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Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim With Ockham's Razor

Part III: The Emergence of Consciousness
Over the Course of Evolution

Don Salmon

This is a collection of excerpts from a book by Jan (my wife) and me which explored Sri Aurobindo's Integral Psychology, "Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity". The previous two essays in this series examined first, the controversy regarding the idea of direction or progress in evolution, and second, the remarkable parallel between the way that consciousness unfolds or becomes more complex over the course of evolutionary history, and the way that consciousness unfolds over the course of several hundred milliseconds, from moment, to moment to moment... The book excerpts presented here, regarding the emergence of consciousness in plants and animals, should not be taken as (necessarily) implying that the data of evolutionary biology "proves" any kind of direction or worse, 'progress' in evolution. Rather, the data from evolutionary biology is simply being presented starting with the least complex and moving on toward the most complex. Whether this suggests the working of any kind of "quasi mystical" force or is merely the result of a "blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos"[1] is left for the reader to decide.]

(note—for some background context while reading this article, please see "Providing a Context for the Trimming of Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View", over at the Integral World Forum. Information regarding plant and animal consciousness was taken from many sources; the most helpful were neuropsychologist Merlin Donald's "A Mind So Rare", particularly his chapter, "The Consciousness Club"; anthropologist Jeremy Narby's "Intelligence in Nature"; zoologist Donald Griffin's "Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness" and neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson's "Consciousness")

The Emergence of Consciousness in Animals over the Course of Evolution

I. When did consciousness first appear?

Some say consciousness was there at the beginning, and exists throughout the universe. Physicist Freeman Dyson, describing the mysterious discoveries of quantum physics, writes "[a]toms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom."[2] In contrast, others like psychologist Susan Blackmore and philosopher Paul Churchland advise us to be realistic and face the fact that consciousness does not really exist anywhere, that it is nothing more than a word that describes a particular activity of the brain. Apart from these two extremes, most scientists agree that consciousness does in fact exist, but disagree about when it first appeared. In the last decade, as scientists have had access to more sophisticated tools for investigating intelligence, it has become possible to detect intelligent behavior much earlier in the evolutionary chain.

II. The Emergence of Simple Sensing

All four functions of the mental consciousness described [in Part II of this series—sensing, perception, understanding and volition] are active throughout the course of animal evolution. However, in the most primitive animals... such as amoebae and bacteria there is [at most] a rudimentary capacity to register external stimuli (simple sensing, the first mental function) and will move toward or away from an object depending on whether it is harmful or beneficial. They cannot integrate what they sense into a perception, (the second mental function) as more complex animals can do. Neither can they learn or adapt (the functions of understanding and volition) beyond what they are genetically programmed to do.

However, some scientists are coming to see there is more going on in the behavior of bacteria than can be accounted for by their nearly somnambulant surface consciousness. In rather colorful language, Howard Bloom here summarizes the findings of Israeli physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob. Describing groups of bacteria, Bloom writes that they can

invent a new instruction set with which to beat an unfamiliar challenge. Some [members of a colony of bacteria] feel out the new environment, learning all they can. Others 'puzzle' over the genome like race-car designers tinkering with an engine whose power they are determined to increase. Yet others collect the incoming 'ideas' passed along by their sisters and work together to alter the use of existing genetic parts or to turn them into something new.[3]

What does it mean to say these primitive creatures "puzzle" over the genome or "collect" incoming ideas? From a scientific perspective, how is this possible when animal psychologists tell us that bacteria—creatures who possess no brain of any kind—experience the world as little more than a blur of vibrations of heat and light? [in our yoga psychology book, we offer an answer to this question from a yogic perspective; in the interest of metaphysical neutrality, I'll leave this unanswered for now—if you're interested, scientists like Lynn Margulis offer some interesting possible answers]...

