules (hopscotch,
not just play) and dance.
Our fascination with discovering hidden patterns, seen in music
(not just rhythm but four-part harmony), crossword puzzles, and doing science.
Coherence-finding is very rewarding.
our extensive offline creativity (an ability to
speculate, to shape up quality by bootstrapping from rude beginnings, yet
without acting in the real world). Despite
Gary Larson, I don’t think most animals can do this.
ethics (which may require an ability to
estimate the consequences of a proposed course of action, and judge it from
Not intellectual functions but might share neural
accurate throwing paid the bills
categories for keeping track of sharing and doing favors.
Both under a
lot of nat selection with long growth curves. See LxM.
Building atop sentences
Let me show you Mark Turner’s view of the high end of
cognitive processing, so you can appreciate the problems that a Darwinian
process could solve. He is prof of
English at U Maryland.
Literary Mind, 1996, argues
that parable is a leading mental function, understanding a novel
story in terms of a more familiar one.
duck when we see someone cock an arm to throw a stone at us because we are
predicting: we recognize the beginning sequence of a small spatial
story, imagine the rest, and respond.
Narrative imagining is our fundamental form of predicting.
we decide that it is perfectly reasonable to place our plum on the dictionary
but not the dictionary on our plum, we are both predicting and evaluating.
Evaluating the future of an act is evaluating the wisdom of the act.
In this way, narrative imagining is also our fundamental form of evaluating.
When we hear something and want to see it, and walk to a
new location in order to see it, we have made and executed a Plan.
We have constructed a story taking us from the original situation to the
desired situation and executed the story. The
story is the plan. In this way,
narrative imagining is our fundamental cognitive instrument for
When a drop of water falls mysteriously from the ceiling
and lands at our feet, we try to imagine a story that begins from the normal
situation and ends with the mysterious situation. The story is the explanation. Narrative imagining is our fundamental cognitive instrument
Now for how E causes C
only covered the sidestep aspects of the E word, now consider how the crank is
turned, at least in the best known version of evolution.
process can operate on millennial time scale of biological evolution, or
time scale of immune response.
can simulate the process in computers.
the brain has the neural circuitry to run the same sort of improvement of
quality process on the time scale of milliseconds to minutes.
process abstractly, not just its biological exemplars.
The Six Darwinian Essentials
There’s a pattern (gene,
The pattern is copied.
Variant patterns arise.
Populations of some
variants compete for a workspace, e.g., bluegrass & crabgrass
for my back yard.
There is a multifaceted environment that makes
some variants more common (Darwin’s “Natural selection”).
more successful variants are the most frequent center for further
variants (Darwin’s Inheritance Principle). Leave out any one, process halts.
Stabilizing vs. speeding up
Potential wells can stabilize,
prevent progress as in “living fossils.”
And while not essential, there are four catalysts.
e.g., sex, not cloning.
Don’t leave variations to chance!
(more severe selection, more frequent culling -- and therefore more frequent
opportunities when re-expand).
Speeding up Darwinism, two more ways
(island biogeography promotes inbreeding; higher percentage now live out on the
habitat’s “marginal” margins)
“pumps” central percentages of those variants capable of making a living on
to refill (no competition for a few generations gives rare variants a chance).
Status of Darwin Machine in brain
Went searching for circuitry that could support a Darwinian
copying competitions in the brain. Superficial
layers of neocortex has the right wiring to do it, as I explain in The
So it’s a prediction made from:
Commonplace entrainment tendencies
Commonplace neocortical neuron physiology and LTP-LTD.
Tune for hand movements, tune for apple-orange-fruit, even
Unicorn from superimposing rhino and horse.
Codes in melodies for relationships too, like bigger, or a
Can superimpose tunes just like multi-part music, a
But readout may be required since can only speak one word
at a time, so like Britten’s Young Person’s Guide backwards:
all together, then separately.
Tunes never play solo but always as plainchant choirs of
Competition occurs via recruiting singers into your choir.
Just like bluegrass and crabgrass competing for each square foot of my
Multifaceted environment is both real-time sensory and
memorized. Feelings play a big role
plus all of those elements of Damasio’s core C.
Inheritance because bigger choirs have more perimeter, and
copying errors or superpositions are only possible on the edges of the choir.
So a lot of subconscious stuff is going on in the
background, but what you can report on is simply the current winner of the
In another few seconds, the winner will have shifted to
some other thought cooking on the back burner.
Physically the site of the action may shift from left to
right hemisphere. This C
explanation accords well with the neurological evidence saying that no one
cortical site is critical for C, that it’s a moveable feast.
Darwin Machine is just what you need for C
variation on old experiences, especially narratives, so we can duck when
we see Turner’s cocked arm, we can avoid placing Turner’s plum under
our dictionary, we can make a plan to move Turner to get a better view, we can
concoct a explanation for that drop of water that landed at Professor Turner’s
Machine generates quality via a series of generations that produce better
and better fits with the realtime and memorized environments.
Perfect you don’t get, but that gives you a way of dealing with
ambiguous situations, of generating candidates, ranging them, doing variations
to improve them.
to flesh out both your rough outline of the E word, and of the C word, and then
say how the Darwinian process could operate on the time scale of thought and
action to generate the movement programs that move us, to give us our flexible
spectulative mental life, always on the lookout for coherence, for how things
all hang together.
©2000 by William H. Calvin, University of Washington, Seattle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Related books and their amazon.com
William H. Calvin, The
Cerebral Code (1996)
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,
Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human
(MIT Press, 2000).