We’re coming up on the end of the month, so time to produce my essay for the book club reading. This month, it was Peter Watts’ Blindsight, a hard SF tale of first contact asking us to question our assumptions on sentience, self-awareness, and consciousness. I’m afraid my essay goes a little long this time.
Not Fade Away
Blindsight asks: “What if consciousness was not nearly as important as we think it is — was just a blip, a temporary artefact in our evolution?” While it is a useful exercise, I contend that it remains a thought exercise.
1. The shifts toward consciousness and self-awareness happens relatively far back in our ancestry, at least as far as mammals’ branching out from the family tree of life on Earth. We’re quite familiar with the fact that mammals (and even birds, reptiles and fish in a more limited way) exhibit individual personality and rudimentary partitioning of me/not me.
2. Self-awareness could conceivably be a by-product in evolution, but it would only evolve out if it was a detrimental trait in propagating genetic material. The fact that it has survived and developed suggests that it was at least neutral but closely correlated with a beneficial feature, and more likely a beneficial feature in itself.
3. To evolve out of a species like ours, self-awareness would also have to overcome culture, since at this point culture has modified our response to environmental pressure.
4. In a species without self-awareness, it’s not clear what would be the drive to technology and space travel. Or would the concept require “self” as a necessary but temporary phase?
5. There is little evidence so far of a long-term move away from self or from self-awareness in human evolution or culture. In fact, the pressure toward conformity to group norms and identity seems in many ways to decrease in modern societies, with a greater range of individual behaviours and expressions gaining acceptance.
Dawkins, Richard. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth.
Downey, Greg. 2013. Becoming Human: How Evolution Made Us.
Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will.
— . 2010. The Moral Landscape.
Illustration: Concept art by Sparth (Nicolas Bouvier) for the French edition of Blindsight (published by Univers Poche).)