First came Pain

Its amazing how a dish of Crab Curry can get one thinking deep into our evolutionary past (I’m sorry, I’m sure its just me, please read on). The other day, I went to a garden party where the host was explaining how he had purchased a prime stock of live crab, and that having chucked them into his deep-freezer, he had hoped that a few hours of -18C would have their souls escape into a parallel universe, and thereby have made his job of cooking them less squeamish. Alas, when he opened the fridge at cooking time, they were still alive and began scurrying around the pot the moment they began to thaw. He told me with much aversion, that the scurrying became frenzied as he put the pot on the fire and turned the heat up… until they were finally dispatched into stillness and another world as the water began to mercifully boil. It turned out to be quite a tasty dish… and my idiosyncratic meditation on the above tale got me round to this (possibly) interesting hypothesis about the evolution of consciousness. Here is the abstract:

During the early days of replicators endowed with simplistic survival machines, there arose mutations that evolved into proto-motor-nervous systems that functioned principally to keep these survival machines physically intact (and hence furthered their reproductive success). Various survival-enhancing functional improvements such as plumbing for signal transmission between the different literally “moving parts” of the survival machines would have evolved; thus reducing their chances of destruction through interaction with the harsh environment in general, and through chance encounters with other “predatory”1 survival machines in particular. There would have arisen a chain of evolutionarily successful intermediate adaptations to the “internal signaling mechanisms” of the survival machines that, at one critical step, caused a “sense of pain” to become self-apparent to the survival machine. This first proto-conscious survival machine would have been a vastly successful mutation, because many scientific studies have shown that an organism that has a sense of pain (i.e. is acutely self-aware of being decimated and hence is able to react to it by exercising its physical capabilities like sudden physical displacement) has a vastly greater chance of survival. Feeling acutely unpleasant can cause the organism to struggle and increase its chance of extricating itself from the destructive environmental interaction. The survival advantage that these early replicators acquired through the experience of pain marks the origin of moment-to-moment experience (or “experienced consciousness” or qualia) in living systems.  Consciousness could be looked upon as the immediate next stage after physical movement, in the evolution of the motor-nervous subsystem. And this perhaps happened ages before complex intra-species communication like human speech evolved, for example.

In other words, the first conscious experience would have been a nasty feeling, and a jellyfish would have experienced it 600 million years ago!

There possibly could be many evidence-based objections that one could raise to the above hypothesis, a hypothesis that essentially scales down the fundamental problem of experience and pushes its origins way back in evolutionary time. Let me deal with at least a few objections that I anticipate, within this writeup itself. But first, I’d (rather selfishly) like to dwell on the implications of the above hypothesis, if it is indeed proven to be true someday. A well-established underpinning in the scientific community dealing with the problem of understanding consciousness and its origins, is that consciousness is somehow tied to certain advanced vertebrate characteristics (largely human characteristics) like complex verbal communication, long term memory and certain structures in the brain that are required for advanced planning (for e.g. like prep for a hunt). Somewhat disjointedly to this notion, consciousness is also popularly said to be a “thin layer” that has evolved above a vast unconscious neural machine; namely the brain. And it is said that an advanced brain is required to experience qualia, and that this qualia is basically an epiphenomenon or trick “floating” above a deterministic neural process, giving us the false sense of free will. The neural correlates of consciousness are currently being studied in humans as a way to understand the fundamentals of conscious experience, which of course is a necessary and progressive step in understanding how our brains work. But how about we also study the physical correlates of apparent pain-like reactions in lower organisms like Crabs or Jellyfish? We have this universal animal phenomenon called pain-reaction-behavior that is very likely to be accompanied by a qualia of sorts for the said animals, and is worthy of extensive investigation. There is some academic research done along these lines, but no popular science exponent of this type of research is to be found. Richard Dawkins talks a lot about the evolutionary value of pain, but we haven’t heard anyone put forward the idea strongly that the study of the evolution of pain might be the key to understanding primitive conscious experience.

Lets move on to dealing with some possible objections to my hypothesis. The first objection that would surely be raised by a skeptic about the above hypothesis would be, “where is the evidence to suggest that the boiling Crab has a qualia about its own imminent destruction?” My answer to this is simple – make a behavioral comparison of pain-reactions between a human (whom we would take as a benchmark for a conscious creature) and some other “lower” animal (whom we are skeptical of as to whether they experience the emotion of pain). Surely the repertoire of responses of a human being under physical distress would far outweigh that of a dog, if we assumed that the dog was absolved of the qualia of pain. Strangely enough, the empirical responses are supremely similar. Humans signal pain (screaming), for (apparent) detection by other conscious creatures. So do dogs (who hasn’t heard of a dog howling in pain, looking at the man who hits it?). Human beings struggle and try to physically “break away” from painful stimulus. So do dogs. Humans attempt to attack the destructive source if they recognize it as another living creature that can be disabled. So do dogs.  Human beings modulate their pain reaction depending on the degree of destruction that is enforced on them (e.g. a slap might cause a small scream, but a blow from a hammer on one’s fingers would surely produce a bloodcurdling yell). There is a similar range of pain signaling in dogs (anyone who wants to purposefully experiment on these lines, please don’t. There are enough recorded chance observations of animals under duress to draw perfectly scientific conclusions).

So the skeptic might ask, “why are we talking about dogs, when we were originally speaking of Crabs or even primitive replicators in the primordial oceans?” Well, the answer is obvious; we are using the human/dog comparison to simply show that one can at least make a circumstantial case for the apparent “commonality” in pain-behavior between two present day mammalian species. It is the first common-sense inkling that there is a qualia that is experienced by both species that came from a preceding common genetic ancestor, and that the physical mechanism for producing it is well ingrained in their inherited genes. The only intuition we impose is to turn the clock back on this scenario, to very primitive life, and to put the spotlight on “pain-reaction research”.

Another common objection that one can anticipate is the question “but we don’t know if dogs experience pain, right?”. Well we don’t, we can only infer from its behavior that its conscious, exactly as we can infer from the behavior of other human beings, that they experience qualia. Its not within the scope of this article to talk about the tests for consciousness, but suffice to say that to this day there is no concrete “black-box” experiment to “prove 100%” that we have a conscious being within the “box”. All we do is compare and empathize.

Yet another objection could be that we may simply have moved the understanding of the intermediate steps between organism and qualia back in evolutionary time, but that the same set of unknowns would raise their ugly head between the pre-qualia survival machine with its primitive motor-nervous system and the “pain driven machine”. Where does this qualia come from? This again is an easily deflected brickbat. Reducing the fundamental functional unit of qualia generation to that of a creature of Jellyfish (or possibly far lesser) complexity does profoundly change our approach to research. We no longer have to think about language and communication and we no longer are weighted by the complexity of 100-billion neurons each with seven thousand synaptic connections to other neurons – i.e. weighted by the human brain. There would still be immense complexity (and very likely physical principles that are unknown at the present day) behind the experience of qualia, at both a molecular and cellular level, but it would at least be mathematically less daunting than dealing with complexity at the scale of the human brain. Just the admittance of this possibility would be a huge step forward in consciousness research.

Footnotes:

1. I use the word predatory here in a rather primitive context; I’m talking about replicators that had evolved to fuse into their own molecular structure, the substructures of other replicator molecules during chance physical encounters (literally knocking together). I’m not talking about an animal with a complex nervous system making a calculated (conscious or otherwise) grab at another complex being to absorb its substructures (e.g. proteins) like a leopard eating a deer, or me eating that cooked crab!

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