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A book by
William H. Calvin
The Cerebral Symphony (Bantam 1989) is my book on animal and human consciousness, using the setting of the Marine Biological Labs and Cape Cod. AVAILABILITY is limited.
The Cerebral Symphony
Seashore Reflections on the
Structure of Consciousness

Copyright ©1989 by William H. Calvin.

You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).


Making Up the Mind: Morning on Eel Pond

Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend. To their minds there is no past and no future. There is only the everlasting present of a single generation — its trails in the forest, its hidden pathways in the air and in the sea.
     the anthropologist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Looking out over Eel Pond, I see the same cormorant every morning. Breakfast time is his time for sitting atop that spherical white buoy amid the sailboats in the little harbor, his wings held in the shape of an M. They look as if pinned up to a clothesline to dry.

     Then he begins flapping his wings furiously, as if revving up his motor before takeoff. But he doesn’t take off. Flap, flap, flap. After a few moments of this standing-in-place exercise, he collects himself, tucks in his wings, somehow smoothes his surface. Soon he looks like a dark bronze statue of a sleek diving bird, perched atop a white pedestal.

     Not only is he there every morning, but my wife insists that he was there several years ago as well. He seems to be one of the permanent residents, unlike the dozens of scientists who sit in the cafeteria of the Marine Biological Laboratory watching him over their first cup of coffee or tea. Some discuss him in German, others in Japanese or Hebrew or Chinese. It is morning in Woods Hole.

     Again the cormorant revs up his wings, and one of the children exclaims that he is about to take off. But no, just more morning exercise in wing-flapping. Time enough to go fishing, to plunge deep below the surface and snatch a meal. Soon the cormorant is very sleek again, truly unruffled.

     How does he decide when it’s time to fish, or time to flap? Or time to flee? Cormorants probably don’t worry very much about predators. I haven’t seen any cats around here that would be hungry enough to consider swimming out to the buoy. The local cats make a very good living on the fishermen’s leavings.

     As do the skunks. I was walking around Eel Pond the other day, trying to get some thoughts in order, when I was intercepted by a curious skunk. And thoroughly inspected. Not while in some secluded spot in the woods but on the main street of Woods Hole, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A. I saw this skunk heading my way from across the street. I stopped, wondering what a skunk had been doing in the bookstore. The skunk waddled past the cars and hopped up the curb, then came right toward me. It thoroughly sniffed my feet from the front. And then from the rear, as I peered down over my shoulder to observe it.

     Disdaining my shoes, it took off down the sidewalk. But it immediately stopped again, finding a stick from an ice cream bar. It turned the stick over with a deft swipe of a forepaw, then licked off the remaining ice cream. It reconsidered me for a moment, as if trying to make up its mind about something — our eyes met as I stood there turned halfway around, and we contemplated one another. Inspection over, the skunk set off down the sidewalk once more. I watched it turn the corner as I stood, twisted around in wonder, rooted to the spot where I’d first seen it leave the bookstore.

     At first I thought that surely it was someone’s pet skunk, perhaps the bookstore owner’s? But it was merely a thoroughly urban skunk, not afraid of anything. I do wish they were more afraid of cars. Evolution prepared them well for dealing with cats and other carnivores, but not hit-and-run vehicles speeding along winding roads. Skunks often travel in groups of two or three, and so one fatality often leads to another as a sociable skunk comes back to nudge its suddenly lifeless companion, and yet another car rounds the blind curve going too fast to stop. Evolution prepared humans well for making a good living on the ice-age frontiers. And we too often seem oblivious to the hazards of our new environs, despite our occasional abilities to look ahead in a manner unlike any other animal. It’s a paradox — humans have amazing abilities to look ahead, but only occasionally use them.


THIS IS A BOOK about consciousness, even that of cormorants and skunks. Or at least those aspects of consciousness that are closely related to the question “What shall I do next?” Posing that question surely isn’t uniquely human. Making choices between fairly standard behaviors is something that all animals do. But humans are always devising novel sequences of action and comparing them to the conventional. We contemplate them, estimating their probable consequences, then perhaps implement one with some new combination of words or movements that we’ve never used before. Our cousins the monkeys and apes also innovate, but novelty is a small part of their daily lives — and looking ahead seldom extends to tomorrow.

