The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka argues that a type of complex learning they call unlimited associative learning (UAL) is a marker in the evolutionary record for the presence of minimal consciousness. The book really is almost two books in one. The first part of the book has a historical survey of thought on the origin of life and consciousness that places the modern scientific viewpoint on consciousness into perspective. The second part addresses their main argument with a review of species and research on learning. It also includes the author’s models of associative and unlimited associative learning.

I first became aware of this work from the SelfAware Patterns blog which has an excellent three-part post that summarizes the work. Previously I had arrived at my own conclusions about learning, consciousness, and evolution before encountering a paper by the same authors that summarizes the main arguments.

I like this book. First, I agree with its main point about their being an association between learning and consciousness. More about that later. Second, the book assembles in one place a lot of material and research and learning and consciousness across species which one might find valuable even if not convinced of the main thesis.

The “sensitive soul” of the title can be traced back to Aristotle who distinguished three levels of soul:

  1.  Nutritive and reproductive soul possessed by all living organisms
  2. Sensitive soul possessed by animals that feel and have experience
  3. Rational soul possessed by human beings

Their main concern is to trace the evolutionary development of the sensitive soul to discover what types of animals possess some minimal consciousness.

The term “minimal consciousness” is used extensively throughout the book and identification of its presence is the book’s main quest. Unfortunately, I am not certain this term or more generally the idea of gradations of consciousness is well-defined. Consciousness as we generally use the term always is consciousness of something. The problem is that almost all conscious organisms as identified by Ginsburg and Jablonka see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Organisms do these things to varying degrees. Some birds can see magnetic force lines. Cats can see the ultraviolet. Bees see polarized light. Dogs can smell cancer. Bats and dolphins can navigate with echo location. Humans can do none of these things. In the sensual realm at least, do humans possess less consciousness than these other organisms? The contents of consciousness of a species are governed by the refinement of its sensual organs and the capability of its brain. Humans have consciousness not only of the sensual realm but also of a symbolic realm of language and abstract ideas. Does the symbolic realm arise from greater consciousness per se? Or, does it arise from unique, but unconscious, neurological capabilities in the human brain much like the bee ability to see polarized light is a product of special pigments in bee compound eyes? Does it make more sense to say organisms are conscious of different sorts of things based on their senses and brain without judgment on whether consciousness is greater or lesser in any organism?

Let us put aside that issue for the moment. Ginsburg and Jablonka argue that unlimited associative learning is a marker for consciousness. “Marker” seems to me to be somewhat of a weasel word. It is vague. It is saying there is association between learning and consciousness, but we are not actually saying what it is. On page 233, they ask the critical question: “How is this great expansion in the repertoire of learned behaviors and the cognition underlying it related to minimal consciousness?” In the paragraph that follows, they do not answer the question but return to their “marker” argument. Nowhere in their toy model for UAL is there a box for consciousness. No circle for consciousness surrounding some subset of functions. I cannot see anything in their model that requires consciousness.

Assuming UAL and consciousness are related, they could be related in the following ways:

  1. Consciousness enables UAL and is required for it.
  2. Consciousness and UAL are not causally related but when we get one, we get the other, perhaps because of some level of complexity in the brain.
  3. Consciousness and learning are the same process, similar processes, or both subsets of some larger process.

If the relationship is 1, we would expect to find a consciousness block somewhere in the diagram. If it is 2, then we are still missing something critical to explaining consciousness even if UAL gives us a key criterion for testing for its presence. If it is 3, then we could draw a big box or circle around the entire model and label it consciousness. Or we could say the model is a model of UAL and consciousness.

I lean mainly towards 3 with a hint of 1. I view consciousness as a system dedicated to aligning our mental representations with our inner states and the external world. This makes consciousness like learning since a key part of learning is achieving more useful representations of the world. I see major overlap between UAL and consciousness if they are not the same. It also might be that consciousness, to the extent it may be different from UAL, might be required for it.

