Thursday, November 26, 2009

comparative awareness

Today I was thinking about evolutionary psychology, which seems not too far removed from the philosophy and theory of mind. It all began late last night, when I read that pulmonate snails and vetigastropod snails are less closely related to each other than I am to a goldfish. Talk about a shift in perspective!

It is common knowledge that experiments with lab mice are useful to understanding basic physiological processes that humans and mice share in common, and thankfully there are quite a few of those (or the experiments would be far less useful).  It is an unavoidable conclusion that if I am so closely related to goldfish, I am surely much more closely related to mice. Yet obviously mice and humans are very different. But what constitutes that difference? I think it is the more developed neural circuitry and complex behavior that most distinguishes me from a goldfish or mouse, more so than any anatomically evolved traits. In other words, whether or not I can formulate the thoughts for making this blog entry is more significant than whether I have hands or I am covered in gold scales and live in a fishbowl. To the point: If complex behavior distinguishes me from a goldfish better than physical form, perhaps it is a more useful tool for distinguishing animals.

Is it possible to quantifiably compare the mental experiences of two different organisms? Is thought a scalable function, and does each conscious being fall somewhere on a "continuum of thinking"? Is there an "evolution of thought" describable with a "taxonomy of mind"? Does it make sense to talk about a classification of awareness or neural functioning within the context of evolutionary psychology? I don't have an answer to any of these potentially illuminating questions.  In the final assessment, this chain of speculation may be a dead end, as speaking of conscious thought may have little utility outside of a handful of organisms, and even among those it may only have marginal utility.  Evolutionary psychology is a field of study originally concerned with humans and our immediate ancestry, not much else.  Consider this entry by PZ Myers on the relative insignificance of intelligence from a biological perspective. 

A few days ago I was pondering "What does it mean to be a father? How does that position shape my understanding of myself and my relationship to everything else?" From an evolutionary psychology perspective, this is a developmental question. I became a father after first being a child, and this question would have made little sense to me 20 years ago, but today it is very relevant and influences my conscious understanding of the world. As I grow older this understanding will continue to be informed and shaped by new and changing conditions, forcing me to grow and adapt. Conscious thought is so maleable and fragile, any approach at placing it within a taxonomic system would have to be very different from classification techniques based on physiological and genetic markers.

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