The Ancient Origins of Consciousness
How is consciousness created? When did it first appear on Earth, and how did it evolve? What constitutes consciousness, and which animals can be said to be sentient? In this book, Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt draw on recent scientific findings to answer these questions—and to tackle the most fundamental question about the nature of consciousness: how does the material brain create subjective experience?
After assembling a list of the biological and neurobiological features that seem responsible for consciousness, and considering the fossil record of evolution, Feinberg and Mallatt argue that consciousness appeared much earlier in evolutionary history than is commonly assumed. About 520 to 560 million years ago, they explain, the great “Cambrian explosion” of animal diversity produced the first complex brains, which were accompanied by the first appearance of consciousness; simple reflexive behaviors evolved into a unified inner world of subjective experiences. From this they deduce that all vertebrates are and have always been conscious—not just humans and other mammals, but also every fish, reptile, amphibian, and bird. Considering invertebrates, they find that arthropods (including insects and probably crustaceans) and cephalopods (including the octopus) meet many of the criteria for consciousness. The obvious and conventional wisdom–shattering implication is that consciousness evolved simultaneously but independently in the first vertebrates and possibly arthropods more than half a billion years ago. Combining evolutionary, neurobiological, and philosophical approaches allows Feinberg and Mallatt to offer an original solution to the “hard problem” of consciousness.
About the Authors
Todd E. Feinberg is Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.
Clinical Associate Professor in the WWAMI Medical Program at The University of Idaho and the University of Washington.
“[Feinberg and Mallatt’s] neuroevolutionary approach is the best we will have if we are to respect the power of our own human consciousness and also to locate it within a biological framework.”—The Guardian
“A very level-headed, deeply informed, and magisterial approach to the neurobiological basis of consciousness that considers the evolutionary history, the neuroanatomy, and the behavior of extant animals. The book casts a wide net and pinpoints the origin of consciousness to the time of the Cambrian explosion.”
—Christof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
“The Ancient Origins of Consciousness will get you thinking about thinking in a way you never have before. This important, challenging, and surely controversial book opens the possibility that our world’s fellow creatures are far more alert, alive, and sentient than many scientists and philosophers have previously suggested. I hope it's read widely and discussed with vigor by both academics and laypersons alike.”
—Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
“This book provides a much-needed evolutionary context for examining the origin and material basis of sentience and consciousness. Treating these as adaptive responses to real biological needs, each with its own evolutionary history, demystifies a subject too often framed in a top-down, primate-centric way. Progress in science often depends on first tackling the simplest available example, as with the hydrogen molecule in the case of chemical bond theory. For the biological problem of sentience and consciousness, the equivalent is to seek rudimentary forms of these phenomena as they emerge in evolution. This is the perspective of the authors, who develop their argument at some length in a thought-provoking and insightful way.”
—Thurston Lacalli, Professor Emeritus of Biology, University of Saskatchewan; Adjunct Professor of Biology, University of Victoria
“This book’s argument that consciousness probably extends hugely further back in time than we commonly suppose is welcome. It is a thoughtful and immensely informative survey of evolutionary neurobiology, which is sure to become a classic in the field of consciousness studies.”
—Iain McGilchrist, consultant neuropsychiatrist; author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Honorable Mention, 2017 PROSE Awards, Biological Science