July 3, 2020 | Jerry Bergman

Human Consciousness Just Became a Bigger Challenge to Darwin

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

If Human Consciousness is the Evolutionary “Elephant in the Room,”
Then New Research Puts a Dinosaur in the Room for Darwinists!

Evolutionists have always had a major problem explaining the origin and evolution of human consciousness. As Professor Yoram Gutfreund of the Department of Neurobiology at the Rappaport Research Institute in Israel explains, the “major mind-evolution problem is the difficulty of fitting consciousness in an evolutionary framework…. Scientific agreement is that consciousness arises from the brain’s activity, however, there is no understanding as to how.”[1] As one evolutionist proclaims,

Evolution gave rise to immensely complex and diverse embodied biological systems called animals, which behave adaptively to survive and produce. At least one out of millions of species on the planet has a remarkable and mysterious capability not only to behave but also to ….  feel that it is behaving. We know this because we belong to this species.[2]

Some leading neuroscientists consider consciousness a “riddle,” adding in “a very profound sense, it is consciousness that makes the difference between life and death. … life consists of but an extended progression of lived conscious experiences… we have no clue whatsoever to how consciousness is possible.”[3] Yet everyone reading this knows beyond a doubt it is not only possible, but it exists; of that we are sure.

One definition of consciousness is mental reflection of what a person observes in either the outside world or the world that resides in the mind, including memories, thoughts, and even symbols such as words, numbers or things. The philosopher John Locke  (1632-1704) defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind” including internal thoughts and perceptions.[4] As an Atlantic Magazine article concluded:

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?[5]

Even today, despite centuries of analyses, explanations and debates by theologians, philosophers and scientists, the origin of consciousness remains puzzling and the guesses controversial.[6]

Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology.

Dinosaur in the Room

A neurological study, reported on June 24, 2020, created another problem for Darwinism. In short, the study concluded that human consciousness is not just caused by the brain, but the entire body. As they explained, “Electrical signals coming from your heart and other organs influence how you perceive the world, the decisions you make, your sense of who you are and consciousness itself.”[7]

The problem of the origin of consciousness entails one of the oldest and most incisive problems for evolution – namely irreducible complexity. The classic example is the bacterial flagellum motor, which will not function until the minimum number of parts required for it to function exist and are properly assembled and work as a unit. Otherwise, the parts will cause problems with toxicity, or, at best, they will be recycled, assuming they will be produced at all. A cell or body does not normally produce useless parts, and broken or damaged parts are either repaired, recycled, or else they can cause toxicity complications.

The Research Behind the Discovery

University of Sussex neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel found when researching the brain circuitry at the University of Michigan, that the body, including the brain, functions as a unit. This is like irreducible complexity in the set of all parts in the bacterial flagellum motor; they must all be present to work. [8] The realization that the body is a necessary part of the brain makes the entire body-brain system irreducibly complex. Thus, there is even more to explain by evolution than before this finding.

Garfinkel’s research involved working with traumatized war veterans who experienced persistent fear even when in a safe environment. She concluded that “Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are shaped in part by the internal signals that arise from our body.”[9] Furthermore, this finding is leading researchers to conclude that the

body helps to generate our sense of self and is a key part of consciousness. This idea has practical implications in assessing [patients]…  who show little sign of consciousness. It may also force us to reconsider where we draw the line between life and death, and provide a new insight into how consciousness evolved.[10]

This was no small finding. Its importance earned this research the cover story of New Scientist for June 27, 2020.[11] The implications of this new view of consciousness include the fact that

if consciousness is embodied, it would mean that a machine or robot with no way of integrating signals from its body will never be truly conscious. “When you start to think through the implications of the embodied self [you realize] they are really quite profound.”[12]

Are Animals Conscious?

A major question facing science and philosophy is, Do animals have a consciousness? Animals are clearly aware of their environment, but as far as we can tell they do not have a sense of their own future or knowledge that life on this Earth is not forever. In contrast, every man knows at some level there is an end to their temporal days. Excluding animal drives completed only by instinct or rote training by using rewards such as food, how many of the verses in the following third chapter of Ecclesiastes apply only to humans?