Consciousness in plants and single-cell organisms: Some more examples of (relatively) simple consciousness

According to Anthony Trewavas, professor of biology at the University of Edinburgh, "plants have senses and can detect a wide variety of external variables, such as light, water, temperature, chemicals, vibrations, gravity, and sounds. They can also react to these factors by changing the way they grow. Plants can forage and compete with one another for resources. When attacked by herbivores, some plants signal for help, releasing chemicals that attract their assailants' predators. Plants can detect distress signals let off by other plant species and take preventive measures. They can assimilate information and respond on the whole-plant level. And they use cell-to-cell communication based on molecular and electrical signals, some of which are remarkably similar to those used by our own neurons. When a plant is damaged, its cells send one another electrical signals just like our own pain messages."[4]

Trewavas does not claim that plants can think or have anything resembling human self-awareness. However, he does consider these facts about plants to be a clear demonstration that they are sentient and respond intelligently to what they sense.

Toshiyuki Nakagaki is an associate professor of biology at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. In articles such as "Amoeboid Organisms May Be More Clever Than We Had Thought", Nakagaki describes some remarkable abilities in the organism known as the "true slime mold"—a creature formed by the merging together of thousands of amoebae into a single cell. Though it does not have eyes or a nervous system, it is able to "move, navigate and avoid obstacles. [It] can also sense food at a distance and head unerringly toward it."[5]

When researchers place separate pieces of a true slime mold into a maze, the pieces rejoin to form a single organism that spreads out into every corridor of the maze, covering all the available space. "[W]hen food is placed at the start and end points of the maze, the slime mold withdraws from the dead-end corridors and shrinks its body to a tube spanning the shortest path between food sources ...[and it] solves the maze in this way each time it is tested." Nakagaki and his collaborators conclude "[t]his remarkable process of cellular computation implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence."[6]

III. The Emergence of More Complex Consciousness

As consciousness evolves, the organism becomes capable of distinguishing more of the world. That is, it knows more of the world, has a wider range of feeling about it, and a wider array of responses to it. This progression ranges from the slime mold's extremely limited registration of external stimuli, to the sea anemone's ability to recognize distinguishable patterns, the bee's capacity to "understand" some simple relationships between those patterns, the lizard's ability to define a particular territory, and the crow's capacity to engage in complex problem-solving within and around its territory.

Whatever the nature of the primitive intelligence Nakagaki identified in a single-celled organism, the way in which it experiences the world would be unimaginable to us. What kind of consciousness could one possibly ascribe to such a primitive creature? At best, we might imagine its experience to be little more than the faintest blur. It has no sense organs, yet is able in some way to detect the presence of food, indicating it has a primitive "knowing" of its environment. The fact that it was able to determine that the substance was desirable is thought to indicate the presence of a primitive form of "feeling." Its response to the food—arranging itself to optimally obtain it—reflects a primitive form of "willing."

What began as a faint glimmer of knowing in the most primitive creatures was greatly enhanced in early multi-cellular organisms by the emergence of primitive sense organs. The dim blurry world of the true slime mold became a world of distinguishable patterns. The senses of a sea anemone living in a rock pool, for example, are stimulated by certain patterns in its environment. In response to these patterns the anemone registers a "feeling"—slightly more differentiated than in the slime mold—that is positive, negative or neutral depending on whether the pattern is perceived as friendly, unfriendly or irrelevant to its survival. If the pattern signifies food, in a primitive act of "will" it will grab at it; if it signifies a threat, it will attack or retreat. These responses are even subject to a primitive form of learning known as habituation. For example, if you gently tap a tentacle, the anemone will initially withdraw. If however, repeated taps prove to be harmless, it will cease to respond.

In multi-cellular creatures, the specialized sensory cells developed into sense organs. A primitive nervous system emerged which could coordinate the information taken in by the various senses and a more complex external world of hue and shape began to emerge on the canvas of consciousness. The more complex capacities for knowing, willing and feeling that accompanied these changes are evident in [insects such as the spider the honeybee].