     And so this book is about behavioral choice in animals, about how humans greatly elaborate such capabilities (especially in the frontal lobes of our enlarged brains), and about some of the principles involved — one of which is so similar to Darwinian evolution that we might almost call the thought process a Darwin Machine. This leads to a discussion of how to build thinking robots that would have much of our own consciousness, creativity, and — potentially — ethical behavior.

     Except in passing, this is not a book about the many other things that have been called consciousness; plants may be sensitive to the environment, but they do not — so far as anyone knows — spin alternative scenarios about the future, then pick and choose after winnowing down a lot of random possibilities on the basis of memories about what worked well in the past. I am a biophysically oriented neurophysiologist by training, one who has wandered a bit into anthropology and evolutionary biology in search of answers to why hominid brains enlarged four fold so quickly, but who otherwise tends to think in bottom-up terms involving creatively nonlinear nerve cells and the powerful circuits they form. I have enough trouble trying to explain how we plan ahead and construct sentences to speak without getting into the wondrous awareness enthusiasms — and while my thinking-about-thought efforts may have, fortuitously, illuminated such diverse things as our musical abilities and pitching performances, that isn’t everything that brains do.

     And “everything that brains do” is about the only definition of consciousness that encompasses the many entries in the dictionary. The other connotations of consciousness are interesting, but other neurobiologists, psychologists, and philosophers will have to undertake their explanation. Or engineer their disappearance — one must remember that many important-appearing questions simply turn out to be poorly posed, as in the natural philosophers’ debates a few centuries ago about “appearance” and “substance,” a distinction that vanished as empirical science advanced. Our dualistic distinction between mind and brain may similarly disappear as our science matures.

     Science progresses not only at the laboratory bench, at the patient’s bedside, and when studying animals in the field, but also in the incessant contemplation of how things fit together — particularly the interlocking findings from different research specialties such as animal behavior, brain research, developmental biology, evolutionary theory, and anthropology-linguistics. Often such contemplation is best done when taking long walks, especially along shorelines — one might almost call this book Seashore Speculations on Darwinian Designs.


THE CORMORANT seems to cruise around Eel Pond on a schedule, covering about the same distance with each dive. He swims along the surface about the same four seconds each time, then pops back under, searching the bottom of Eel Pond with the efficiency of a search-and-rescue airplane quartering a sector. The skunks make their rounds of the docks at night, but in an entirely different style.

     Skunks seem to stop and investigate with far more curiosity than any night watchman I’ve ever seen. I can imagine programming a robot to make watchman’s rounds, looking for intruders and sniffing for smoke, but it will be awhile before robots become as sophisticated as those skunks that prowl around under the cars, into the trash cans, and gregariously interact with one another, as if gossiping about what humans throw out and who is the most profligate. Since they often hold their ground when nonskunks approach, one of the hazards of taking a nighttime stroll in Woods Hole is tripping over a skunk — at which they do take offense.

      The skunks’ food-finding tours could be considered variations on a theme, just as in music where the familiar melody shifts into a new key, blends in another melody, plays one familiar tune off against the other as in the Goldberg Variations, and then returns to the original melody — of which the skunks’ seems to be Grand Tour of the Waterfront. Their motions are more complicated than the narrowly rule-bound foraging habits of a bee. I could program a robot to duplicate the bee’s patrol pattern (and maybe even that of the cormorant), but to mimic a cat or skunk seems to require a consideration of “will” — even of whim, a decision-making process with unpredictable elements.


NO ONE, I TRUST, will think that only humans have “will” — though the term has become somewhat unpopular; the Encyclopaedia Britannica has, magisterially, eliminated its entry. But both will and whim were invented long before humans were.

     Our cat has been having a war of wills with the neighbor’s Siamese for months now. And with us for years. She likes to sleep on our bed, and usually in an inconvenient location. And so we wedge a foot under her, from beneath the covers, and try to shove her over to one corner of the bed. She pretends not to notice, even though obviously wide-awake. You can wedge her until practically propped upright — and still she will pretend that your foot isn’t there. It’s a little matter of territory, asserting one’s rights.