To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, And a time to lose; A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;
A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.

This classic quote illustrates the enormous gap between humans and animals. We all sense these things. The obvious implications for evolution theory, which does not even hint at how consciousness could have evolved, is as follows:

Man was certainly not the goal of evolution, which evidently had no goal. He was not planned… He is not the ultimate in a single constant trend toward higher things… in his place in nature, then, that of a mere accident without significance… Man did originate after a tremendously long sequence of events in which both chance and orientation played a part.[13]

Evolution claims that everything develops by mutations—mistakes. Mutations provide the pool of genetic variations from which benefits are selected by a survival-of-the-fittest process called natural selection. Consequently, consciousness must have conferred a survival advantage on mankind, but how and why is mankind the only life-form known that has not only awareness of his physical environment to a degree unlike any animal but also insight far beyond its present temporal and spatial input as described by Solomon? We even tend to project our consciousness onto animals. We interpret them as having abilities they may or may not have, a fallacy called anthropomorphism.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

As most people realize, a safe environment does not always help people who have been severely traumatized to feel normal, as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) illustrates. PTSD symptoms are both physical and mental. The heart races, pupils dilate, palms are sweaty, blood pressure elevates, and breathing is heavy. These traits are often used in lie detectors to determine lying. Except in those suffering from PTSD, the connection between brain and body should be obvious. This close connection was often ignored by researchers who focused on brain scans.

The Background behind the Garfinkel Research

In the 20th century, most neuroscientists tended to ignore the body and associate mental life exclusively with the brain. This approach is epitomized by the idea of the ‘disembodied brain’ which, scientists assumed, would continue to have normal conscious experiences as a separate entity. Scientists thought this way because they believed that our internal organs operate somewhat independently. It appeared that, as they perform their tasks in the body, they

generate electrical activity, which is conveyed by neurons to the brain. As a result, signals from your heartbeat, your breathing, the slow, regular pulses of your stomach and the state of your muscles are all represented in the brain’s electrical activity. The brain, in turn, regulates these functions. In other words, there is a neuronal loop in which nerve cells carry information from the organs up to the brain, and commands down to the organs.[14]

Then, at the turn of this century, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio Damasio pioneered the field called embodied consciousness. He concluded that the body plays a critical role in working with the brain. Damasio’s view was once in the minority. Now, a handful of researchers, including Garfinkel, have joined him in the quest to understand the role of the bodily origins in producing our sense of self. Their starting point is enteroception, a sense that we have about the conditions in our body. One way to measure enteroception is to ask

someone to count their heartbeats over a fixed time and compare their count with the actual one measured by an electrocardiogram (ECG). People’s ability to do this varies a lot. Those who can sense their heartbeat most accurately tend to make better intuitive decisions and are better at perceiving the emotions of others.[15]

The researchers found that the brain’s response to their heartbeat, called the heartbeat-evoked potential (HEP), is not completely regular in the healthy heartbeat. Consequently, it could filter the HEP out from all of the brain’s other activity to regulate it. The HEP can be found by simultaneously recording a person’s heartbeat, via an ECG, while scanning their brain. The scan shows up as activity in various “resting-state networks” in the brain, which are active even when a person isn’t consciously doing anything physical.

The research implies that drugs designed to act on the cardiovascular system could help treat post-traumatic stress disorder—and drugs designed to do this are now in clinical trials. When neuroscientists measured HEP in people experiencing a full-body illusion, volunteers wore

a virtual reality headset and watched a simulation of themselves having their back stroked as it was being stroked in reality. After a while, they described feeling as if they were now physically located closer to where their virtual self was, rather than where they were actually sitting. The more pronounced their HEP, the stronger the illusion. Here was the first neurophysiological evidence of a link between enteroception and the brain’s notion of self.[16]

