The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

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


In the 1970s the US biologist Edward-Osborne Wilson popularized "Sociobiology", the discipline that studies the biological basis of social behavior. Wilson’s tenet was simply a generalization of William Hamilton's ideas: that the social behavior of animals and humans can be explained from the viewpoint of evolution, that human behavior is largely determined by our genome.

Sociobiology, for example, should be able to explain why murder is almost exclusively a male phenomenon and it peaks at the age of 25. Sociobiology aims at tracing the evolution of humans and their habits, from sex to language.

The central tenet of Sociobiology is that all aspects of human culture and behavior are coded in the genes and have been molded by natural selection. Wilson is after a biological explanation for everything: religion, ethics, and ultimately for the history of humankind. His program is to identify universals in human societies. Ultimately, the aim is to define human nature. Wilson believes that universals are coded in the human genotype; and, like everything else coded there, they have been selected by evolution.

Wilson attempted a unified theory of Biology and social sciences, from genes to mind to culture. The underlying theme of his findings is a strong coupling between genetic and cultural evolution. They proceed together, in parallel and intertwined. 

Wilson defines culture as the product of the interaction of all the mental and physical artifacts of a population. Culture is not unique to humans. What is unique about human culture is that it is a form of "euculture", which involves “reification” (the construction of concepts and the continuous re-categorization of the world, including the ability to symbolize), besides teaching, imitation and learning (which are present in many other animals).

On these foundations, Wilson reconstructed the genetic history of our mind.

A culture expresses itself through its "culturgens" (behaviors and artifacts). These are the equivalent of genes. These are the basic units of inheritance in cultural evolution.  Each individual is genetically endowed with epigenetic rules to process culturgens. Such rules can be said to assemble the mind of an individual.  They include sensory filters and cognitive faculties, all of them determined genetically. And, ultimately, these rules affect the probability of transmitting a culturgen as opposed to another. 

Epigenesis is the process of interaction between genes and the environment during development. Epigenetic rules affect both primary functions such as hearing and secondary functions such as mother-infant bonding and incest avoidance. 

One or more culturgens are favored by the epigenetic rules.  Eucultural species such as humans evolve towards a type of cultural transmission in which a dual shift occurs in time: change in the epigenetic rules due to shifts in the genes frequency and change in culturgen frequencies due to the epigenetic (gene-culture co-evolution).  The two shifts exert a mutual influence. 

The epigenetic rules exhibit genetic variation, thereby contributing to the variance of cognitive traits within a population. The fitness of the individuals differs depending on their minds' behaviors. Therefore the population as a whole tends to shift towards the most efficient epigenetic rules. 

The general model of Wilson is one in which the offspring learn to "socialize" from both their age peers and their parents. They evaluate the culturgens and assimilate them depending on their epigenetic rules; and then use the outcome to exploit the environment.

Wilson's ambitious program is to unify all disciplines of human knowledge (from religion to art) in one discipline ("consilience"), which would be, fundamentally, the study of how the human mind evolved. He believes that all other disciplines could be reduced to this discipline, and therefore what they study are but particular aspects of the evolution of the mind and, ultimately, of its genetic programming.

Culture is therefore a product of biology. Culture is social behavior.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Altruism" | Back to the index of all chapters