An Evolutionary Innovation: The Origin of Consciousness

While the exact origin of consciousness is debatable, and polarized on a mammalian time-chart, the fact that all mammalian creatures acquired consciousness as a datum, that is, as a fixed starting point in our brains, is not.The history of these living, yet mortal, creatures is documented by their fossils that are preserved in sedimentary layers over geologic time, where we can see (read) the small patterns to help understand the big picture, and that, is the progression of evolution. Yet, there are at least two types of mammalian evolution.

The first and most obvious is the aforesaid fossil record. That record, despite gaps, is of such an exacting nature that it is no longer considered a theory of evolution, but the established fact of evolution.

The second, though less understood and even less talked about in general company, is mental evolution. All of us mammalian cousins undergo mental evolution which is more akin to rapid progression, unlike the fossil record which is slow, taking place over eons. Mental evolution, particularly in humans, can happen over generations and possibly in minutes or seconds.

It was nearly a half a billion years ago when early vertebrates evolved brain symmetries. This ancient “backbone” society of warm-blooded living things was the antecedents of all living mammals, including Homo sapiens sapiens, which comprises all modern races of people.

Since mammals are bilateral organisms, we are essentially split into two side by side parts, including the brain. Aside from the obvious symmetry of our two eyes, two ears, two legs, etc., evidence of human cell division fusion during the fetal developmental continuum is often clearly evidenced in the perineum where a visible ridge or line runs from the anus to the scrotum or vulva.

When anatomically modern humans emerged in central Africa about 200, 000 years ago you might have difficulty distinguishing them from your neighbors today. Since mental evolution, however, takes place within our brains the difference between the human mind 200,000 years ago and now is worlds apart, despite our body and brain being relatively the same size.

It is because of the “apparently sudden evolutionary appearance” of the corpus callosum, as well as the “lack of any identifiable (similar) precursor structure in nonplacental species,” that the corpus callosum in mammal brains has been described as “a true evolutionary novelty.” Previously all mammals had been mentally working with a split brain. But then the rather abrupt appearance of this “major inter- hemispheric fibre bundle tract in the brain of placental mammals” changed us all forever:

Consciousness was born.

Because the corpus callosum is not found in nonplacental species its origin and therefore consciousness itself is clearly anchored in mammalian (placental) animals. Moreover, by establishing that the causal agent of consciousness is the result of Earth’s evolutionary processes, all that makes consciousness what it is and what it means is noteworthy, in-that, without scientific proof there is no reason to assume it exists anywhere off of our planet. And, any attempts to enlarge consciousness to a universal status is speculation only and not justifiable.

The ramifications for localizing consciousness to this particular planet, and specifically in mammals, is primarily significant to the human species, in terms that the animal species with the largest brain size would be and was heavily impacted by the innovative origin of cross-hemispheric consciousness.

The resultant intense traffic flow, not found to the same degree in our cousin animals, left humans ill-equipped to process the new-fangled information load, particularly as it applied to thought and imagination. For the first time ever, humans could talk to themselves, without another human nearby. In addition to thinking to ourselves our thoughts were talked out loud that elevated our communication skills with each other.

The cognitive function when hominins had different brains before the evolutionary innovation evolved the “bundle tract in the brain,” is unknown. Indeed, the advent of spoken, more exacting language, versus guttural and gestural communication, suggests a “range between two million and 50,000 years ago.”

So while the advent of human language and two communicative-hemispheres may not have evolved at exactly the same time, the effect of combining the functions of brain physiology and speech organs indicate the evolutionary platform from which hominins evolved was the real beginning of human culture. And, with it, came all of the good and bad characteristics that the top mammalian thinkers brought to this planet.

Nevertheless, the question of who, what and where there exists consciousness cannot be answered outside of our mammal brain functioning.

Until we have proven methods to measure consciousness in any other state of existence, it means, in a very real sense, it’s all in your mind.

Comments | 20

  • "Here at least, consciousness arose"

    “We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
    ~Carl Sagan

  • A reference

    I read a book on this exact subject many years ago:

    The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – by Julian Jaynes

    Available on Amazon:

    • The Origin of Consciousness and the Overcrowded, Cluttered Mind

      In describing the split brain, in retrospect, I should have been clear that the bilateralism of mammalian bodies do not operate entirely separately. Just like the two ears or eyes are not entirely cut off from one another, neither were the previously bicameral functions of the two brain hemispheres.

      In 1979 I “attempted” to read Jaynes’ entire book. It was one of the few books where after reading sentences or paragraphs three times I still wasn’t sure I fully understood what I was reading. However, I understood enough that I took what I could, yet, ultimately did not read the entire book. What Jaynes did do for me was to get up my interest in brain physiology.

      Even in the late 70s one of the things I was unsure about was, did Julian Jaynes speak in terms of the mammalian experience as a whole. I’m not able to definitely say, but the subsequent collateral material indicates his book was anthropomorphic and viewed largely in a neuropsychiatric and psychologically human context. Yet, I was certain the evolutionary innovation of consciousness was mammalian (placenta). It was, in fact, a human innovation, only in so far as that peculiar mammalian innovation happened when homo sapien sapiens were physically fully evolved with the large brain they have now.