Consciousness has causal power over our mental representations which guide our behavior. It may have direct control over neural circuits as some research with biofeedback suggests. Without causal efficacy, consciousness is reduced to an epiphenomenon and it is difficult to see how such a complex biological feature would emerge and persist across species through evolution. Learning is how this causal efficacy arises. This seems to be the view of Ginsburg and Jablonka, although I am not sure it is ever stated exactly like this in the book.

Finally, let me talk a little about a missed opportunity in the book.

If we step back and look at the big picture, we can see that the question of consciousness and its relationship to learning is actual a subset of the problem of how information accumulates in the world.

For the most part, everything in the world tends towards greater disorder, greater entropy. Locally in open systems, with external energy sources, pockets of order can emerge. Life itself is like this. Life does not break any law of physics, but as Robert Wright wrote: “Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics.”

It is not entirely clear how this happens. If we knew how, we would understand the origin of life. I am not suggesting anything mystical, but we are probably missing some fundamental understanding of physics or chemistry.

Life is sometimes defined as entities that participate in the process of evolution by natural selection.

For Darwinian evolution to work, we need variation, selection, and ability to pass on traits. Variation means that entities can reproduce and when they do, they gradually change by mutation or otherwise. Selection means the changes can have consequences. Some changes result in fitter entities with better survival ability. Selection is by the eco-system in biological evolution. Finally, the entities must be able to pass on the changes.

Life itself – its genes and whatever else might carry information – uses information to multiply itself, to create its adaptive forms, and engage in adaptive behavior. Variation and selection produce new information -information for a better adapted organism and indirectly information about the ecosystem of organism. Leslie Valiant has compared the this evolutionary process to a computer learning algorithm except its performance evaluated against input it gets from a rather uncontrolled and unpredictable world.

If we return to Aristotle’s three souls, we see that each soul represents a stage in information accumulation that is driven by learning and evolution. The nutritive and reproductive soul evolves by a slow genetic learning process that requires generations for information to accumulate. The sensitive soul accumulates information through learning in near real time, in the life of the single organism, that can modify behavior for adaptive advantage. The rational soul takes learning into the symbolic realm to accumulate abstract knowledge and can record this information (because it is symbolic) to share it across generations.

In this light, the evolution of the sensitive soul and consciousness is one part of bigger trend and possibly a bigger mystery that began when life began.

Posted in Consciousness, Human Evolution, Origin of Life | 9 Comments

COVID-19 Vaccine

A week ago I received at COVID-19 vaccine injection as a part of a Phase 1 clinical trial.

Basically this is same vaccine and trial described here except the trial has expanded to include an older age group. I am in a group receiving the highest dose  250 mcg.  In a week I will be tested to antibodies. In a few weeks, I am supposed to receive a booster shot. The vaccine is called  mRNA-1273 and has messenger RNA that is used by the virus to build the spikes it uses to attach to cells. There is no live or dead virus itself in the vaccine so there should be no danger of actually getting COVID-19. This is a Phase 1 trial. That means the objective is to determine if the vaccine is safe and has few or no side effects. It is not to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine. The effects I’ve noticed so far are not different from what one might experience with a routine flu shot.

Some may opposed to the use of vaccines. I would disagree with them. Vaccines are not risk-free but, on balance and if they are properly tested, I would say the benefit far outweighs the risk. I don’t think there is an either/or choice between vaccines and other natural remedies and common sense healthy living. We need to exercise, eat right, drink sufficient water, sleep well, etc. Even doing those things are not likely to make you immune to the virus even though they may somewhat mitigate its impact. In the case of COVID-19, it seems some of us are particularly susceptible to the disease and others not.

Whether this vaccine works and how well will probably not be known to any degree until Phase 2 trials. There is a very sobering interview with Donald McNeil about COVID-19 and the prospects for a vaccine. Apparently vaccines for coronaviruses are particularly difficult to make.


