Re: why the mind evolved remains a mystery

Stephen E. Jones (
Wed, 27 Oct 1999 06:02:20 +0800


I was reading Colson's book "Burden of Truth" (1997) today and noticed a
quote from the London Times of 5 May 1996 in which arch-Darwinist John
Maynard Smith admitted "I've never had a particular wish to find a refuge
in God but if I did it would be because of the philosophical issue of

Well as it happens, the London Times has an excellent free online archive
which goes back to 1 January 1996, so here is the article.

It reveals that Dawkins also cannot explain consciousness:

"Dawkins, like his scientific peers, cannot see how evolution produced the
conscious mind. `Not only can evolutionists not explain it, nor can anyone
else. It's a very difficult problem, but one that we should one day be able to
explain,' he says."

If the above is not enough, as a bonus the web page has a picture of the
beautiful Helena Cronin! :-)



May 5 1996

The origin of life may soon be known, but why the mind evolved remains a
mystery, writes Steve Connor

Profile: Alastair Campbell


Mind reading: Helena Cronin cites murder as an example of conscious
activity with some basis in Darwinian natural selection

The mental maze: our final frontier

In the beginning there was a primordial pancake out of which sprang the
first life forms on Earth. Over time - about 3.5 billion years - these simple
self-replicating molecules evolved into ever more complex machines for
passing on genes. About 2m years ago one of these gene machines
developed sophisticated language and human consciousness was born. And
so it came to pass that the greatest story could now be told.

Over the coming weeks this story will be retold on our television screens
and newspapers. Next Monday Steve Jones, professor of genetics at
University College London, begins his six-part BBC2 series In the Blood, a
tale about God, genes and destiny, and Richard Dawkins, the Oxford
zoologist, continues to make headlines with lectures on his much acclaimed
book Climbing Mount Improbable.

What will not feature prominently in their writings and broadcasts,
however, are the more vexing problems of how life began, and how
evolution has finished up creating the conscious mind. How life originated
and how consciousness was born remain largely unsolved but this is where
the cutting edge of biological research is happening.

The origin of life, and our place in it, has preoccupied philosophers,
theologians and scientists for centuries and the latest twist in the long-
running saga came last week. A team of American researchers reported in
the journal Nature that the chemical conditions necessary to spawn the
earliest replicating molecules would have occurred not so much in the
primordial soup favoured by Charles Darwin, but on a surface of wet clay
baking on warm rocks, a bit like a cr^pe sizzling on a hot stove.

On its own such research is not the breakthrough required to solve the
origin-of-life mystery but it illustrates how rapidly science is tackling one of
the trickiest conundrums of evolution - how it all got started. In fact few
scientists in this field believe that the origin of life will remain a mystery for
much longer.

Yet it is not so many years ago that the problem seemed insurmountable
because scientists could not understand how DNA, the genetic blueprint of
life, came into existence. DNA is necessary to make proteins, the vital
molecules of all life forms from viruses to Eric Cantona, and yet DNA itself
needs proteins in the form of enzymes to be made. The chicken-and-egg
difficulty was finally resolved in 1983 when it was found that the less
famous cousin of DNA, called RNA, was able to act as its own enzyme.
True self-replication of an information molecule that can carry genetic
instructions became reality and the origin-of-lifers began talking of an
"RNA world" that preceded the one now based on DNA.

This still leaves the problem of what came before RNA but scientists
believe this is more easily resolved. One suggestion, promoted by Graham
Cairns-Smith, a chem istry lecturer at Glasgow University, is that some
form of inorganic life in the form of self-replicating crystals embedded in
clay may have acted as the template for complex organic molecules such as
RNA to be built.

If true, this could be the final piece of life's jigsaw puzzle. Ironically it may
also meet the approval of those who still hanker after the biblical story of
Man's creation, when God moulded Adam from a handful of clay.

At one end of the huge timescale of evolution, life began, and at the other
end human consciousness emerged. Darwin helped to fill in the picture in
between. Just as life's origin is being understood with greater clarity, so are
the Darwinian processes that led to the myriad of complex life forms
existing today. The one great exception is the conscious mind.

The subject has attracted some of the most eminent scientists, including
Cairns-Smith (who has recently written a book called The Evolving Mind).
Some leading Darwinists, such as Dawkins and John Maynard Smith, of
Sussex University, accept that they cannot explain how the conscious mind
evolved. The non-random process of natural selection acting upon random
mutations can explain the peacock's tail, but not, apparently, why we think
the way we do.

Dawkins, like his scientific peers, cannot see how evolution produced the
conscious mind. "Not only can evolutionists not explain it, nor can anyone
else. It's a very difficult problem, but one that we should one day be able to
explain," he says.