     My wife has learned to take advantage of this. The cat makes an excellent foot-warmer. It would have been quite impossible to train the cat to perform a foot-warming task, even with a chopped liver reward system; cats are terribly suspicious of training schemes. And lacking the territorial dispute, the cat would never put up with a foot beneath her for very long. But provided that the foot pushes on her every few minutes and stokes the cat’s resolve, the “hot pad” game will continue for a long time. Sometimes my wife even gets both feet warmed up, thanks to the cat’s willpower.


DECIDING WHAT TO DO NEXT need not involve such obvious considerations of willpower. Take that cormorant drying its wings, for example. Its patrol pattern seems to involve a routine (that underwater tour of Eel Pond’s circumference), as does its wing-drying atop the buoy. Each can be viewed as a movement program (even holding a statuesque pose is a program), and the daily routine can be seen as a changing repertoire of programs.

     But how does the cormorant decide when it is time to stop fishing and time instead to sun itself with wings outstretched? When to stop wing-flapping and just sit there looking around? When to move on to another pond? Different cormorants do things different ways; they’re not ruled by the sun in quite the fashion that bees seem to be. How does an animal’s brain make these big decisions, starting up one movement program rather than another? Is it the same way we decide to get up from a chair and take a stretch? And perhaps raid the refrigerator? Surely we humans have some fancier kinds of decision-making, but are they variations on a primitive theme, or of an entirely novel kind?

     One of the children in the cafeteria is pestering her parents with “What are we going to do next?” And that prompts one of the computer programmers to observe that the Three Primal Questions, as told to him by his sister, are:

     1. Where are we going?
     2. When do we get there?
     3. Why do I have to sit in the middle?

     And they really do have a lot to recommend them to the philosophers. Deciding what to do next is, after all, the primary job of the “little person inside the head,” that metaphorical midget who seems at the center of everything. Is cormorant consciousness all that different from ours?

     Consciousness can mean, depending on whom you’re talking to, vastly different things. For some idealist philosophers and Zen enthusiasts, even plants have consciousness — but to some philosophical scientists, consciousness is instead defined so narrowly as to be the ineffable nonmechanical essence. If you can explain how the brain carries out something, then that something isn’t part of consciousness, they claim.

     It all reminds me of the argument that I heard once again last night, on whether computers could possibly produce art. A local artist claimed that if a computer could do it, then it wasn’t art! In the case of both consciousness and art, one suspects that progress, a better understanding of what they’re all about, isn’t desired by such people — that they’re offended by the notion that something so personal is somehow explainable.


THREE HOURS AFTER BREAKFAST, that cormorant is still there. I haven’t seen it move except when a rowboat passed by, and then it promptly returned. It inspects its feathers, spreads them once or twice. But mostly it just sits there, looking around.

     Oops! It isn’t the only cormorant after all. Another cormorant just surfaced near shore, a fish held in its beak. The cormorant shakes the fish violently, probably crushing its spinal cord. A practiced flip of the cormorant’s head, and the flaccid fish disappears into its open mouth. That slim neck is easily expanded. The cormorant promptly dives under the water surface again, checking if there are any more foolish fish about. I think that cormorants know all about the tendency of fish to school.

     When the cormorant is on the surface, it is usually swimming steadily, only its S-shaped neck and head extending above the water, rather like a submarine cruising along with only its conning tower above the surface. Except that patrolling cormorants hold their heads with their beak pointed up in the air at an angle, a sleek social snob cruising among the fat ducks that sit atop the pond’s surface like feathered rowboats.

      The busy cormorant has worked its way clear across the harbor in only a few minutes, swimming underwater most of the way, emerging about three times. I’ve gotten so that I can predict about where this cormorant will surface next, as it seems not easily distracted from its regular rounds of Eel Pond. Straight-line paths certainly are different from random walks, the crazy paths taken by the proverbial drunkards as they wander aimlessly around a street lamp, deciding on new directions every now and then, and so tracing a path that is very different from the cormorant’s purposeful culinary cruise.

