As my "Philosophically Speaking" students learn, contemporary philosophers often work with physicists, neuroscientists, linguists, anthropologists, computer scientists, and others at the cutting edge of physical and social science. This interesting piece from The Wall Street Journal reports on a recent book merging philosophy and evolutionary biology:
"Where does consciousness come from? When and how did it evolve? The one person I’m sure is conscious is myself, of course, and I’m willing to believe that my fellow human beings, and familiar animals like cats and dogs, are conscious too. But what about bumblebees and worms? ... [Recently] a number of biologists and philosophers have argued that consciousness was born from a specific event in our evolutionary history: the Cambrian explosion. ...
"For around 100 million years, from about 635 to 542 million years ago, the first large multicellular organisms emerged on Earth. Biologists call this period the Ediacaran Garden—a time when, around the globe, a rich variety of strange creatures spent their lives attached to the ocean floor, where they fed, reproduced and died without doing very much in between. ... Then, quite suddenly by geological standards, most of these creatures disappeared. Between 530 and 520 million years ago, they were replaced by a remarkable proliferation of animals who lived quite differently. These animals started to move, to have brains and eyes, to seek out prey and avoid predators. ... They could learn about the world around them. These creatures developed the first simple brains, as well as new sensors like eyes and new tools like limbs and claws. And they began to have some simple feelings: the desire of the predator as it pursues its prey, the fear of the prey as it eludes the predator. ...
"Profs. Ginsburg and Jablonka argue that these new abilities went along with 'minimal consciousness,' the ability to experience the world and have a simple perspective on it. Other kinds of consciousness—imagination and reflection, self-consciousness and long-term planning—evolved later, and perhaps some are uniquely human. Philosophers of consciousness talk about the idea that being me or you, or a cat or a bat, is 'like' something—that is, it’s a subjective experience. ... But to be a [creature from the Cambrian] extending its claw, that was indeed 'like' something—something not so different from what it is like to be me."
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