The Evolution of Consciousness
By Aja Govinda Dasa
Although Darwin was right in proposing a process of evolution, he was wrong about what was evolving.
Consciousness, or awareness in the simplest sense, is not a characteristic of humans alone. Take dogs, for instance. Not only can they sense their surroundings (through smells, sounds, sights, tastes, etc.), but they can also recognize places, odors, flavors, and sounds. One might argue that even machines can sense with detectors, so what differentiates them from a dog? A dog can experience pain, fear, anger, comfort, excitement, and so on, whereas a nonliving machine cannot. All mammals, vertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, aquatics, and so forth, are conscious, even though what they sense may differ for individual species. Dolphins and bats navigate with sonar; snakes and some nocturnal animals see with infrared vision; sharks and some other fish sense electricity. No matter how varied their sensations, they all share the faculty of consciousness.
What about insects? If you block an insect’s path, it will turn around. Or if it senses danger, it may run to safety or bite as an act of self-defense. So the instinct of survival is present. But this alone does not suffice as a differentiating attribute of conscious, because even a robot could be programmed to avoid certain dangers. But a robot does not have desire, whereas the insect desires to live. It desires to survive.
Are microorganisms—bacteria and single-celled creatures—conscious? They can move in response to stimuli such as light and chemical changes in their environment. Now, even a robot could reposition itself just as a bacterium does in response to external stimulus, but the difference here is that the robot is itself only a nonliving system controlled by a living person, either manually or through code written by a programmer. But who controls the motions of a bacterium? Who decides how a bacterium will rotate its flagellum?
Instinct is the one-word answer that comes to mind. Some geneticists say that the organism's inborn patterns of behavior, or its unlearned and inherited fixed-action patterns, are encoded in its DNA. In this sense, the organism, a biochemical system embedded with DNA code, is just the biological counterpart of the robot, a silicon-based machine programmed with a computer language. But just as no robot, computer, or machine can function without a living person's commanding it, the bacterium, a biochemical machine, cannot function without a living being controlling it.
Now the skeptic may challenge, "The bacterium is living by itself. There is no need for a separate living being to control it." This rebuttal is based on a mechanistic theory that reduces the life of an organism to its internal biochemical reactions. Srila Prabhupada responded by pointing out that if life is just a result of chemical reactions, then scientists should be able to create it in the laboratory, but no scientist can claim to have created even one living cell.
Atma: The Source of Life
Every organism is alive only because of the soul dwelling within it. To the skeptical, belief in a soul sounds superstitious. But occurrences documented by medical practitioners suggest its validity. In his book Light and Death, cardiologist Dr. Michael Sabom reports the surgery of Pam Reynolds, a patient suffering from an aneurysm (a sack-like widening of an artery) in her brain stem that was on the verge of rupture, which could be fatal. Since the aneurysm was at the base of Pam's brain, her surgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler, director of Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, had to drain all the blood from her brain to flatten the brainwaves and stop her heartbeat and breathing. Pam was clinically dead during the surgery. After the successful operation, however, she could recollect exact conversations among the surgeons and accurate descriptions of medical instruments (only uncovered after the patient is anaesthetized) used in her surgery, during which she was supposed to be unconscious. During the operation, Pam could see her body from above; she was floating outside her body, so to speak. This and several other documented near-death and out-of-body accounts suggest the existence of the soul, the spirit particle, as a metaphysical being that is the actual source of consciousness.
According to the Bhagavad-gita, a spirit soul resides within each living organism. The spirit soul, or atma in Sanskrit, is the source of consciousness. The spirit soul enters a body at conception and departs at death, transmigrating to a new body arranged by the laws of nature according to the soul's desires and past deeds. During this cycle of birth and death (or reincarnation), the soul can travel to lower or higher forms of life. But the further down the atma travels in the ladder of life forms, the more dormant the consciousness, and thus the less the symptoms of consciousness are exhibited. So even though each bacterium is possessed by a spirit soul, the soul's presence is not as evident as it is in mammals and other advanced species.
Development of Consciousness
Most biologists will tell you that the vast disparity in levels of consciousness in species is a result of evolution. They say that awareness and conscious experience evolved from rudimentary perception in the first life forms as multi-cellular organisms developed more sophisticated biological sensors. Cells developed sensors for detecting changes in the light and chemistry of the environment and further combined to form sensory organs for detecting visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. To process this data and define the organism’s feedback or response to a stimulus, nervous systems came into being. Central nervous systems offered the organism an integrated perception of its surroundings. As brains evolved, consciousness expanded. The limbic system developed to store memories of behaviors that resulted in agreeable and disagreeable experiences, thus allowing the animal to “learn” not to repeat an action that had adverse consequences.
Thus the development of the cerebral cortex aided not only sensory perception, but also higher cognitive functions such as memory, location, orientation, and motion. For example, predators chasing prey recognize the visual form of their kill; higher developed mammals can pay attention; dogs can look you straight in the eye and can show intention.
The cortex in more developed species grew in complexity to include reasoning and communication. Though some aquatics, birds, insects, and other animals can communicate with sounds of different frequencies, the much more highly developed species of primates can use symbols. Chimps and gorillas can’t speak because of restricted tongue motion and lack of a larynx, or voice box, but they have the potential to learn words and compose sentences in sign language.