      Therefore, I “anchor” the origin of consciousness as a mammalian-wide event. Unlike many of the human cousin animals, the human brain had an outrageous amount of increased traffic-flow to deal with. And, it is the overcrowded, cluttered brain that humans are still reeling from to this day.

      Moreover, I define “consciousness” as an evolutionary event relegated to Earth, not as a universal event. That doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t exist elsewhere, there simply isn’t any way to prove that it does. And, I submit that if consciousness does exist elsewhere that it is also terrestrial in nature, meaning that consciousness would likely evolve in the same or similar manner for species on other planets, as on Earth.

      It’s noteworthy to suggest that any evolved species on another planet experienced possible different effects, attuned to the particular species on the planet involved. Therefore, there is still no reason for me to establish consciousness as universal.

      When the Universe was formed by an instantaneous phenomenal expansion (not really bang or explosion), that expansion “occurred everywhere all at once.” Whatever evidence the science of physics indicates, “we find two important observational facts about our Universe: it appears to have the same properties everywhere, and it looks the same in all directions. In physics terms, this means the Universe is homogeneous (the same at all locations) and isotropic (the same in all directions).”

      But “the same properties everywhere” do not necessarily mean preexistence in all subsequent developmentally structured matter. There clearly was an allowance of evolution that could go whichever way, or not at all.

      Indeed, its effect on the human mind is a mixed bag. And, because our mental attic is cluttered, overcrowded and complicated we are to this day in danger of our own extinction.

      We have no reason to assume that the Universe itself is conscious. We do know for certain that, thanks largely to the innovation of the corpus callosum, that mammalian brains are able to employ a new dimension of awareness we call “consciousness.”

    • "An introcosm that is more myself than anything..."

      “One of my favorite descriptions of consciousness comes from Julian Jaynes’ bizarre and beautiful book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

      O WHAT A WORLD of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all — what is it?
      And where did it come from?
      And why?

  • Bridge to Now Here

    The corpus callosum is undeveloped in young children, and forms variably in aging adolescents. Recent breakthroughs in brain imaging both confirm and develop the idea that individuals grow this inter-connective tissue at different rates and complexities, depending on an array of factors.

    This notion has been generally used to explain many aspects of diminished attention and dubious judgement of the teen brain.  

    If indeed consciousness includes concepts like conscience, awareness, and clarity, I wonder if the stunted cognitive development we seem to be showing as a species is connected to widespread sub-optimal development of this band of cells that are there to bridge the hemispheres?

    • A traffic jam in the brain

      Your question, “If indeed consciousness includes concepts like conscience, awareness, and clarity, I wonder if the stunted cognitive development we seem to be showing as a species is connected to widespread sub-optimal development of this band of cells that are there to bridge the hemispheres?” is a fascinating point of view.

      Since “species” as a whole is in question here, we can set aside the obvious part of the changes and developmental stages of the brain from the age of three to what society assumes to be adulthood.

      It’s only natural, as the Scientific American article indicates, that any growth patterns will need time (growing up) to be thought of as fully developed and working at optimal levels. I would not consider it as recent breakthroughs so much as I’d consider it a better use of new technologies to define what is already somewhat obvious (as you, and many parents can testify).

      However, a species at-large with “stunted cognitive development” is an interesting point of view. If, in fact, the corpus callosum fibred band in adults is falling short of its highest performance capabilities, then, perhaps, the intense traffic flow I describe is not unlike a traffic jam in the brain that as yet, has not been resolved or cleared up.

      The question then, might be, how do we clear up this jam and what do we keep and discard to make better use of our corpus callosums?

      • Bridge over the River Why

        Einstein’s brain was removed upon his death, and investigators found a particularly buff corpus callosum. Speculation arose as to what gave Albert’s noodle such prodigious plasticity. Music was considered highly influential, as were the types of problems he set for himself to solve. Musing, synthesis, invention, rhythm… wells of brain-cell making potential.

        My hunch is that childhood and adolescence are the ideal time to foster activities and viewpoints that would stimulate growth in the corpus callosum. It’s naturally an active and vibrant phase. By the time the rigidity of adulthood sets in, it may be too late. Clear up the jam by fostering conditions early on that would make better drivers, more creative co-pilots, and valuing the discovery of interesting routes.

        • Bridge to nowhere

          I’ve read that the number of the corpus callosum fibers in the connecting bundle of evolutionary origin is already determined by birth. So a stunted cognitive development in adulthood might be the norm. It’s like trying to find something you need in a room filled with clutter. Since consciousness comes in many levels, the associative training needed in childhood and adolescence might be inadequate, in so far as, it’s the adults who set the bar.

          • Morphology power rangers

            I’m going to look into this. Maybe a letter to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a good start.