With insects there is an enhanced capacity to manipulate the environment. This comes as a result of the greater development in their surface consciousness of the first mental function of sensation. The spider, for example, is capable of making a crude mental map of its environment and using it as an aid for hunting prey. Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald recounts that

[The jumping spider] will often "ambush" a potential quarry. Having spotted its prey perched on a flower stem, it will move away from it, rather than toward it, drop to the ground, and climb up the other side of the plant, out of sight of its victim. It will then approach it stealthily, always from behind, and, once close, suddenly attack.[7]

In spite of this advance in behavioral complexity, the spider is limited to actions which are controlled by genetic mechanisms. Beyond its genetically programmed activity, the spider's awareness of the environment and its capacity to adapt are extremely limited. According to Donald:

It seems blissfully unaware of the most significant objects in the larger environment. It goes on weaving webs and ambushing anything that resembles a prey, no matter where it is. It shows no signs of adapting its behavior to the larger scenarios that might be imposed by a wider world. The spider's world is tiny, restricted to a small number of players and situations. It misses any feature that might demand significant... capacities to perceive or remember.[8]

[Increased capacities for knowing, willing and feeling are also evident in the "waggle dance" of the honeybee.] In the course of its search for nourishment, when a bee sees a patch of flowers that promises to be a rich source of nutrients, it will retrace its route several times in order to memorize the location. Returning to the hive, it performs a complex series of movements that has come to be known as the "waggle dance." Moving in the form of a figure eight, "its orientation indicates the direction of [the] find relative to the position of the sun. The speed of her movement, the number of times she repeats it, and the fervor of her noisy waggling indicate the richness of the food source."[9] The observing bees assess the intensity of her movements and thus discern the relative value of her find.

YouTube video: Bee dance (waggle dance)

[This video could not be included on this webpage,
so please click the link and go to YouTube]

In this ritual, the bees demonstrate several acts of knowing which include judgment, memory, and the performance of some fairly complex calculations. Both the ability of the dancing bee to perform her highly detailed movements, and the concentration required of her audience, indicate a more highly developed capacity for willing than that of either the sea anemone or slime mold. Scientists have not yet developed techniques or technology for distinguishing levels of complexity of feeling between creatures as primitive as the slime mold, sea anemone and bee. However, assuming that consciousness evolves in an integral fashion, it seems likely that whatever level of feeling is present is to some extent commensurate with the bees' capacity for knowing and willing.

Though impressive, this ritual dance is largely instinctive. The bees' capacity for learning is limited, and their response patterns can be quite inflexible. For example, "if placed in a maze with a glass cover, they perform as well as rats up to the point of reaching the food reward, but they are incapable of turning around and going back to where they have come from. Once bees eat, they are rigidly programmed to fly upward,"[10] and will thus remain trapped in the maze.

Amphibians and Reptiles

In amphibians and reptiles, there is still more of the previously hidden mind active on the surface, enabling these creatures to "synthesize their sensations into a complex perception... [however, frogs are only able to perceive a limited range of objects—they] are designed to detect bugs, but not cows, oak trees or Chevy Malibus."[11] The frog can also respond to more complex events

within a limited framework. This is evident in their very complex mating rituals, in which they must recognize not only their own kind but also the correct forms of the ritual itself.... They can deal with serious complexity in finding food, building nests, defending territory, hiding from predators, finding escape routes, and so on.[12]

With the appearance of reptiles, we see a further development of knowing, willing and feeling. The reptile can process sensory information in more complex ways than either the sea anemone or bee. A lizard, for example, can "understand" the notion of territory, and engage in behaviors such as defining, patrolling and defending that territory against trespassers. The world it experiences is somewhat richer by virtue of the primitive feelings of safety, anger, fear and competitiveness associated with its knowing of a territory, and its activities related to that knowing. While these behaviors are instinctive and automatic, the lizard's larger repertoire of responses represents a further complexity of will.

[Still, even with the] additional capacity for the perception of objects and events, the amphibian and reptile, like the insect, remain relatively inflexible... These organisms "are designed to carry out certain specialized operations with great efficiency. But they cannot move beyond this and adapt to novel situations."[13] ...Relying almost exclusively on the functions of sensing and perceiving to construct their experienced world, their mind has no capacity to step out of that construction. Consequently, their behavior patterns remain limited and largely repetitive in nature.

IV: Birds and Mammals: The Emergence of More Complex Understanding (Knowing) and Volition (Willing)

With birds and mammals, the functions of understanding and volition (the thinking mind) begin to emerge. These functions allow them to step out of their constructed world and relate to it in more flexible and creative ways. The new capacity of imagination... now becomes available. Combined with the ability to make complex mental maps of their environment, these animals are capable of solving problems that would confound a more primitive mind.