     Randomness seems so very different from purpose — but that doesn’t mean purposeful paths weren’t generated by randomness. That’s the great intellectual message of Charles Darwin, which we’re so slow to appreciate. Variations, then selections — but not always expressed in behavior, as they can be done inside the head too, off-line. We often do the right thing the very first time — but that’s because we do the random trial-and-error inside our heads.


THE CORMORANT IS BACK AGAIN on its mooring buoy. He didn’t fly in, but hopped out of the water with a brief flap of wings — it looked so effortless, compared to a human trying to haul himself up out of the water into a boat. Now, the cormorant is standing there with his wings hung out to dry. I haven’t seen one of these cormorants really fly yet. They just cruise around Eel Pond, head held high for about three seconds, then disappear with a little dip of the S-shaped neck into the water, which the rest of their body seems to automatically follow, as if pulled in by some underwater assistant. You have to look carefully to spot the ripples from the dive; a small pebble thrown into Eel Pond would leave more lingering traces. Ducks are graceless in comparison.

     Both diving and the patrol pattern seem like rolls for a player piano, “canned” movement programs (a “motor tape,” as neurobiologists are wont to say). It’s like my cat’s washing routine. Sometimes while she is running across the room at home, she will suddenly stop to wash, as if some irresistible urge had struck her and started up the washing program. After which, it’s just one thing after another.

     Following Motion X usually comes Motion Y — though sometimes Motion Z instead. Motion X probably “brings to mind” both possibilities Y and Z —certainly it does for the cat. “Cat” (as readers of The Throwing Madonna may remember, though I’ve taken to calling her “Noise” in recent years as she has a Siamese-like vocal repertoire) likes to play with my shoelaces when I’m getting dressed in the morning. I suppose that the shoelace is reminiscent of a mouse’s tail; she certainly treats it that way, cupping it with a paw and bringing it toward her open mouth. And then a funny thing often happens —she starts washing the paw and moves on to washing her face, ignoring the shoelace long enough for me to finish tying my shoe (if I hurry). In short, she switches in midstream from a food-acquisition movement program to a grooming movement program.

     And the paw-cupping movement subprogram is the initial part of each of those two major movement programs. In one case, it is followed by biting — in the other case, by licking and then wiping the paw over the head, and so on into one of the best-practiced and most graceful of feline movement programs. If the paw-cupping doesn’t bring with it something solid on which to bite, I suppose that the switch from food acquisition to grooming has a nice logic to it: Both setups involve cupped paw and open mouth. Some of our own mistaken actions are in the same class, as when I finish slicing the ends off of some carrots with a paring knife, open the dishwasher — and put a carrot into the silverware compartment.

     We would like, of course, to take apart movement programs into primitive elements, the “atoms” from which they might be composed. But even animal grooming is harder to characterize than you might initially think. In hopes of being able to break up animal grooming into its components, some of the animal behavior people have sought the aid of choreographers, since they have developed a notation scheme for movements that can be used to annotate the musical scores. The robotics people are eagerly awaiting the results, since melding together the separate jerky movements of robots into the smooth, dexterous motions of an assembly-line worker has proved exasperating.

     Well-practiced movement programs are likely to be seamless, just one movement flowing into another without a definable end to one and beginning of another. That is, of course, what any tennis coach or golf pro attempts to achieve: to blend the beginner’s jerky separate movements into one integrated whole, without any components remaining visible.

     I’m sitting outside in the shade of the only tree in the patio of the Swope Center, and listening to someone practice the piano up in the Meigs Room, where the Sunday evening concerts are held. The pianist is trying to get an arpeggio right, but it still doesn’t flow as gracefully as that diving cormorant. Now there’s a “motor tape” for you: That arpeggio is so fast that feedback cannot help the pianist. She simply has to send out exactly the right commands, at exactly the right times, and not wait around for progress reports before continuing. She needs a perfect plan, in advance.

The “conscious mind” relates to dealings with the outside world, which require elaborate analysis in the light of the past, and preparation of future courses of action. We think things over and make plans; there would be no sense in doing this consciously every time that we speed up the heart when we go upstairs, or dilate the blood vessels of the leg muscles to do the work. These things are arranged to happen automatically every time that one has set in motion the action of climbing. Conscious control of the details of these activities would overload the cerebral computer.
     the English neurobiologist J. Z. Young, 1987

THINKING ABOUT THOUGHT isn’t as circular as it sounds, but it demands a fairly fancy mental construct that the cormorant probably lacks. And certainly I suspect that plants lack that ability, whatever the Zen enthusiasts say. Trains of thought seem a lot like trains of muscle commands, as if they were movement programs being planned out before being started up. But not all movement programs need be conscious; indeed, the well-practiced ones, like those for my bicycle riding and the cat’s grooming, seem to require little conscious effort. Consciousness is a term we seem to apply to choosing between alternative scenarios for what we might do next.

     So is the cormorant’s decision to take another dive “conscious”? Maybe, but that also might make my cat’s reflex scratching of her collar “conscious” too. And therefore my reflex rubbing of my nose, which I’ve always considered largely unaided by conscious decision.

     Still, every situation is a bit unique, and responses often are modified with the conditions. How about choosing between nonautomatic, more novel scenarios? But that might leave out the cormorant almost altogether, since novelty is such a small part of its life. Still, unless we define consciousness so narrowly as to make it a sudden step from none in apes to fullblown in humans, we expect a gradation. And the increasing utilization of novel movement scenarios (such as speaking a novel sentence, or dancing to a new rhythm) does capture something of the likely differences between cormorant and human consciousness. And it leaves room for the insightful behaviors which apes display more than monkeys.

     There’s another sense in which consciousness is only the uncommon. As you become highly practiced at a skill, so that it no longer qualifies as novel, maybe it does move from conscious control to less-than-conscious — as in Zen archery, where the object is to become so practiced that no conscious will is required to release the arrow at the right moment. You can simply watch the arrow being released, as if someone else were doing it. In Zen archery, according to Eugen Herrigel, “The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise. It must be as if the bowstring suddenly cut through the thumb that held it.”


THE DERELICT BOAT called Ovalipes is even lower in the water today, the thunderstorm in the middle of the night having soaked everything. That boat looks as if it tried to sneak into Eel Pond after hours and sheared off its superstructure on the drawbridge. There is also a curious de-masted sailboat in the middle of the harbor, on which someone lives. They suggest that someone didn’t think ahead very far.

     Except for small rowboats and motorboats without windshields, getting in and out of Eel Pond is a matter of remembering the schedule of the drawbridge operator. If you return later than midevening, you wait until morning (one is reminded of the days of in loco parentis when college dorms were locked up at midnight). People memorize the drawbridge schedule (including the operator’s coffee-break hours) in the way that other people memorize the ferry schedule to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the large offshore islands connected by ferries to Woods Hole.

     Both schedules occasion much beeping, the squeaky boat horns used to signal the drawbridge operator sounding quite different from the solid tenor notes of departing ferries as they try to blast small boats out of their way. Atop these sounds, the robotic foghorn at the Nobska lighthouse can sometimes be heard as a bass rumble.

     Heard in the middle of the night, the foghorn sounds like a metallic cow, mooing insistently. But sometimes the sound is broken up, deflected by a shifting breeze somewhere between Nobska and Eel Pond. Then it resembles broken speech rather than a moo. Sometimes I think that it’s saying, “Feed me.... Feed me....” — like some Cape Cod minotaur monster.


EEL POND is changing again. Some fishermen returned, and several sailboats went out for a late afternoon on the ocean. Eel Pond is a tidal basin opening off the salty straits between Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay. Over the last century, the possessive apostrophe has been eliminated from Wood’s and Buzzard’s, but not yet from Martha’s — but then everyone around here just calls it “the Vineyard” instead.

     The town of Woods Hole grew up around Eel Pond. Walking around town is always an experience, even if you’re not one of the regulars, as Susan Allport noted in her book Explorers of the Black Box:

Woods Hole could never be mistaken for one of the many other summer resorts that dot Cape Cod.... It’s the scientists themselves who give Woods Hole its unmistakable air. Whether waiting for the drawbridge that bisects the town to be lowered or for a bowl of chowder in a local restaurant, they are in constant conversation. Their scientific jargon — “ATP,” “calcium spikes,” “symbiotic bacteria” — always fills the air, mingling at the beach with the lapping of the waves or in a restaurant with the smells of coffee and fried clams.

     And it’s not just their conversations but also their behavior that distinguishes them from nonscientists. In this town full of observers of nature, everyone makes eye contact with everyone else. It doesn’t matter whether you are passing on foot — in the hall, on the beach, or on one of the small roads that wind through Woods Hole’s warren of cottages and beach houses — or even in cars. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but before long you begin to feel that you’re part of some greater intelligence, that this is a place where knowledge is being accumulated and communicated.

Taking the loop clockwise, I pass the Bell Tower, stop to talk to some physiologist friends who have been out fishing, and then continue on past the schoolhouse. On reaching the main street near where the skunk intercepted me earlier, I start seeing ships rather than the pond’s sailboats. Just outside the drawbridge spanning the neck of Eel Pond, the big boats dock: funny-looking ferryboats, destroyer-sized oceanographic research vessels, an old-fashioned sailing ship of the era before engines, and the occasional graceful white yacht with a uniformed crew treading softly on a teak staircase between decks.

      Here are some of the buildings and piers of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, WHOI being known hereabouts as “who-ee,” and of the National Marine Fisheries Service. And sticking out into the Great Harbor is the pier and pumphouse for the sea water supply of the Marine Biological Laboratory, what keeps the animals in MBL’s aquariums alive.

      In 1975 a Vineyard ferryboat, the M.V. Islander, while maneuvering to avoid a small boat, collided with this pumphouse pier and nearly destroyed it. The ferry’s captain, seeing that he was about to back into the pier, must have set the engines on full speed ahead — but big ships respond slowly because of their considerable inertia. And so, after the MBL pier was extensively damaged, the ferryboat charged full speed ahead and thereby plowed into WHOI’s pier across the way, narrowly missing one of their brand-new oceangoing ships tied up there.

      Such evenhanded treatment of Woods Hole’s two leading institutions was the talk of the town for months. The captain of a big ship has to plan far ahead because the ship responds so slowly; feedback is pretty inadequate when it takes so long from initiating an action to getting some reaction. It’s similar to the pianist’s problem with feedback, but on a much longer time scale: the pianist’s loop time from action to correction is at least a tenth of a second, but the captain’s is many seconds. So how do they do it (when successful)?

      Which reminds me: I’m still watching for the classy sailboat named Fantasy that is said to inhabit this place. Fantasy is notable for its small dinghy that trails along behind on a leash. The dinghy too has a name painted on its rear: Its name, though you have to squint to read it, turns out to be Reality. Overblown fantasy first, trailed by scaled-down reality. Remember that technique for stimulating creativity called “brainstorming,” where you’re not allowed to criticize anyone’s suggestions until several dozen are on the table, the wilder the better? I suspect that each individual works much the same way subconsciously, that our brains generate a lot of random possibilities and then pick the best — but that we’re only conscious of the best one, and not of all the inferior discards. And that this procedure is responsible for not only for the success of pianists and ferry captains, but for how we think great thoughts.


HUMAN CHOICES include versions of the cormorant’s fishing, fleeing, and basking in the sun — all are popular here in Woods Hole. But our range of choice is much greater, especially as we plan for tomorrow.

      Setting aside great thoughts for the moment, instead consider an undergraduate trying to choose between elective courses. I remember having only one opening each term outside my load of math-physics-chemistry, and a wide range of candidates. Should I take a course in public speaking, since that seemed appropriate for anyone interested in teaching? Or a philosophy course in logic, which might help me understand mathematics better? Or the composition elective, important to a writing career? Or Richard Ellman’s course on the novel as a literary form, also important for the writing option? Or a history course on the early Greek scientist-philosophers that seemed to fit with no particular career option, but was intriguing? Or Melville Herskovits’ course in theories of culture, important if I wanted to pursue my tentative interest in anthropology? Or Steve Glickman’s physiological psychology seminar, important to my budding interest in brains?