The research group has now shown that the body intervenes in most every decision the mind makes. Physiologist Benjamin Libet detected a signal that arose in the brain just before a person became aware of their intention to act in some way. Libet found that this signal is linked with breathing, finding we are more likely to initiate some voluntary act not when inhaling, but when exhaling.[17] In short, signals from the body organs, together with information from the outside world, send information to the brain for a response such as regulation. Thus the

brain is constantly bombarded by signals from inside and outside the body. Allowing us to perceive all that incoming information from the perspective of a single, subjective “I”. “I think of consciousness as a property that is generated by the brain once it has integrated information from the whole organism.”[18]

Attempting to Explain the Research From an Evolutionary Worldview

As usual, the researchers ignored the empirical research and told undocumented just-so stories when attempting to explain their findings by evolution. Notice no clue is given as, for example, how the brain and central nervous system could have evolved; it is just assumed it did, (a topic for another time):

Four billion years ago, the first primitive organisms monitored changes in their bodily state – equivalent to hunger, thirst, pain and so on – and had feedback mechanisms to maintain equilibrium. The relic of those primitive mechanisms is our autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as heartbeat and digestion, and of which we are largely unconscious. Then, about half a billion years ago, the central nervous system, featuring a brain, evolved. “It was an afterthought of nature,” says Damasio. But it became the “anchor” of what had once been a more distributed mind. Changes in bodily state were projected onto the brain and experienced as emotions or drives – the emotion of fear, say, or the drive to eat. Subjectivity evolved later again, …  imposed by the musculoskeletal system, which evolved as a physical framework for the central nervous system and, in so doing, also provided a stable frame of reference: the unified “I” of conscious experience.[19]

In conclusion, theories of how consciousness evolved just got more complex, but this has not stopped evolutionists from telling imaginative just-so stories unconstrained by evidence and fact. The fact that the Body-Mind is a tightly intertwined system clearly makes it more difficult to explain by evolution. Even more so than the admittedly failed attempts to explain consciousness by evolution.

References

[1] Gutfreund, Yoram. 2018. The Mind-Evolution Problem: The Difficulty of Fitting Consciousness in an Evolutionary Framework. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 9, Article 1537, pp. 1-4, August 24. h

[2] Gutfreund, 2018. [p. #?]

[3] Revonsuo, A., and Kamppinen, M. (editors). 2013. “General introduction: the riddle of consciousness,” in Consciousness in Philosophy and Cognitive Neuroscience. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 1, 4, 13–36.

[4] Landesman, Charles. 1967. “Consciousness,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 2, pp. 191-195. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

[5] Graziano, Michael. 2016. “A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved: A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.” The Atlantic, June 6.

[6] Gulick, Robert van. 2004. “Consciousness”. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

[7] Laura Spinney. 2020. “Consciousness isn’t just the brain: The body shapes your sense of self.” MIND, June 24.  https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-300-consciousness-isnt-just-the-brain-the-body-shapes-your-sense-of-self/

[8] Garfinkel, Sarah. 2019. “How your heart really does shape your thoughts, memories and emotions.” New Scientist Live, September 25.

[9] Quoted in Spinney, 2020.

[10] Spinney, 2020.

[11] The cover was a picture of a generic person with head to the right and back arched over the left side of a woman’s head. The Story was titled “Consciousness isn’t just the brain: The body shapes your sense of self.” https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-300-consciousness-isnt-just-the-brain-the-body-shapes-your-sense-of-self/#ixzz6QUmkTNQx.

[12] Spinney, 2020.

[13] Smith, Homer W. 1953. From Fish to Philosopher. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, p. 165. Adapted from Simpson, George Gaylord.1949. The Meaning of Evolution. New Haven; CT: Yale University Press.

[14] Spinney, 2020.

[15] Spinney, 2020.

[16] Spinney, 2020.

[17] Park, Hyeong-Dong and Olaf Blanke. 2019. Coupling Inner and Outer Body for Self-Consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 23(5): 377-388, May.

[18] Spinney, 2020.

[19] Spinney, 2020.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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