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consciousness and evolution

skindeep's picture

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yoga sutra

The above yoga sutra (sutra meaning thread) literally translates to a message telling us that when we are able to bring together/unite our outer beings/physical self with our inner selves/spiritual energy, we will experience the cessation of the thoughts in our mind.

Right from the time the practice of yoga has begun (estimated to be 900 to 500 BCE) and probably from the time the capacity of thought was developed, man has been trying to study consciousness and in turn to cease thought in an attempt to attain ‘nirvana’ or ‘ananda’ a sense of eternal bliss that is free of all burdens, a sense of peace that lies both behind and past all understanding.

In class we spoke about how the term ‘survival of the fittest’ was redundant, simply because the only thing it tells us about the ‘fittest’ is that they have the capability to survive. Because of this, because there is no criteria to define the ‘fittest’, we are seemingly left with little or no information about whether or not there is any progress that is accompanying evolution.

If organisms are defined to be ‘fit’ or not based on their ability to survive, which in turn is relative to their environment, one could state that there is no reason that the ability to survive in one environment would be better or worse than the ability to survive in another. And, in that case, according to this argument, human beings would be no better than bacteria – both species do an equally good job of surviving and procreating in their respective environments.

Advocates of this argument would say that the idea of progress is a construction of the human mind, it is a judgment call that we make because we need to believe that we are one step ahead of the other species on this planet.

While this argument has its strong points and validity, I would like to defer. Because there is a difference between bacteria and dogs just like there is a difference between dogs and human beings. There is a difference in their levels of consciousness.

Consciousness has been defined in numerous ways over the years. There is Phenomenal consciousness[1] which is defined as ‘simply experience, it is moving, colored forms, sounds, sensations, emotions and feelings with our bodies and responses at the center.’ Then, there is Access consciousness[2] which is defined as a state in which the ‘information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior.’

When looking at consciousness in terms of evolution, we need to assess whether human beings are the only species that are conscious. Animals may not be aware of the same things that we as humans are aware of, they are not aware of things beyond their immediate world. For example, a cat does not know about phenomena of outer space, or the concept of different countries. A cat can see, hear, smell and taste its world. It can remember where it has been, who/what it likes and doesn’t like. It can show emotion and studies say that it can even dream. Clearly, cats, and other mammals have inner experiences, and can be said to be conscious.

In that case, mammals do not differ from us in consciousness, but in what they are conscious of. Cats may not be self aware and reason things out the same way we do, and maybe in that we are more conscious than them. But cats have better sensory abilities than we do – their sense of smell and sound are much stronger than ours, and in that sense they are probably more conscious than we are.

If this is true for mammals, what about other animals? All organisms seem to be aware of the world they are in in one way or another – bats see the world with sonar, snakes sense infrared radiation, many single celled organisms are sensitive to heat, vibrations or light. There are arguments that state perhaps consciousness goes all the way down – that atoms can be conscious. [3]

If all creatures are conscious in one way or another, then perhaps consciousness is not something that evolved with human beings, or primates, or at any particular time in biological evolution. Perhaps, what developed was the different aspects of consciousness and the different degrees to which consciousness exists.

The first organisms – bacteria – have no senses, they were aware in the simplest of all ways. When multi-cellular organisms developed, so did the capacity to sense. Complex cellular structure and nervous systems evolved and the manner in which organisms were able to experience the world expanded and grew.

When viewed in this light it can be argued that consciousness itself, and the degree to which it exists has made progress through the course of evolution. We do not have to say that one species is better off than another, but we cannot argue that consciousness has evolved with time, and is an indicator that evolution has indeed made progress along the way.

For reasons unknown to us, humans have evolved differently, we can speak, and think. With these abilities, our consciousness has been able to expand in leaps and bounds. Our experience of space and time has expanded, as has our ability to communicate, both with those around us and with ourselves. With the birth of human beings, consciousness was able to become conscious of itself – it could now reflect on the world it experienced and on the nature of itself.

While the ability to speak and think has been more than beneficial, it has its downside – just because we can carry out both those activities, does not mean that we have to be constantly engaging in them. Being in a constant state of thought does not allow us to experience the world around us, potentially negatively affecting the ability of our consciousness to be aware of itself.

Consciousness, with or without our help is making progress and life and evolution is working with it, to make organisms to fit into its needs. Philosophers like Sri Aurobindo who support this argument would then say that human beings are not the peak of evolution – we are on a rung of the ladder as is every other organism, but as far as progress in terms of consciousness is concerned, we have yet a long way to go.

Progress is being made, and we are yet a another design before perfection and awareness can be reached.




1. Evolution of Consciousness:

2. Yoga Sutras:

3. Information on Sri Aurobindo's Theory: A yoga handbook that my high school teacher made for me

4. Definitions of consciousness:







Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution and consciousnesses

Yes, bacteria/dogs/humans are all equally "adapted," there is no hierarchy there.  But yes, it is possible that evolution would exhibit "progress" in terms of other characteristics.  "Complexity" (from procaryotic to eucaryotic to multicellular eucaryotic) is one example.  Could consciousness be another?  Its an intriguing idea but needs a more explicit definition of levels of consciousness, one that has enough operational significance to allow one to assess different organisms.  And one would need to be able to do such assessments not only on existing but on extinct organisms.  And then one would need to address the question of whether any observed progress was simply a consequence of randomness and a left-wall effect (as in the case of complexity?) or was because something guides evolution toward consciousness.  Interesting challenges.