After 14.5 billion years of evolution, the greatest achievement of the universe is the arrangement of lifeless atoms inside conscious living beings that are able to reflect on it's own existence, origin and meaning. We, my dear friends, are the pinnacle of a 14.5 billion year experiment.
But... that's cheating and jumping ahead. It's cheating because it's technically wrong to include the 11 billion years without life that we know of, in the term "evolution"; we tend to reserve that word to describe the development of the wide variety of species on our planet in a process of natural selection that operates by small mutations over vast periods of time transmitted over generations by genes. Or something like that :-) Evolution theory explains how all forms of life on earth have evolved from a single cell common ancestor.
It says nothing about how that first tiny life-form came into existence; contrary to what many people believe, evolution theory only makes it highly plausible that the first strands of RNA could have formed by chance. The necessary chemicals being present in that famous primordial soup.
Alexander Oparin first postulated his theory in Russian in 1924 in a small pamphlet titled Proiskhozhdenie Zhizny (The Origin of Life). According to Oparin, the primitive Earth's surface had a thick red-hot liquid, composed of heavy elements such as carbon (in the form of iron carbide). This nucleus was surrounded by lightest elements, i.e. gases, such as hydrogen. In the presence of water vapour, carbides reacted with hydrogen to form hydrocarbons. Such hydrocarbons were the first organic molecules. These further combined with oxygen and ammonia to produce hydroxy- and amino-derivatives, such as carbohydrates and proteins. These molecules accumulated on the ocean's surface, becoming gel-like substances and growing in size. They gave rise to primitive organisms (cells). In his original theory, Oparin considered oxygen as one of the primordial gases; thus the primordial atmosphere was an oxidising one. However, when he elaborated his theory in 1936 (in a book by the same title, and translated into English in 1938), he modified the chemical composition of the primordial environment as strictly reducing, consisting of methane, ammonia, free hydrogen and water vapour—excluding oxygen.
The fact that oxygen was removed from the contents of this pre-biotic soup has strengthened the theories that life might have formed first near hydrothermal vents on the ocean's floor rather than at its surface. But this isn't science yet; evolution theory only deals with the developments after that, how single celled organisms organized into more complex ones, how they split of in stationary plant-life without nervous-systems and animal life that moves and developed ever more complex main processors to navigate ever more complex bodies through reality.
Why develop movement? The answer is always the genes; everything life develops is always aimed at the goal of getting genes into the next generation as to ensure the best chance for the species' survival. Then we can simply say that movement evolved to get the organism that carries the genes away from what's not in the interest of survival, and towards what is in the interest of its survival. The ability to see would have evolved for exactly the same reason. Living and moving organisms develop behavior, instinctual at first, with survival and reproduction into the next generation in "mind". I put "mind" between quotation-marks here because I don't want to imply in any way that there's "intent" with evolution. There's no "design" nor a "designer"; we're not creationists here ;-)
Moving, seeing, hearing and the drive to survive long enough to reproduce, all this gives rise to behavior seen in the seeking out and moving to and mating with a partner to reproduce, the fleeing at the sight of a mortal enemy in the food-chain in order to survive, the protecting of ones offspring as to assure the survival of the genes they carry with them. Nature and its creatures have developed warning systems to flee and seduction to attract. And step away from strictly animal genes for a moment: a red apple looks delicious in the mind of a passing mammal. Its sweet taste is equally alluring and also a sign that the round red thing isn't poisonous. That's yet another feature of nature's ingenious signal-system: poisonous plants are usually bitter or acid tasting, while edible plants and fruits are usually sweet. Now you know why little kids like candy so much and why they don't want to finish their vegetables ;-)
But what you should take away from all that, is that nature has evolved into this wonderful place where simple beauty and primal fear play this complicated harmonious masterpiece in which each note works in favor of each other note's existence; the species even work for the propagation of other species' genes. Because after that apple is consumed, its seeds are deposited somewhere else and a new apple-tree is potentially born. This is also the time and place where emotions are born; love to move towards the opposite sex (generally speaking :-)), a sense of happiness when eating sweet fruits, and fear to induce the essential running away from danger, and anger when seeing offspring's life threatened, sadness when one of them dies...
This is consciousness. The awareness of the surrounding environment as depicted in the mind's eye, the ability to feel emotions in response to changes in that environment that have an impact on the ones that carry similar genes, and especially the ones within the family or the tribe, and of course an awareness of a self that navigates the external world as an independent agent that tries to survive and reproduce. But evolution went a step further; we got that little extra development added to our central processing unit, and we call it the neocortex. Now mind you, we're not the only mammals with a neocortex. It's just that we have the best developed one, and we have therefore the ability to reason. We can extrapolate, imagine possible futures by understanding how past events have resulted in the current situation, how our own actions contributed to those events, and what new actions are likely to result in a perceived change, a wanted result.
From this we've developed religion to explain what we could not yet understand by applying reason and logic to the stuff we saw happen in nature. God is often called the "God of the Gaps", meaning that some sort of higher being is invoked when we don't understand something, to fill the gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Because evolution theory says nothing about how life began, and because the big bang theory at least confirms the Biblical notion of there being a beginning to everything, these sciences are largely accepted by a lot of religions and religious people. Thank God for that ;-) The ability to reason has largely increased the ability for our species to survive into the next generation; we are in many ways the most successful species on the planet, or even in the universe as far as we know.
Now, don't let this dry and rather materialistic narrative of the origin (not exact, I know, maybe there are evolutionary biologists in the audience that can pinpoint it better?) of consciousness diminish your sense of wonder about our existence. I think it's an almost spiritual experience when you really think about how we came to be. We're stardust, our atoms come from exploded stars. But our consciousness, our mind, is what gives meaning to the universe that spawned us. And if we define "reality" as whatever is out there regardless of our individual perspective on that reality, we can safely assume that one individual mind can never know the whole truth about that reality.
And if you've read carefully, you realize that all the above doesn't contradict or negate the possibility of there being a universal consciousness that exists at least partially independent from us or other biological life. Maybe it is true that evolution has been going on for 14.5 billion years, and maybe the universe evolved towards the evolving of life to create as much different perspectives on itself as possible, thereby learning about itself, discovering itself through life. There's definitely a strong correlation between the material brain and consciousness, but that doesn't prove or guarantee that the brain causes consciousness. Maybe brains act like an antenna; consciousness is out there and we receive our tiny part of it. Something like the signal between cellphones: the broadcast is sent everywhere, but only the one the cellphone the message is intended for rings somewhere else on the planet. Maybe we receive our part of a universal consciousness in that way...
We simply don't know. Maybe we'll never know. What is "knowing" anyway? It's the state of being convinced of something. So something, or more often someone, has made you believe something so strongly that it is the only way in your mind the world makes sense. And if everyone believes something we call it "fact", then it's "true". But believe is all we can do, and some things we believe so strongly that we're convinced that it's the truth. Science has brought us to a point where we can't even be sure if reality as we see it even exists; maybe we're part of a simulation, or a hologram. Maybe consciousness is an inherent yet undiscovered property of the universe...
The funny thing is that consciousness is the only thing anyone can ever be sure of. The only thing that's real is experience, as we're sure we experience things and we can be fairly sure that other living creatures also experience reality in one way or another; they all provide a tiny slither of a perspective on the whole of all there is. And our mind, our consciousness is the tool that makes us experience whatever reality exists. Therefore consciousness exists to make us aware of existence. Or to make existence aware of itself through us. Or both. It's a miracle either way.
The War on Consciousness - Graham Hancock
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