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Book Review - Consciousness Evolving

by James H. Fetzer (Editor)
John Benjamins, 2002
Review by Paul Gatto
Feb 27th 2003

Consciousness Evolving is a collection of essays purportedly on the evolution of consciousness. The introduction to this volume begins with the sentence, “An adequate understanding of the evolution of consciousness presupposes an adequate understanding of evolution, on the one hand, and of consciousness, on the other.”  It continues, “The former, alas, appears to be more readily achieved than the latter.”  It is certainly the case that evolution is more clearly defined and understood, theoretically and practically, than consciousness, for which we have no adequate definition much less a theory.  One result of this, I think, is that Consciousness Evolving is a collection of good essays, but not a particularly good collection of essays.

What’s the difference?  All eleven academic essays included in this collection (I am including the contributions mysteriously called the “Prologue” and “Epilogue”) are well-written and interesting to varying degrees.  In that, they are good essays, meriting publication in academic journals, for example.  However, as a collection, in which a variety of perspectives on the relations between evolution and consciousness are offered in a coherent fashion, this book is poor.  It fails to give its essays a principled structure, such that they are grouped around pivotal issues regarding the evolution of consciousness.

What structure it does have looks like this: there are three sections, of three essays each, entitled “Part I: Natural consciousness,” “Part II: Special adaptations,” and “Part III:  Artificial consciousness.”  Part I is concerned with the sort of consciousness which might have been produced by natural selection, whereas Part III considers the prospects for artificially selected for consciousness; i.e., the possibility of consciousness in robots.  Part II, curiously placed between the other sections, does not seem to me, at least, to have a unifying theme (though it is described on the book’s back cover as concerning “special capacities involving language, creativity, and mentality as candidates for evolved adaptations”).  These essays are, in turn, concerned with: 

(1) the prospects for classical theories of mind by examining the “evolvability” of a “language of thought”—which is a notion pivotal to classical, computational theories of mind (which hold that the mind is functionally equivalent to software being run on our gray matter hardware) (James Garson’s “Evolution, Consciousness, and the Language of Thought”);

(2) the development of creativity as a solution to the puzzle of why phenomenal consciousness (subjective experience) evolved (Bringsjord and Noel’s “Why did Evolution Engineer Consciousness?”); and, (3) an argument for idealism over dualism and materialism (Stephen Clark’s “Nothing without Mind”).

These sections are flanked by contributed essays called “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” all of which is preceded by a brief introduction from the editor.  Ordinarily, the editor’s introduction should serve to provide a context for the contributor’s essays—relating them to each other, to specific issues, and to the literature in the field—and explicating the structure of their presentation, thereby providing a coherent picture of the contribution to the field made by the collection’s disparate essays.  Here, the editor’s introduction absolutely fails to perform any of these functions, instead mere summarizing the essays, often with their author’s own words (though, inexplicably, the authors are not often credited for those words).  The Prologue and Epilogue should likewise serve functions similar to that of the introduction, though here are simply two more essays.  Stevan Harnad’s essay “Turing Indistinguishability and the Blind Watchmaker” (here the Prologue) belongs in Part I, and Neil Tennant’s “The Future with Cloning: On the Possibility of Serial Immortality” (here the Epilogue) with fit more comfortably in Part III, if indeed it belongs anywhere in this volume.

One reason for the poverty of this collection’s scattered contribution to our understanding of the evolution of consciousness, perhaps the principal reason, is intimated in the above quotes from the introduction.  Consciousness means many things, ranging from simple awareness to robust phenomenological experience.  It is considered an obvious fact about us by some and an illusion by others.  And, it is significantly less well understood than evolution.  As a result, many of the essays contained herein concern themselves with consciousness—detailing various influential theories, different ways to define and understand consciousness, and so on—to the detriment of its relation to evolution. 

While it is true that no essay fails to discuss (or at least reference) evolution during its discussion of consciousness (though Graham and Horgan’s “Sensations and Grain Processes,” David Cole’s “The Function of Consciousness,” and Clark’s essay come close), many of the essays’ discussions of evolution in relation to consciousness are perfunctory.  If it were removed entirely, very little would be lost.  Exceptions to this include the aforementioned essays by Harnad, Garson, and Bringsjord and Noel, as well as Inman Harvey’s “Evolving Robot Consciousness: The Easy Problems and the Rest,” and Polger and Flanagan’s “Consciousness, Adaptation and Epiphenomenalism.”

Two of the three essays in “Part III: Artificial Consciousness”—Nolfi and Miglino’s “The Emergence of Grounded Representations: The Power and Limits of Sensory-Motor Coordination” and Dario Floreano’s “Ago Ergo Sum”—also provide limited discussion of the relation between consciousness and evolution, but in a different way.  Both of these interesting and provocative articles are concerned with new approaches robotics—behavior-based and evolutionary robotics—and the possibility of the development of consciousness in robots.  In this, these new approaches to robotics provide fascinating case studies for the evolutionary development of consciousness.  However, they concern themselves with very low-level consciousness (Floreano distinguishes this by calling it “proto-consciousness”), which is quite different from the robust and problematic phenomenal consciousness discussed by the other authors in this collection.  While this approach is sensible and responsible, it makes for a disconnection between these and the other essays in this volume.

Finally, Tennant’s closing essay on the possibility of immortality through serial cloning deserves special mention.  While this essay is called the “Epilogue,” it does nothing to provide closure or to otherwise tie together the disparate strands of this collection.  It also does not suffer the problem of emphasizing the puzzle of consciousness to the detriment of evolution.  On the contrary, it does not emphasize, or even consider, consciousness at all.  The very word “consciousness” appears once in the entire essay, in a sentence which, if it were removed from the essay, would not be missed.  Tennant’s musings on the evolutionary consequences of widespread reproductive cloning are thought provoking and entertaining, but their presence in this volume, let alone as its epilogue, is utterly mysterious.

This is not a criticism of Tennant’s essay.  Indeed, I have no qualms with any of these articles as such.  I may agree or disagree with the authors’ contentions, but they are typically well presented and worthwhile.  Some are excellent.  However, it remains unclear to me why they have been gathered together and presented as a discussion about the evolution of consciousness.


© 2003 Paul Gatto


Paul Gatto is completing his doctoral work at UC San Diego in epistemology and the philosophy of mind.