photo by alicepopkorn
It’s an almost unbearable irony that life – our most beloved property of the physical universe – came about largely through copying errors. The evolution of new species owes much of its success to our DNA’s mistakes in copying itself.
These copying errors are usually called mutations, and are typically harmful to the individual that carries them, making him less likely to survive and pass down his genes. But occasionally one of these errors will chance to improve the odds of survival for those that carry it, and will be replicated through generations, leading to new characteristics, and eventually, with enough such beneficial mutations, new types of organisms.
So when people get upset about the prospect that human beings came about by chance, it’s worth reminding them that the truth is actually somewhat worse than that. We came about by error.
Imperfection in copying, or mutation, is a fundamental necessity in evolutionary systems. And evolutionary systems are the most powerful method for organizational improvement in any system that lacks forward-looking design, and indeed in many systems that have it.
So when the countless years of nature selected an operating system for the higher functions of our brains, they selected one that was prone to error. And this has allowed our understanding of reality to evolve, much as life itself has.
Information is the coded description of reality. When we are creating perceptions, understandings, and memories, our brains are actually trying to encode aspects of reality in our neural networks, for us to use in current and future decisions. As you well know, we often don’t copy things quite right. We remembered the chair being in the opposite corner or thought that if we put this nail in first it would hold the whole structure together. But we were wrong.
And likewise our brains draw many connections between different bits of neural code (which I’ll call nemes) that turn out to be quite useless or detrimental. Many fallacies and superstitions are caused by the erroneous linkages of nemes.
Why so error-prone? Because like genes before them, nemes provide the foundation for evolutionary organization of thought. Most new ideas and insights are in fact novel combinations of things we already know. And some copying errors provide us with the spark of creativity that leads to deeper or more desirable insights than would accurate perception or memory, like when you misheard a friend’s story and it suddenly became terribly funny rather than terribly boring.
With genes, the physical environment and competing species are selective pressures, making some genes more likely than others to survive. With nemes, the the first selective pressures are the environment and competing information. The last critical selective pressure I will touch on in a moment.
Copying errors and selective pressures allow each person’s ideas to evolve over a lifetime. And through the generational passing down of education and culture, our knowledge and ideas see further evolution and longevity, and with any luck, the refinement of age.
But this demands the question: With a brain so error-prone, how do we keep from living lives even more riddled with missteps? This question will lead us all the way to the front porch of consciousness.
Forgive the simplistic strokes of my neuroscience when I submit that the human brain has several levels of functionality. First, it controls automatic body functions such as the beating of the heart and circadian rhythms of sleep. Second, it controls instinctual drives and responses – sex, aggression, fear, anger, hunger – things meant mainly to keep us and our genes alive. Both of these levels happen subconsciously.
Third, and this is where our brains begin to diverge from any other animal, our brains observe our environment and adapt our thinking and behavior to maximize our chances of survival and success. Many animals do the same, but the part of the brain responsible for this project is bigger relative the rest of our brains than in any other animal. Much bigger. This allows us to recognize patterns, engage in planning, and carry out many other unique mental operations that have allowed us to outcompete other species.
And I believe that it’s a similar mental project that makes consciousness necessary. The brain observes not only the changing circumstances of our environment, but also the error-prone processes of its own operations. In essence it conducts an ongoing audit of itself, blocking erroneous or detrimental thoughts and behaviors, and reinforcing beneficial ones.
And as with any complex system, in order to make decisions in the face of internal contradiction there must be some sort of hierarchy, some sort of central decision-making authority. Take the example of a company engaged in a self-audit. The audit team says the accounting team isn’t recording expenses properly but the accounting team disagrees. An authority figure, call her the CEO, has to step in and decide who is right and how the company in going to move forward.
A brain who’s major strength is copying errors and speculative connections, and who continually self-audits to preserve the competitiveness of the individual, likewise needs a central decision-making authority. Our brains need a CEO.
And we are it. Our consciousness, the thing we each call ‘me’ or ‘I’, is the CEO of our brain and the fourth level of functionality, the part that looks at the information available and decides which thoughts and behaviors are correct or beneficial, and which are wrong or harmful. This is the final selective pressure on nemes, our evaluation of our own ideas.
This self-audit system gives us open access to those parts of the brain prone to copying errors: the parts that perceive and remember our experiences, that divine patterns, that decide behaviors. But it does not give us access to those parts whose software is hard-wired, as it were, and so don’t accumulate copying errors in the same way: the parts that govern our heartbeat and the fight/flight reflex, for instance.
And at the intersection of those two domains, where instinct meets conscious decision, we feel tension. You’ve certainly heard the phrase, and may have used it, “I could give 100 reasons why I shouldn’t have done it, but I did it any way.” Usually this refers to an instinctual behavior overcoming the auditor, as in eating a piece of chocolate cake or having a one-night stand. Or you’ve used its converse, “I wanted it so badly, but I stood strong and walked away.” In these cases the auditor was able to outmaneuver the instinct.
So perhaps our CEO isn’t CEO after all, but more like the VP of Conscious Action, struggling to guide our lives well. And perhaps that struggle is analogous to the struggle of our age, the struggle between long-embedded and outdated systems, and a new opportunity to rethink what is possible, what is truly beneficial, and how we conscious animals ought to live.