...The capacity for selective attention—i.e., the ability to intentionally focus on a particular facet of the environment—also emerges in birds and mammals. The extraordinary patience of a cat waiting with unwavering attention at a mousehole is the envy of many a meditator aspiring to be present in the moment, undistracted by thought. Merlin Donald here describes the remarkable capacity for vigilance that can be seen in various predators: "There might be no immediate evidence of prey around them when they start, but they initiate their vigil autonomously of their environment because they harbor expectations. Hunting wolves can track a specific prey for long distances... often in the face of many potential distractors."[14] The consciousness of a cat or wolf actively focusing its attention is quite different from that of the spider waiting passively until his instinct is triggered by the appearance of a potential prey...

As a result of these new capacities, mammals and birds are more adaptable in a wider array of circumstances. For example, Merlin Donald notes that, "Raccoons are fiendishly clever at surviving in an urban environment and obviously carry around elaborate cognitive maps of entire neighborhoods. The locations of sources of food, and places of danger and safety are noted and stored for future use."[15] Some mammals are able to apply their sophisticated problem-solving abilities to anticipate the behavior of others. For example, one group of young elephants living in captivity on an African plantation stuffed mud into the bells they wore around their necks. This prevented the bells from ringing, allowing the elephants to sneak into nearby banana groves and steal bananas without being detected by the plantation owner.[16]

With the appearance of mammals and birds, we see the emergence of more complex abilities for learning, memory and problem solving. While many may have observed these capacities in such familiar mammals as dogs, cats, or the neighborhood raccoon, it may be surprising to hear the extent to which birds demonstrate them as well. Several newspapers and magazines have recently carried the story of Japanese carrion crows who congregate at traffic intersections waiting for a red light. When the traffic stops, the crows fly down to the road to place walnuts they've gathered in front of the cars. When the light turns green, the cars move forward, cracking open the nuts. When the road is clear, the crows return to enjoy the feast.[17]

Perhaps less well known is the astonishing memory of one particular species of crow, the Clark's nutracker, who can remember as many as 30,000 hiding places for the seeds it gathers and buries. After burying the seeds, he then recovers them over the course of the next 11 months, using them as his primary diet during the winter... [18]

V: The Emergence of More Complex "Feeling"

...Along with greater capacities for knowing and willing came a greater capacity for feeling. Mammals have an increased ability to hold complex mental images of themselves and the environment than their reptile or insect predecessors. [predecessor in terms of less complex consciousness, not in terms of evolutionary succession] With a more clearly defined self-image, the animal can have more clearly defined feelings in response to the events in its environment.

The thinking mind also brings to mammals a greater capacity for memory, allowing them to anticipate future events and hold in mind, for hours or even days, images of events that occurred in the past. This makes possible a more complex and more enduring sense of themselves and a more complex world of objects, events and creatures to which they can respond with a wider variety of feelings and emotions. This sets the stage for a more coherent "story" of self and world to emerge. [a story that the mind constructs about the 'world' in which it lives]

Elephants, for example, have been known to mourn fellow elephants who have died. Joyce Poole, an expert in elephant behavior, "has seen elephants keeping vigil over their dead compatriots."[19] She describes the expression "on their faces, their eyes, their mouths, the way they carry their ears, their heads, and their bodies" as suggestive of what we would call grief. She also notes that "elephants have been observed to stop when walking past a place where a companion died—a silent pause that can last several minutes."[20] Such an emotion would not be possible without an enduring image of the deceased elephant and a memory of times past, which the thinking mind makes possible.