          • Happy Meals

            Maybe you can follow up with a letter to McDonald’s.

          • Cabinet positioning

            Dr. Ben Carson head of HUD should be well acquainted with blueprints of our mental zones, but alas he’s otherwise engaged these days.

            A cursory glance online suggests happy meals for the brain can be obtained, through meditation, music, exercise- thereby growing the size and quality of our CCs.

            I have no special knowledge in this field, so I’m leaving it for each to do their own research. Filling in the map of desired cognitive habitation is the task of individuated consciousness.

            Interesting subject. Profound implications.

          • Secrets about brain plasticity

            Full text:

            ‘The corpus callosum starts to develop around 12 weeks of human gestation, and then continues on even after birth. By around 20 weeks of gestation the doctor will be able to tell whether or not the child has a normally developing corpus callosum.’

            While not essential for survival, a missing or damaged corpus callosum can cause a range of developmental problems. It’s thought that one in 3,000 people have agenesis of the corpus callosum—a congenital disorder that sees a complete or partial absence of the conduit.

            ‘This is a disorder that usually occurs during development prior to birth,’ says Richards.

            [Does anyone have any idea just how frequent 1-in-3000 people is who have this disorder??]

  • Does anyone have...

    a good definition of consciousness?

    The original article and the comments seem to take as a given that what we mean by “consciousness,” is so well understood, as to need no definition. Is it really so clear though?

    Can we agree on a definition of “consciousness,” or is it sort of, “I know it when I see it?”

    In a conversation with a sophisticated artificial intelligence computer program, would there be an absolutely reliable test to determine whether we are talking with a conscious entity, or if the apparent personality emerges from an amazingly complex mechanical function which mimics consciousness but is not actually conscious?

    • Artificial consciousness (AC)

      Your question: Can we agree on a definition of “consciousness?”

      Better than having any of us formulate an agreement on the definition of consciousness, here is an interesting site with a pretty good search engine:

      And, of course, there is always the old standby:

      This article is about an evolutionary novelty in the brains of all mammalian species and its effect on humans.

      Any developmental innovations of a “sophisticated artificial intelligence computer program” actually has a good amount of literature fairly long established. The topic, though unrelated to this discussion, would make an interesting article of its own accord.

      • Begs the question

        Is it not reasonable that an article about the evolutionary development of consciousness, should include a definition of consciousness? (Whether it is an article about space, time, justice, ducks, or consciousness: It is reasonable that an author should be able to define his or her subject.)

        My mention of artificial intelligence was not meant to change the subject, but rather it posed the Turing Test as an illustration of the absence (so far in this discussion) of any explanation of what we mean by “consciousness.” Perhaps “consciousness” defies precise definition; but if that is the case, then we should be clear about that.

        If you are writing about the evolution of ducks, but cannot tell us what a duck is; then it is rather silly to duck the question by giving a link to google.

        • Beg elsewhere

          What you asked was: Does anyone have a good definition of consciousness? And, Can we agree on a definition of “consciousness,” or is it sort of, “I know it when I see it?”

          No, “we” cannot agree.

          (I think I understand why you can’t write your own articles.)

          • Can't agree...

            That’s fine. Dialogue need not always end in agreement.

            The question is about clear thinking: Can you give a definition of consciousness? If not, then why not?

  • The problem of consciousness is a problem of definitions

    “The standard materialist position is that consciousness is tied up with the brain. There is plenty of evidence that the brain influences consciousness (and vice versa!), ranging from studies of brain damage to the well-known effects of mind-altering chemicals.

    The problem with going any further than this correlational fact is that no one knows how to define consciousness from an objective, third-person perspective.

    We only have access to one consciousness: our own. Every other consciousness is in a sense inferred from behavior. This process of inference is a social process, which is why the debate on animal consciousness is unlikely to end any time soon. We treat people as conscious because they seem conscious to us, and this seeming is a product of both our evolved perceptual systems and the cultural systems that operate on top of them. The fact that people disagree about whether a particular animal species is conscious or not suggests that there is no universal intuition about consciousness.

    Because the problem of consciousness is a problem of definitions, some neuroscientists have decided to stick their necks out and define it.”
     Read full text:

    • Def Jam

      This caught my eye, and though not about connective tissue, it does touch on the consciouness issue.

      But the IP [Information Processing] metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

      • Let’s call it the uniqueness problem

        {Thank you, Spinoza, for the link! I extracted the following to help indicate the inherent traffic flow and traffic jam in our brains that clutters our overcrowded minds, all of which tells me we are, indeed, no more than individually unique organisms that are not part of some imagined unified or universal consciousness. I know this doesn’t suit everyone}

        “A few cognitive scientists now completely reject the view that the human brain works like a computer. The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but others describe another way of understanding intelligent behaviour – as a direct interaction between organisms and their world.
        Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience.
        Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction starts to sound overly optimistic. (In a recent op-ed inThe New York Times, the neuroscientist Kenneth Miller suggested it will take ‘centuries’ just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.)
        We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.”

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