The Vedic version agrees with modern evolutionary biology in that there are various species and life forms, some more developed than others. But the succession in these species is not a chronological development. There is no hard evidence to suggest that one life form evolved from another over millions of years. The "evolutionary jumps" of complexity (from lower to higher states of development) are unsubstantiated speculations. Darwinists put forth the fossil record to uphold their theory of gradual development of unique species through variation and natural selection. But the fossil record has many missing links, or evidence of transitional or intermediary life forms bridging the gaps between known species. The late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould admitted this to be “the trade secret of paleontology.” In a paper entitled “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” published in the journal Natural History, he acknowledged, “The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.”
Also, as reported by researchers Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson in their book Forbidden Archeology, the fossil record is riddled with anomalies that don’t fit Darwinian evolution. For example, dinosaur and human footprints have been found in the same strata, and some excavated artifacts date humans back millions of years.
Charles Darwin himself stated in his book On the Origin of Species, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been produced by numerous, successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Biochemist Michael Behe has pointed to irreducibly complex biological systems, such as bacterial flagella (which act as propellers) and cilia (biological sensory antennae). Neither of these could have been the products of gradual evolution because “the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.” (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Behe 1996). Additionally, Darwinists have never been able to convincingly explain how complex cell machinery developed, nor have they experimentally demonstrated the origin of the first living cell from inanimate matter.
The battle between creationists and evolutionists has been going on for a long time. In the writings of early Indian scholars, one can find the precursor to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Svabhava-vada is the philosophy that the cosmos, geological formations, life, and all the biological variety in species occurred naturally without a Creator. Indian theologians contested this theory, arguing that order and design cannot be byproducts of chaos, life could not have originated from inert matter, and chance could not have directed the formation of complex life forms.
The Evolutionary Journey
In modern times Charles Darwin is regarded as the scientist who formulated a theory of evolution by natural selection, but the concept of evolution was known long before Darwin. Srila Prabhupada writes, "Although Westerners accept that Darwin first expounded the doctrine of evolution, the science of anthropology is not new. The development of the evolutionary process was known long before from the Bhagavatam, which was written five thousand years ago." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.29.29, Purport).
Although we followers of the Bhagavata school (devotees of Krishna) do not accept Darwin’s account, we do accept evolution—but there’s a catch. According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, one species does not evolve into another, but rather the soul evolves in consciousness as it transmigrates from lower to higher forms of existence in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In the material realm the soul begins its journey in a human body. Material desires and subsequent actions result in the soul’s being born in a species that fits its mentality. If the soul falls to a lower species, it then takes successive births in species with higher and higher states of consciousness. This is the process of transmigration. As Srila Prabhupada said, "Darwin's theory of evolution is but a partial explanation of the transmigration of the soul. Darwin has … no conception of the soul." (The Science of Self Realization)
Here it is necessary to define the Bhagavata concept of species or life form: It is not biological, but rather refers to a state of consciousness. For example, living entities in lower life forms such as plants, corals, sponges, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and starfish are just barely aware of their external surroundings. Motile species such as fish, insects, birds, and animals are more aware of their surroundings, with more developed sense perception. As the soul moves up the ladder of evolution, it becomes more and more aware, until it reaches the human life. As Srila Prabhupada puts it succinctly: "The evolutionary process of different types of bodies is something like that of a fructifying flower. Just as there are different stages in the growth of a flower—the bud stage, the blooming stage, and the full-fledged, fully grown stage of aroma and beauty—there are 8,400,000 species of bodies in gradual evolution, and there is systematic progress from the lower species of life to the higher." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.31.19, Purport).
Why So Many Life Forms?
According to the Vedas, God is the genius behind all the species of life. The variety we find in the natural world is His artistry.
But what is the purpose of so many life forms? They are different vehicles for the soul to enjoy with. For example, if someone enjoys eating flesh, a tiger’s teeth and claws are most suitable. If someone wishes to fly, wings are just the thing. And what better way to fulfill the desire of someone who loves diving and swimming than having an aquatic form equipped with fins and gills? Similarly, a snake body is suitable for persons bubbling with anger and envy.
The soul can either devolve to lower or evolve to higher levels of consciousness. Souls transmigrate into bodies suitable for their mentality. God is the loving father of all living beings, and He allows them to enjoy (within the limits of what they deserve) in different life forms according to their desires. When a soul falls down to a lower species to enjoy in a certain life form, it evolves back up the ladder of the millions of nonhuman species. It does this by quitting the body of the previous species to enter the body of the next higher species—on and on until it regains the human body.
The public's fascination with superheroes suggests that we fantasize about overcoming our human limits and transmuting into a superhuman species. We wonder whether Homo Sapiens will be the end of evolution. Scholars such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo conceived of evolution as driven toward a certain destination or culmination. Chardin called it the Omega Point, the highest level of consciousness towards which the universe evolves; for Sri Aurobindo, it was “life divine.” As Sri Aurobindo said, “Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth's evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of Nature's process.”
But according to the Vedas, this last transition or evolution is not biological, but rather a spiritual awakening or freeing of the entrapped soul from its coverings of ignorance and an unleashing of the dormant powers of spirit: eternity, knowledge, and bliss. This evolution is possible only for humans, not animals.
Animals are conscious, but humans are conscious of being conscious. Humans can inquire. This is the special prerogative of human life. Once the soul evolves back up to the human form, it gains the one special chance for achieving complete freedom from the pains of this mortal world and realizing its original nature as the beloved of God. That can be achieved by performing devotional service to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.6.1) the boy saint Prahlada instructs all humanity: “The human body is most rarely achieved, and although temporary like other bodies, it is meaningful because in human life one can perform devotional service. Even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give one complete perfection.”