Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Do we think or are we automatons? Where in our heads does the cinema projection of our sight take place? What is conscious thought?

The argument appears to rage unabatted about all this and each peice of conflicting evidence appears to be just as compelling as the last. I can contribute very little to this – as ever – but I have observed something odd about my thoughts. well, lots of people probably have, but this is about how I have thoughts, rather than what I am thinking!

Often in conversation I will come out with witty and intelligent allusions to quotations and previous moments in the conversation, but I don’t realise I am doing it until someone else notices and acts impressed. I thought it was conincidence at first, but the more it happens the more of an intelligent design there appears to be (ahhh, I am indeed the god of my own thoughts). I now find my conscious mind monitoring what is coming out of my mouth to spot the intelligent references before others do – otherwise it can lead to embarassment and confusion all round!

It seems obvious that a lot of thought comes from the subconscious or some such: after all, if someone swings a baseball bat at your head you will duck before your internal voice has had its say. Either that or wake up with a headache! Is it possible that this obvious reactionary response is actually just the tip of the non-conscious iceburg? Is our conscious mind – that inner chatter that seems to run our analytic thought process – nothing more than a monitoring system for our real thoughts?

We can think without language and did do before we could talk, so perhaps we still do all our real thinking at a pre- or sub-language level. Perhaps what we think of our consciousness and personality is a chimera: the ‘panem et circenses’ with which the real masters of our minds satisfy our egos. It may be impossible to be aware of our real conscious thoughts, since they are the bits that are doing all the thinking – it’s a bit like the impossibility of seeing your own eyeball.

Personally I think that this all rather points to our self-observable thoughts – the inner monologue – being a monitoring and safety mechanism that became necessary as we evolved our complex language and social interactions. It would need someone far brighter than me to work out exactly how and why, though!

Oh, and I have no idea about the cinema-of-our-sight thing.

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I have been wondering about the purpose of death lately: what is it for and why does so much of life indulge in it? After all, in some respects single-cell creatures can be thought of as being immortal. Yet we humans replace cells all the time, hardly remaining the same person from year to year, so why do we slowly decay? Why do we die?

The answer, I though, might be that death started as an evolutionary advantage. What I am suggesting is that all really early organisms on Planet Earth were immortal: nothing ever died of old age before about 600 million years ago. Things did die, of course, but only when actively killed by outside forces, such as having a moutain fall on them. Then, about 550 million years ago, some creatures learnt how to die. They would reproduce then auto-destruct, leaving their offspring far better able to survive and flourish.

The very early planet was a tricky place to live, with conditions appropriate for life being rare and the total quantity of nutrients (or ‘food’) in each of those places being limited. Conditions could also change rapidly, both over distance and time. Single-cell beings divide rapidly and so random change can lead to rapid evolution, with each generation taking comparatively little food to produce. However, for more complex life reproduction is slower and more resource intensive, so that a greater proportion of the total available food is locked into each generation.

If the parent generations of more compex organisms do not die, there is competition for resources between parents and offspring: they are in direct competition with each other. This leads to a massive reduction in the chance that sufficient evolution will occur before (1) all the food is gone, or (2) the environment changes to make life untenable. This is because the genetic advantage of change through the generations is diluted if the original genes have as much chance of reproducing as the altered ones – it would be like Neanderthals still having as much chance of reproducing today as the most successful of society intelligentcia.

If the parent generations do die, then only those with the greatest chance of having altered genes will be competing for food. In each successive generation, only individuals with genes altered by natural selection will survive to produce the next generation. This will result in a far greater chance that changes will be compounded over the generations and so useful, pronounced adaption will occur. The death of the parent generation will also release food back into the system, increasing the chances that their offspring will adapt before the food runs out.

The species that died therefore survived, out-evolving their immortal cousins and populating the planet with their offspring. That is why about 1 billion years ago there was an explosion of complex life on Earth: it had learnt how to die. Of course, death would really come into its own as an evolutionary force once sexual reproduction had been invented. Death and sex: perhaps life really is the ultimate Gothic story.

Death and sex helped fuel the explosion of complex life on Earth.  Perhaps that is why they are both a part of life for all complex organisms on the planet today.

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