The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul
Learning and the Origins of Consciousness
A new theory about the origins of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness.
What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications.
After presenting the historical, neurobiological, and philosophical foundations of their analysis, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose that the evolutionary marker of basic or minimal consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which they term unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. Associative learning, Ginsburg and Jablonka argue, drove the Cambrian explosion and its massive diversification of organisms. Finally, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose symbolic language as a similar type of marker for the evolutionary transition to human rationality—to Aristotle's “rational soul.”
“I read The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul with an immense interest. It is the best synthesis I know about consciousness. It includes a fascinating history of the concepts and discoveries about consciousness together with an outstanding presentation of the most recent scientific data, theories and philosophical speculations. The evolution of consciousness from the 'Cambrian explosion' up to the Golem predicament is one among the many original aspects of the book. A book that must be read and meditated on."
Jean-Pierre Changeux, professeur honoraire à l'Institut Pasteur et au Collège de France
“This massive and challenging book is by far the most thorough attempt at exploring consciousness from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Most impressive is the successful integration of philosophical, historical, neuroscientific, and biological considerations in addressing this most vexing question: How and why did consciousness emerge out of biological activity? By bringing together these different perspectives with impressive scholarship, the authors end up dissolving the hard problem to some extent — which is exactly what we need to progress in our understanding of consciousness. The book itself is a long, involved read — but a delightful and thrilling one. It feels like Dennett on steroids.”
Axel Cleeremans, Director, ULB Neuroscience Institute, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
“This book provides a thought-provoking perspective on one of the greatest questions in science today: what is consciousness, and how did it arise during evolution on planet Earth? Based on the view that consciousness subserves fulfillment of an animal's needs and goals, Ginsburg and Jablonka take us on an engaging journey from Aristotle to contemporary neuroscience, culminating in the daring but well-informed hypothesis that consciousness coheres with complex forms of learning. This book made me think differently of the Cambrian explosion of life, the roots of animal cognition, and the very origins of human thinking. This accessible and inspiring book offers a wealth of information and deep thought for everyone interested in the rich interface between biology, psychology, and philosophy.”
Cyriel M. A. Pennartz, Faculty of Science, Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul is a landmark attempt to make progress on the problem of animal consciousness.... The word “ambitious” does not do it justice... The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul is a book to capture the imagination of anyone with an interest in animal consciousness, whatever their disciplinary background. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, comparative psychologists, and historians and philosophers of biology will learn a great deal from it.