Posted in COVID-19 | 14 Comments

COVID-19 Conspiracies

Josh Mitteldorf at Aging Matters has a series of posts with some bizarro views on COVID-19. First, he argues that we have hugely overreacted to COVID-19. That was written ten days ago when about 2,000 people per day were dying in the United States from it and they were digging trenches for temporary burials in New York. We are now over 50,000 deaths in a little more than a month. Despite his argument that we are overreacting, he then in two additional posts argues that COVID-19 might have the result of genetic tinkering at either at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or at the American virology lab at Fort Detrick. Or, even more bizarrely, the United States has been working with the Chinese on bioweapons research. He elaborates the theory in a third post.

I’ve liked many posts, primarily on aging,  on the Aging Matters blog, but I do think he may have jumped the shark with some of these recent posts.

Is there any merit to these claims?

I would say some but not enough to persuade me. It is easy to string together some facts, conjectures, and theories, draw some tenuous connections and come up with a superficially persuasive theory.

It is true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been doing research with bats and coronaviruses. It is in the area of the world when human and bat contact is common, because people extract guano from bat caves for fertilizer and bats are caught and sold for human consumption. Naturally they would be working with bat viruses. Scientists there also have apparently engaged in some genetic manipulation of coronaviruses.  If we combine those facts with some miscellaneous facts and interpretations from elsewhere, we can generate a full-blown conspiracy theory.

Fact Check has thoroughly debunked the claims. Peter Daszak has been working with the Wuhan Lab said in an interview.

Look, first, the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world. There was no viral isolate in the lab. There was no cultured virus that’s anything related to SARS coronavirus 2. So it’s just not possible.

And like you say, it’s really a politicization of the origins of a pandemic, and it’s really unfortunate. The stories, as President Trump said he’s been hearing, have been around since day one of the outbreak, and they’re around in every outbreak. Every single outbreak of a novel virus, somebody somewhere says, “Well, this has been manufactured in a lab.” In fact, a few weeks ago, when this started circulating, I googled ”HIV is man-made.” Do it yourself and see. There are people out there who still believe this is a bioengineered virus that spread around the world. It’s just really unfortunate. And I don’t really know why these conspiracy theories get such traction. I think the people just have trouble understanding what’s going on on the planet.

Are there strands of identical genetic material between HIV and COVID-19? This is a key part of the theory. No. The complete genome of both HIV and COVID-19 have been identified and there is a software program that can look for matches. “Per BLAST, ‘no significant similarity was found’. In plain English, SARS-CoV-2 is not made of the bat coronavirus and small bits of the HIV virus”.

Are there similarities between HIV and COVID-19. Yes. They are both viruses with “have a glycoprotein envelope. Even though if they belong to two completely different families – HIV is a lentivirus while SARS is a coronavirus – the two viruses are bound to have ‘something’ in common”.

So I would still not say the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab is zero. I would just say the odds are much better that it arose naturally from a mutated bat virus. To quote Daszak: “And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future.” That’s a lot of rolls of the dice that could produce a virulent flu.

Adding to the conspiracy theory is an ABC News report that ““Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.” November was well before anybody had identified a new contagion. So, how did they know? The report, however, specifically does not say that Intelligence knew that whatever was happening in Wuhan in November was a coronavirus.

That Intelligence could pick up signs of a epidemic before it comes to attention of authorities is not at all surprising. I believe trend analyses on Google searches can often provide warning of normal flu outbreaks. There is also the Kinsa thermometer which has been used to track trends here in the United States. In a country like China, likely all or most Internet and phone traffic is tracked. So Chinese Intelligence would likely have known about it from key words in social media, emails, and chats and, if they knew about it, most likely we would have known about if our Intelligence is any good.

I’ll grant one thing about a possible conspiracy if we are looking for deliberate intent. If anybody wanted to disrupt the United States they could hardly have picked a better way to do it with this particular administration at this point in time.

What we have is almost a perfect storm of a viral agent that requires governmental action, coordination, and resources guided by science hitting a administration run by ignoramuses and completely inept at doing anything besides lining their own pockets.

Why would the culprits be the Chinese who the need the markets in the United States? There are any number of others who would have more interest in disrupting the United States – Iran, Russia (who seems somewhat mysteriously unmentioned in all of this). And what better place to release the virus than Wuhan where the blame could be placed on nature or the Chinese.

Just saying.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments