19 Feb 2011

Consciousness as Adaptation

Posted by jofr

All animals can share a common place, move in the same direction and form swarms, from slime molds to flocks of birds, but only humans can also share ideas, interests and beliefs. Only humans can form communities and organizations which are capable of complex behavior. What gives humans this capacity to get along together so well?

Nicholas Humphrey argues that the reason is a talent and a desire for sharing subjective experiences: “Humans alone know what it is like to be in someone else’s place and humans alone care” [1]. Humans can comprehend the world, which consists of a society of other selves. They are conscious of themselves and conscious of others, as Humphrey argues [1], they have deep..

  • empathy (the sharing of feelings)
  • sympathy (the sharing of goals/intentions)
  • synchrony (the sharing of actions)

This is possible because humans have a common understanding through language, they possess imagination and consciousness. Consciousness allows us to comprehend other and ourselves, although it is deeply private:

“When it comes to consciousness, we are on our own [..] Everyone knows directly only of his or her own consciousness and not anyone else’s [..] Consciousness really is deeply, fascinatingly, peculiarly private.” [1]

Consciousness is indeed peculiarly private. The subjective, conscious experience is private, because it can not be shared directly, and “after all, there is only one of me and 4 billion of you” [2]. Consciousness of the self in the form of self-awareness is perhaps the ultimate subjective experience. And yet although it separates and isolates us through our subjective experience, it also connects us to other individuals, because it lights up the world for us, as Nicholas Humphrey says in his book “Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness” (Princeton University Press, 2011). Consciousness also allows us in combination with language to share our impressions with others. Therefore it connects and divides us at the same time. We cannot peer into the mental states of others directly, we can only imagine how they look like by trying to “stand in their shoes”, by asking “Where are you standing and what do you see?”

This is also what the “New Realism” movement in Psychology says (the “New Realism” represented by Edwin Holt and Nicholas Thompson, see [2]). According to Edwin B. Holt’s view, everyone is characterized by a consciousness based on a certain “slice of the world”. But if “each of us [..] is merely a place in the world from which the world is viewed” as Nicholas Thompson says [2], then we can understand each other if we are trying to stand in the shoes of the person in question. The ability to share our point of view allows us to get along with others, has Harper Lee observed in her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view [..] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
-Harper Lee in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, spoken by the main character Atticus Finch

This means in our society and culture everyone has the right to have an own point of view, but also the obligation to share it.

“To me the New Realism concedes our right to a point of view while demanding our obligation to share it. Each of us is obligated to give clear instructions for how to stand where we are standing, so that others can see what we see.”
– Nicholas Thompson in [2]

Maybe humans get along together so well because they do not only share the same culture, they are “produced” partly by society itself. Humans live at the intersection of nature and culture. Merlin Donald argues that the human mind is a hybrid product, interweaving a complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a “distributed” cognitive network. He says on page 157 of his book “A mind so rare” [4] that “humans bridge two worlds. We are hybrids, half analogizers, with direct experience of the world, and half symbolizers, embedded in a cultural web.”

While the natural part, the body, is produced by nature, the cultural part of humans is certainly influenced and produced by the society during years of learning and socialization. A society, i.e. social or religious group regulated by a set of memes, produces conscious members because it needs them to survive, just like genes produces a body to survive. Group members share a common interest in the group’s survival. Thus humans are a complex product of multiple worlds, who live in a complex social environment. Humphrey argues that consciousness has been (or still is) an adaptation to this complex environment. In one of his older papers, he claims that there is a positive correlation between ‘social complexity’ which arises from continuous interaction in complex social groups and ‘individual intelligence’.

“Like chess, a social interaction is typically a transaction between social partners. One animal may, for instance, wish by his own behaviour to change the behaviour of another; but since the second animal is himself reactive and intelligent the interaction soon becomes a two-way argument where each ‘player’ must be ready to change his tactics – and maybe his goals – as the game proceeds.” [3]

The human society is a society of individual I’s and unique selves, which interact in very complex ways. Each “self” has a separate identity and personality. The complicated behavior in such societies is much easier to understand if one is able to remember events and episodes like “x has done y to z”. Consciousness is based on language. Language and epsisodic memories are perfect to record social events and “agent interaction patterns” like “x has done y to z” or “x and y are doing z”. This includes the ability to reason about trust (agent x will not hurt or harm agent y) and friendship (agent x has groomed y, or agent x will support agent y) or hostility (agent x will try to harm agent y). Merlin Donald says in his book “A mind so rare” [4] on p.201 about episodic memory through the tertiary cortex: “‘fighting with x’ or ‘mating with y’ or ‘grooming with z’ will be effortlessly parsed and remembered’. He concludes on page 276

“Language is spectacularly good at performing its bread-and-butter functions, such as communicatin gossip and issuing simple imperatives.” [4]

It is certainly helpful to understand what is going on in your environment. Only humans have the remarkable powers of social foresight and understanding. The extended, tertiary cortex allows extended awareness, and Humphrey argues that this extended awareness makes living in complex social systems easier. Finally he comes to the conclusion that human consciousness is an adaptation to living in a society of selves.

“If intellectual prowess is correlated with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his fellows will soon spread through the gene pool.” [3]

This means that the society of mind inside the agent has adapted itself to the external society of selves, where the agent lives in. Only a complex society of mind can understand a society of selves. This is quite similar to the closely related hypotheses of Steven Pinker that language is an adaptation to the cognitive niche. He argued that humans have adapted themselves to the cognitive niche, i.e they evolved to manipulate the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation [5].


Humans get along together so well, because we can share subjective experiences, although consciousness is deeply private. This is in agreement with the findings of the “New Realism” movement (the “New Realism” represented by Edwin Holt and Nicholas Thompson). We are complex hybrid products of nature and culture. Consciousness is an adaptation to this complex environment we live in, because conscious representation of abstract events and episodic memory are the key to understand and control events in complex social groups. This is consistent with Pinker’s observation that early humans inhabited a “cognitive niche”. Can only a complex society of mind understand a society of selves?

[1] Nicholas Humphrey, The Society of Selves, 2007

[2] Interview with an old new realist. In Eric P. Charles (Ed.),
A New Look at New Realism: E. B. Holt Reconsidered, to be published in 2011

[3] Nicholas Humphrey, The Social Function of Intellect, (1976)

[4] Merlin Donald, A mind so rare, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002

[5] Steven Pinker, The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. PNAS 107 (2010) 8893-8999

The Flickr photo of the primate group is from Flickr user “kibuyu

Subscribe to Comments

One Response to “Consciousness as Adaptation”

  1. […] which try to survive in a fast changing and challenging complex environment. One can consider consciousness as an adaptation for these conditions, too. One that is even better. And one that is not restricted to humans, as we […]


Leave a Reply