      Each choice had to be viewed in terms of a whole scenario involving past, present, and future. Some choices had prerequisites, a typical scenario constraint. But part of scenario-spinning is discovering shortcuts: After a year’s experience, I learned that some prerequisites were essential (you really can’t take differential equations without a year of calculus) and that others weren’t. The rules said that I had to take introductory anthropology before that theories of culture seminar, introductory psychology before the physiological psychology seminar, and a literature survey course before the special course on the novel — but I was willing to gamble on having to do some extra background reading, and so discovered that the afore-mentioned professors were willing to gamble too, that they would waive the rules when asked. Nearly all of my most memorable undergraduate courses involved such gambles.

      But beyond prerequisites, there was a whole career scenario: What did one actually do as a physicist, as an anthropologist, as a writer? Did they bring one into contact with interesting people and important problems, involve travel to exotic places, provide stable employment — or chancy roads to riches, fame and glory? What reactions might a given choice evoke from my physics advisor, from my girlfriend, from my parents?

      It is this sort of scenario spinning, involving both past and future, that makes human consciousness so different from the behavioral choices of the cormorant, the skunk, and even the chimpanzee. It isn’t that animals lack fancy concepts like mathematics and physiology and novels — it’s that they so seldom chain together the concepts that they do have, to generate a novel course of action.


CHIMPANZEES COME THE CLOSEST to human-level novel planning when they engage in little deceptions (a behavior rarely observed in monkeys). A chimpanzee who comes upon a bountiful food resource — say, a tree full of ripe fruit — usually utters a joyful “food cry” that quickly attracts the other chimpanzees of the band, who similarly exclaim in delight upon seeing the bounty. But if the first chimp sees that there are only a few fruit to be had, it may keep quiet, attempting to silently eat all the fruit before any other chimp wanders along.

      Foresight-prompted deception occurs when the lone chimp, hearing the approach of other chimps and worried that it will be deprived of the rest of its feast, leaves the limited bounty, casually strolls over in a different direction, and issues a food cry in the midst of dense foliage — where there is no food! This decoys the other chimps away from the limited supply of fruit. While the others are excitedly looking around the false site, the first chimp circuitously returns to the true site and finishes off the feast.

      So it seems as if the chimpanzee can foresee the scenario of losing its remaining feast to competitors, and that it can spin a decoy scenario that involves “telling a lie.” One might argue that these deceptions are only occasionally novel: losing food to a higher-ranking animal is an everyday occurrence, and most decoy deceptions are probably just repeats of an earlier success. But still, there is some element of novelty in the animal’s “first lie” that begins to look like the scenario-spinning deceptions common in humans. Do chimpanzees spin alternative scenarios, pick and choose between them, spin more when dissatisfied with the early choices? If so, it would begin to look like the human scenario-spinning abilities that we associate with contemplative consciousness.

      Now there’s a Philosopher’s Primal Question for you: How do we “consciously” choose between alternatives? Indeed, how do we imagine the alternatives from which to choose? Neurophysiology ought to be able to provide some answers about neural mechanisms, such as whether the sequencing machinery for throwing can also be used for arpeggios, language, and scenario-spinning — though surely sociobiology will have to answer questions about the evolution of social expertise and intellect. And neurophysiologists, together with philosophers, ought to be able to provide some insights about our sense of self and voluntary choice — perhaps even why we often conceive of a “soul” that commands the body during the day and wanders abroad at night.

It has been the persuasion of an immense majority of human beings that sensibility and thought [as opposed to matter] are, in their own nature, less susceptible of division and decay, and when the body is resolved into its elements, the principle which animated it will remain perpetual and unchanged. However, it is probable that what we call thought is not an actual being, but no more than the relation between certain parts of that infinitely varied mass, of which the rest of the universe is composed, and which ceases to exist as soon as those parts change their position with respect to each other.
      Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I am sincerely of the opinion that the views... propounded by Mr. Darwin may be understood hereafter as constituting an epoch in the intellectual history of the human race. They will modify the whole system of our thought and opinion, our most intimate convictions.
     Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

The Cerebral Symphony (Bantam 1989) is my book on animal and human consciousness, using the setting of the Marine Biological Labs and Cape Cod. AVAILABILITY is limited.
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