Must everything that evolves have intelligence/ consciousness?

Christopher asked:

Doesn’t everything that evolves have to have intelligence/consciousness? In order for an organism to evolve/adapt to its environment so that it ‘knows’ what traits will make it more fit?

I don’t view evolution as some metaphysical entity and I’m trying to avoid any metaphysical explanation like ‘god’. I’m thinking more in terms of Leibniz’s idea of monads existing in all things, because it could be theorized that consciousness exists at an atomic or cellular level, therefore all things containing cells would have consciousness and be capable of evolving. Also, if a cell can grow/change/reproduce on its own, can’t that be considered evolution itself.

Answer by Craig Skinner

There are three different questions here, and I shall deal with each in turn:

1. Doesn’t everything that evolves have to have intelligence/consciousness?

2. Can a cell’s growing be considered evolution?

3. Could all physical entities be conscious?

1. Definitely not. Evolution by natural selection is a mechanical process whereby succeeding generations of an organism fit their environment better. The mechanism is differential reproduction of inherited random variations. Most variants (genetic mutations or recombinations) are neutral, some are detrimental, a few are advantageous. The latter enhance survival and reproduction, thereby spreading in the gene pool which gradually changes (evolves)due to accumulation of beneficial variants. Organisms don’t ‘know’ what traits will make them more fit, all kinds of variants randomly occur, mostly useless or lethal, but those that happen to be advantageous become selected.

The whole process is ‘blind’ and doesn’t need a designer (‘watchmaker’ in Paley’s famous 19th century analogy), hence the title of Dawkins excellent introduction to the topic. Of course the theory itself has matured since Darwin’s day to include molecular details of inheritance, epigenetics, and much else, but I wont go into that.

2. It’s a matter of terminology. Change occurring in all individual members of a species as they age is called ‘development’. Changes occurring in a species over many generations due to accumulation of genetic variants is called ‘evolution’. Thus I developed successively from gamete into embryo, foetus, baby, child, adult, old man. My species and Pan paniscus (chimps) evolved from the same ancestral species.

3. Yes all entities could be conscious. The idea is that consciousness is VERY dim in say electrons or atoms, minimal in plants and most animals, appreciable in mammals, amounting to self-consciousness in humans. As matter gets organized, so its consciousness gets organized too. This ‘panpsychism’ is an alternative to ’emergence’. In the latter view, consciousness is felt to be a ‘higher level’ property emerging when matter is organized in particular complex ways (brains), but is not present in the electrons, atoms, molecules or neurones themselves. Both emergence and panpsychism (favoured by Leibniz as you say, also by Whitehead) are contenders (among others) in attempts to explain consciousness. But whether panpsychism is true or not has no bearing on evolution by natural selection as far as I can see.

There is no need to postulate any ‘striving’ by the elements of the natural world towards increased organization and higher consciousness. I don’t think electrons, for instance, get tired of orbiting in simple atoms for billions of years and strive to be part of more interesting structures such as trees or bees. I know that views about all creation striving to become closer to God, or to reach the omega point, or about the universe becoming self-aware, have been advanced by Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, and proponents of the Final Anthropic Principle, but I’m underwhelmed by such views.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

In principle your idea is sound, although you throw steel balls and eggs into one basket as if there was no difference between them.

Cells: Yes. Atoms: No. The first are living entities, the second chemical elements. The latter behave in mechanical, predictable ways; the former have decision-making powers (as primitive as you like, yet they remain utterly disparate from chemical elements).

As far as Leibniz is concerned, you need to be aware of a subtle distinction. His monad (singular) is a merely theoretical entity–a descriptive convenience. After all, he says that all are created at once. What they share is a striving for existence, which ineluctably means collectivisation. They also have the attribute of force common to them, although this force must be understood in four ways to account for the variety of existents: namely active and passive, primitive and derivative. The result of collectivisation depends on the mix of these attributes, and Leibniz constantly stresses that so-called ‘matter’ always has some entelechial force in it – ‘as little as you like’; and this is not alive in any sense. On the other hand all living things contain a quantity (‘as little as you like’) of matter.

But I’ve written a whole book on the subject and don’t feel like compressing what’s important about it into a handful of words that are vulnerable to misunderstanding. If you’re serious about following this up, check out Ch. 4-5 of my book, and especially the diagrammatic representation on p. 120. It’s all there.

Strangely enough, I’ve also written a book on the other aspect of your question, the issue of intelligence in evolution. You might profit from reading (at least) the introduction.

I don’t think there is much literature on this subject, so again: if you’re serious, this is the place to start. Good luck!


Answer by Shaun Williamson

You don’t answer scientific questions by philosophizing or guessing. Leibniz didn’t have the advantage of knowing about Darwin’s theory of Evolution by means of natural selection. You need to study the theory of evolution in detail before you get into the wild theorizing.

Being conscious means having sensory awareness of the world and to have sensory awareness of the world you need sense organs and a nervous system.

Plants e.g. flowers and trees have no sense organs or consciousness but they have still subject to the process of evolution. So the answer to your question is ‘No you don’t need intelligence or consciousness in order to be subject to the laws of evolution’. Things don’t evolve, they are evolved by forces outside their control (well mostly outside their control).

Please study the theory of evolution in detail before you start thinking about it. So far it seems that you simply don’t understand the basic ideas. Things don’t evolve themselves, they are subject to the laws of evolution. thing.


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