The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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


The US biologist Peter Corning believes that "synergy" is pervasive in the universe at all levels of organization, and plays a role in producing "variation", the phenomenon that makes natural selection possible.  Corning argues that traditional Darwinism cannot explain complexity (on large scales) precisely because its emphasis is on competition and not cooperation. Genetic mutations per se would not be enough to explain the complexity we find in nature. Corning instead focuses on the behavior of living beings, that are capable of learning (the "Baldwin effect") and are capable of modifying the environment (as Waddington and Mayr pointed out). Living beings are more than mere "vehicles" for genes to live forever. Living beings actively participate in determining their own evolutionary future by 1. Continuously reshaping the environment that will "select" their evolution (the use of tools is pervasive among living beings) and 2. Learning behavior that is not in their genes and passing it on to the next generation (learning is also pervasive among living beings).  In other words, living systems shape the very environment that drives their evolution. He goes as far as to claim that humans, the most active living systems, have "invented themselves" by creating the environment that they wanted.

Behavior shapes evolution. In particular, humans adopted "group-based behavioral strategies", i.e. social organization. He emphasizes the importance of tools to shape our behavior, in particular a dietary shift from vegetables to meat. That, in his opinion, caused subsequent anatomical developments of the hominids. Climate change caused behavioral changes, and they caused anatomical changes. Language is also a by-product of behavioral changes that, in turn, fostered anatomical changes.

Corning emphasizes the importance of the transfer of culture from one generation to the next one. Culture, in turn, helped create novel forms of synergy, or, in other words, higher levels in the hierarchy. We are still creating new forms of synergies.

Corning thinks that two quantities need to be added to Monod's "chance" and "necessity": teleonomy and selection (selection was implied in Monod's theory although not in the title of his book). Teleonomy is a property that living systems exhibit: their structure and function has a purpose and is directed towards a goal. This property is a consequence of the living system's evolutionary history. Teleonomy is coded in the genome of the living system. The genotype determines the behavior of the phenotype, but the phenotype in turn helps to create the selection pressures that will determine the evolution of the genotype. Teleonomy has an impact on evolution because it is a form of downward causation: the behavior of the whole creates the selection pressures that cause the evolution of its "parts" (all the way down to the genes themselves).

Nature is organized in a hierarchy of hierarchies. At each level of a hierarchy different "synergies" are at work that create the upper level. Nature's creativity lies in the combination of parts to create wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. The universe is still inventing itself and we are not just spectators but co-protagonists.

Corning, therefore, believes in "synergistic selection", which is Darwinian selection at the level of complex systems: the differential survival of wholes that leads to the emergence of higher-level wholes whose purpose transcends the purpose of their constituent parts. These wholes in turn become agents of selection for both themselves and others. Corning's "Neo-Lamarckian Selection" is not in opposition to Darwinian selection but complements it.

Just like Robert Wright's "nonzero sum game", Corning's theory is fundamentally a theory that says cooperation is important in human evolution.. The difference between the two is that Wright believes in an inevitable destiny towards greater complexity and progress driven by “non-zero sumness”, i.e. by a fundamental mathematical law that rewards cooperation, whereas Corning believes that we are free agents of our own future. Corning points out that for every giant step ahead the human race has stumbled into an equally impressive step backwards. So the direction of history is not clear at all.


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