William H. Calvin, "Evolution and consciousness." An after-dinner speech at the  Esalen evolution meeting (7 November 2000).  See also

The suggested background reading was my article for the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "Competing for Consciousness: A Darwinian Mechanism at an Appropriate Level of Explanation," 5(4)389-404 (1998). 
Webbed Lecture Collection
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA

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      Not going to talk about brain business or about hominid evolution, see my How Brains Think.

      Nor about abrupt climate changes, see my Atlantic Monthly cover story 1/98.

      However, at my web pages, 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 this talk.

      The E word:  Evolution just means change, in particular, the unfolding of a new pattern from an old one.

      There are less interesting versions, such as what marching bands do at halftime, grounded in well-practiced naval, infantry, and dance maneuvers.

      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.

Similarly the C word is another one of those words with a dozen connotations.  It is not an entity.  Beware the reification fallacy.

      Crick’s 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.

      I’m 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.

      Neurologists have a very practical concern with lower consciousness.

      coma, stupor, awake and fully oriented to time and space.

      Walter Freeman’s quip about looking for C in the brainstem as confusing the light switch with the light.

      Neurobiologists 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

   Jellyfish C with most primitive nervous system?

   Bacteria finding glucose gradient?

   Venus fly trap?

   Even irritated rocks produce sparks.

      So even rocks have consciousness!

      Lumper extreme of the splitters vs the lumpers.

      Getting trapped by words, want to focus instead on functionality.

Awake-aware in Damasio

      Consciousness 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."

      "He 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]

     Core consciousness 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.

      "When 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 consciousness."[p.195, 197]

WHC comment on Damasio

      Been reading from my NYT book review of Damasio’s book last year, which is on my web site.

      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 personality."[p.144]

      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 it.

      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 Bates).

      So watch out for reification:  the name isn’t the thing.  Brain things are multifunctional.
Structured thought’s objective aspects

      Best examples from language but carries over to planning, games, music.

      Protolanguage limited to short sentences which don’t require structuring.  “Want banana.”

      Syntax allows very long sentences, all sorts of contingencies and qualifications. “I think I saw him leave to go home.”  4-in-1.

      Not just speak but think in a structured way.  Think before speak.

      Curbs cuts used for lots of things besides wheelchairs, same with brain’s machinery for planning movements and hearing sequences.
Higher intellectual functions

   structured language (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.

Closely related

   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 another’s standpoint).

      Not intellectual functions but might share neural machinery:

    Planning for accurate throwing paid the bills

    Mental 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.

Mark Turner, The Literary Mind, 1996, argues that parable is a leading mental function, understanding a novel story in terms of a more familiar one.

We 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.

When 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  planning.

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 for explanation.

Now for how E causes C

      I’ve 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.

      Darwinian process can operate on millennial time scale of biological evolution, or

      Days-to-weeks time scale of immune response.

      We can simulate the process in computers.

      And the brain has the neural circuitry to run the same sort of improvement of quality process on the time scale of milliseconds to minutes.

      Consider process abstractly, not just its biological exemplars.

The Six Darwinian Essentials

    There’s a pattern (gene, meme).

    The pattern is copied.

    Variant patterns arise. (errors)

    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”).

    The 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 Darwinism

Potential wells can stabilize, prevent progress as in “living fossils.”  And while not essential, there are four catalysts.

   systematic recombination, e.g., sex, not cloning.

Don’t leave variations to chance!  Mix regularly.

   fluctuating climate (more severe selection, more frequent culling -- and therefore more frequent opportunities when re-expand).
Speeding up Darwinism, two more ways

    Patchy subdivisions (island biogeography promotes inbreeding; higher percentage now live out on the habitat’s “marginal” margins)

  fragment-then-reunite “pumps” central percentages of those variants capable of making a living on the margins.

    Emptied niches 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 Cerebral Code. 

    So it’s a prediction made from:

   Commonplace entrainment tendencies

   Express-train axons

   Commonplace neocortical neuron physiology and LTP-LTD.

   Tune for hand movements, tune for apple-orange-fruit, even unicorn.

   Unicorn from superimposing rhino and horse.

   Codes in melodies for relationships too, like bigger, or a sentence.

   Can superimpose tunes just like multi-part music, a cerebral symphony.

   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 various sizes.

   Competition occurs via recruiting singers into your choir.  Just like bluegrass and crabgrass competing for each square foot of my back yard.

   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 copying competition. 

    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

      Generates 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 feet.

      Darwin 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.


      Tried 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.

Copyright ©2000 by William H. Calvin, University of Washington, Seattle (

Related books and their links:

William H. Calvin, The Cerebral Code (1996)

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,
  Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain  
(MIT Press, 2000).

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