Consciousness and its Relationship to Biological Evolution

An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore

Consciousness is defined as the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings; the awareness or perception of something by a person; the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.

All creatures appear to be conscious but at varying degrees. Some believe even inorganic compounds and matter and energy is conscious as well. Animals are believed to be conscious at a level that is not quite as developed as ours. They are aware of their immediate environment and what applies to their survival but they are probably not aware of the past and future, the state of the world or of their own differentiation as a species.

Consciousness is not an easy concept to prove scientifically but given the way humans function and perceive their world, it is apparent that a very complex and profound process is at work here that has defined our species as being one of the more evolved on this planet. Since all creatures are aware at some level, we can conclude that consciousness is a component of creation and did not develop at any particular time in history as has been previously thought. In fact, it may be at the cutting edge of evolution, the source of all creation. What have come into being throughout the history of evolution are the different characteristics and dimensions of what we refer to as conscious experience or the ingredients of consciousness.

The Relationship Between Language and Consciousness

Humans developed somewhat differently than other creatures.  A significant difference is the fact that we have been endowed with a sophisticated voice box. At about one year, it develops in a way that allows us to make the complex repertoire of sounds necessary for speech.

Speech permits us to share experiences and learn from each other. Thus, we have the ability to share information that becomes a collective body of knowledge that can be passed from one generation to another. This fosters the growth and continuation of societal development.

Due to this new attribute, our consciousness has been able to expand in several ways. We can learn of events outside of our immediate environment without experiencing them directly and we can look into the past and learn about the events that took place before our time. In essence, we have expanded our perception of space and time. We can use words to think to ourselves. This is probably the most significant development that has come from linguistics.

Thinking permits us to make inferences to past and present experiences. Thinking about a mountain, brings the image of the mountain to our mind. At any time, we can think of anything in the past or in the present no matter where we are and no matter what we are doing. This ability is not commonly shared by our animal friends or by other living entities on the planet as far as we know.

Thinking also expands our grasp of the future. We can conjecture about what may or may not happen in the future and make plans and decisions accordingly. Thus, a freedom to choose our future allows us to have a significant influence on the course of our lives.

Thinking with words allows us to reason and to ask questions. We can develop beliefs and hypotheses about the world in which we live and create purpose and meaning in our lives.

Finally, we can think about our own conscious experience and come to understand ourselves. We can become aware of the many aspects and qualities of our consciousness and also of the faculty of consciousness itself. We actually become aware of our own awareness or conscious of the fact that we actually are conscious. Consciousness can reflect upon the world it experiences and on the nature of consciousness itself. Thus, we have the emergence of a self-reflective consciousness in the human organism.

Self-consciousness

Self-consciousness predicates the existence of one who experiences, an entity that is having experiences, making decisions and thinking thoughts. So, we must ask ourselves, what is the self, and what is its nature?

Given, the notion that a sense of self seems elusive and difficult to articulate, we look elsewhere for a sense of identity. We try to identify with our bodies, our looks, our presentation, and how others perceive us. We look to what we do in life; our accomplishments, careers, social status, academic qualifications, where we choose to reside and what social contacts we have made with others. We also draw on our thoughts, hypotheses and beliefs, and our personality and character in order to attain some sense of who we are. None of these explanations seem adequate and are frustratingly limiting as well.

A sense of self that is predicated on the events happening in the world puts us at the effect of them in the sense that we are controlled and manipulated by them. We lose our power to choose and to be accountable for what happens to us. Threats to our well-being typically result in a fear response that leads to a decreased ability to think rationally and to make good decisions. This also may make us feel less capable or inept. This leads to a loss of self-esteem and fosters negative feelings about the self. It can also lead us to feel that we are more like a thing or a content then a context or possibility. 

Once, we perceive ourselves as unable to affect change in our lives, negative emotions can predominate and a downward spiral is likely to begin. When our negative feelings take the place of rational thought, we are less able to produce the results we desire and deeper feelings such as depression and despair may prevail. Often, addictions and other destructive behaviors are likely to follow including total resignation and finally suicide. Our physical bodies break down and become ill and we develop all types of medical and psychological disorders.

Stress is a common companion in modern day society. We are aware of all the problems that society has to address and our awareness of this is painful. We worry about everything both large and small. We lose sight of our purpose on this planet and with each other. When we are preoccupied with all these issues, we forfeit the gift of experiencing our lives and the world around us. What we really want is peace of mind. We need to be aware of the world and of what is happening around us but we also need to feel viable regarding ourselves and place in this world. Although humans have developed a deep sense of consciousness at certain levels, our present dimension of consciousness is not yet developed enough to allow us to experience a sense of self that is viably aware, awake, concerned, committed and peaceful simultaneously. We are still vulnerable entities evolving along with all the other creatures and elements of the Earth.

Interestingly, our animal friends in the wild do not share many of our human vulnerabilities. They concern themselves with the present and experience the present. They do not worry the way we do and do not share many of our psychological addictions and disorders. It is true that we are putting more stress on their living environments due to human encroachment and this is changing the way they interact with us. However, their true nature is one of being in the moment and living their lives in that paradigm even if they are unaware of it.

I think we can agree that language is an extremely useful tool that allows us to think, share knowledge, make plans, make decisions, and experience our world. However, it also presents a limiting aspect as well. Being cerebral much of the time can inhibit us from being in touch with all the sensual aspects of the natural world and of each other. Thinking and doing tends to fill much of our time and leaves little room for pure experience and non-thinking. There is no law that says we have to be busy all the time thinking and doing.

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