The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Extended Phenotype

A powerful metaphor to express the dependence of an organism on its environment, and the fact that the organism does not make sense without its environment, has been introduced by the British biologist Richard Dawkins: the "extended phenotype" includes  the world an organism interacts with. 

The organism alone (the “phenotype”) does not have biological relevance. What makes sense is an open system made of the organism and its neighbors. For example, a cobweb is still part of the spider. The control of an organism is never complete inside and null outside: there is rather a continuum of degrees of control, which allows partiality of control inside (e.g., parasites operate on the nervous system of their hosts) and an extension of control outside (as in the cobweb). To some extent the very genome of a species can be viewed as a representation of the environment inside the cell.   Conversely, within the boundaries of an organism there can be more than one psychology (as in the case of schizophrenics). 

The US philosopher Ruth Millikan went further claiming that, when determining the function of a biological "system", the "system" must include more than just the organism, something that extends beyond its skin. Furthermore, the system often needs the cooperation of other systems: the immune system can only operate if it is attacked by viruses.  An organism is only a part of a larger biological system.

Tools (whether cobwebs or buckets or cars) are an extension of the organism which serve a specific purpose. Buckets store water. Cars help us move faster. Computers are an extension of the organism that serve the purpose of simulating a person or even an entire world. No matter how simple or how complex, those tools are an extension of our organism.

The model of the extended phenotype is consistent with a theory advanced by the US biologist Richard Lewontin. Each organism is the subject of continuous development throughout its life. And such development is driven by mutually interacting genes and environment. Genes per se cannot determine the phenotype, abilities or tendencies.

The organism is both the subject and the object of evolution.  Organisms construct environments that are the conditions for their own further evolution and for the evolutions of nature itself towards new environments.  Organism and environment mutually specify each other.


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