Evolutionary theory states that complicated behaviour, such as a memory
of past events and simulation of the future - imagination - can be done by
computers, and computers are not conscious, Dawkins says. So why, then,
do we need to be conscious?

Maynard Smith admits that he, too, is stumped. It is perfectly plausible, he
says, to construct a Darwinian theory of pain without the need for the
organism to be conscious of pain. "Why should we have to be aware of
pain? All we have to do is to avoid noxious stimuli but why should we be
aware of it?"

Maynard Smith, who describes himself as an atheist who toys with
agnosticism, says that the difficulties over the origin of life pale into
insignificance compared to the problems of consciousness. "I've never had
a particular wish to find a refuge in God but if I did it would be because of
the philosophical issue of consciousness," he says.

The nearest scientists are getting to a Darwinian perspective on the human
mind is the new science of Darwinian psychology. This has had a
prominent platform at the London School of Economics where Helena
Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, has been running a series of seminars on
aspects of psychology.

Cronin believes much of human behaviour is a product of our evolutionary
past. "Genes are still building our bodies in the same way they did 2m years
ago and they are still building our minds in much the same way," she says.

She points to murder as an example of a conscious human activity that
must have some basis in Darwinian natural selection. She has compared
murder rates in Iceland, Britain and Chicago and, not surprisingly, found
they varied considerably, from 0.5 murders per million people per year in
Iceland, to 30 in Britain and 900 in Chicago. Clearly environment, rather
than genetics and natural selection, is causing the different rates.

But when she looked at who was murdering whom, the similarities were
staggering. In all cases the overwhelming pattern was that young men were
killing young men. "The same is true whether you look at 12th-century
Oxford or 20th-century America," she says.

Cronin believes the huge bias in the murder statistics towards young men is
the result of the underlying role played by sexual selection, the Darwinian
process that led to uniquely male attributes, such as the peacock's tail and
ritual fighting behaviour. Sexual selection has produced a level of
competitiveness and aggression in the young human male that can easily
spill over into acts of violence and even murder in the wrong environment,
she says.

"Males kill each other openly to teach everybody what their status is. So
although natural selection has very little to do with murder rates because
the environment is crucially the thing that will push competitive males over
into murder, it is nevertheless natural selection that has made these males

The most overt expression of consciousness, language, is clearly highly
genetic because every healthy baby is capable of learning to speak. At the
same time, however, speaking is supremely environmental because which
language you learn depends entirely on upbringing.

Maynard Smith believes language holds the key to consciousness and he
has little difficulty in seeing the advantage of being able to speak rather
than grunt. Even poetry may have had its roots in sexual selection. "I can
see lots of advantages in language, like getting off with girls or boys," he

Whatever the evolutionary origin of the conscious mind, it is clear that it is
beginning to lead to the development of a new form of intelligence, one
based on the silicon hardware of the computer rather than the organic
carbon of the brain. Arthur C Clarke, the prophet of science fiction,
predicted that the day may come when humans develop a completely
different life form that can replicate itself, mutate and evolve in much the
same way organic life has done for the past 3.5 billion years.

"It has been a constant theme of my writings for 30 years," Clarke said last
week. Indeed his own imagination was inspired by the Olaf Stapledon book
Last and First Men, which he read as a boy in the public library of
Minehead in Somerset. Stapledon predicted a future world of immortal
giant brains that were completely immobile but whose consciousnesses
roamed the world with the aid of highly mobile sense organs.

It is ironic, perhaps, that the very same library book - literally - also
inspired Maynard Smith when he, too, was a boy in Minehead at the same
time as Clarke. The idea of giant brains with roaming sense organs
dominating the planet still haunts him today, but the brains he says will not
be our own.

The human mind is not far from creating computer life forms that may one
day look back on their human ancestors in the same way we look back on
the first vertebrate ancestors to emerge from the sea hundreds of millions
of years ago. Computers that can create computers are already beginning
to be developed and who knows when or whether a day will come when a
computer becomes conscious. As Maynard Smith says: "I slightly hope
they don't because they might very well replace us. People say you can
always pull the plug, but that might not always be possible."

Profile: Alastair Campbell

"The basic framework of the theory is that evolution is a two-stage
phenomenon the production of variation and the sorting of the variants by
natural selection. Yet agreement on this basic thesis does not mean that the
work of the evolutionist is completed. The basic theory is in many instances
hardly more than a postulate and its application raises numerous questions
in almost every concrete case." (Mayr E., "Populations, Species and
Evolution", [1963], Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1974,
reprint, p6)
Stephen E. Jones | |