...With mammals and birds, as opposed to more primitive organisms, it becomes much easier to observe emotional reactions... Bernd Heinrich, professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, found a young horned owl buried in the snowfall of a late spring storm and nursed him back to health. For the following three summers, the owl, whom he named "Bubo," lived in the woods surrounding the professor's log cabin, choosing to spend time with him on a regular basis. (see One Man's Owl on

As Professor Heinrich described their interaction:

Bubo wakes me at 4:34 a.m. by drumming on the window beside my ear. He joins me for breakfast, sharing some of my pancake . . . He hops onto the back of my chair, making his friendly grunts while I caress his head, and he nibbles on my fingers endlessly... He plays rough, and so do I, but eventually he tires of it and lies down on my arms. Looking at the clock I see that we have played for one and a half hours... It is the many varied soft and hushed sounds that Bubo makes that I find most fascinating. I hear them only when I am next to him; they are his private sounds, reserved for intimacies... It is these intimate details that bond friendship and promote empathy and understanding, and you learn such things from wild animals by living with them.[21]

As is apparent in the story of Bubo, in more complex animals such as mammals, birds and primates, [there are various levels of feeling, from simple to complex].... For example, in the simple acts of play described below, we can intuit the sheer pleasure associated with vigorous movements, the [more complex] joy of mastering a game, as well as [highly complex] feelings of affiliation and affection for one's playmates.

According to Richard Carrington, elephants who have been trained to play cricket and soccer "play the game with the enthusiasm of boys... on the village green."[22] Journalist Laura Tangley[23] describes young dolphins who "routinely chase each other through the water like frolicsome puppies and have been observed riding the wakes of boats like surfers." Primatologist Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in Tanzania for four decades, tells of chimps who "chase, somersault, and pirouette around one another with the abandon of children."[24] In Colorado, biologist Mark Bekoff once watched an elk race back and forth across a patch of snow, leaping and twisting its body in midair on each pass—even though there was plenty of bare grass nearby on which he could have run. According to recent research, play serves to help young animals develop the skills they will need when full-grown. However, in Bekoff's opinion, there is no question that it's also fun, that "animals at play are symbols of the unfettered joy of life."[25]

British musicologist, Len Howard, in the course of more than ten years of studying birdsong, described the birds with whom she became intimately familiar as "distinct individuals who she could easily recognize and with whom she could form close friendships."[26] She found that even birds of the same species "can be distinguished because, like humans, they each have distinct movements, postures, emotions, behaviors, and personalities." According to psychologist Theodore Barber, individual birds act "with great flexibility... in choosing their mates, in building their nests, in protecting and teaching their young, in defending a territory, and in other activities that were assumed to be stereotyped or instinctual." They have been shown to be capable of forming "true friendships with birds of their own and other species and also with humans and other animals."

However, it is quite unusual to find an animal that can verbally articulate his feelings. Alex, an African Grey parrot trained for over 20 years by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, has a vocabulary of more than 100 words. As familiar as Dr. Pepperberg was with Alex's abilities, even she was startled one day when she dropped him off for an overnight stay at a veterinary hospital to have lung surgery. Apparently upset at being left in a strange place, Alex called to her as she was leaving, "Come here. I love you... Wanna go back..."[27]

YouTube video: this is "Einstein", not "Alex", but they might have been friends if they had a chance to meet.

NEXT: More about Alex—"That Damn Bird", in

Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim With Ockham's Razor:
Part IIIa: "That Damn Bird"—The Transition From Animal To Human Mind


[1] This comment was originally made by philosopher Daniel Dennett in reference to (what he sees as) the accidental arising of "laws of physics" but, I think, could be equally indicative of his outlook toward the idea of "purpose" or "progress" in evolution.

[2]Dyson, F., Gifford Lectures, at

[3] Bloom, H., Global Brain, p. 46,

[4] Darby, J., Intelligence in Nature, pp. 83-84.

[5] Ibid., p. 96.

[6] Ibid., p. 96.

[7] Donald, M., A Mind So Rare, pp. 114-115.

[8] Ibid. p. 115.

[9] Bloom, H., Global Brain, p. 36.

[10] Darby, J., Intelligence in Nature, p. 60.

[11] Ibid., p. 124.

[12] Ibid., p. 124.

[13] Ibid., p. 124.

[14] Donald, M., A Mind So Rare, p. 127

[15] Ibid., p. 125.

[16] See Fichtelius, K. E., Smarter Than Man?

[17] Blakeslee, S., Minds of Their Own.

[18] Darby, J., Intelligence in Nature, p. 159.

[19] See Poole, J., in Not So Dumbo, at

[20] Ibid.

[21] Heinrich, B., in Barber, T. X., Scientific Evidence that Birds are Aware, Intelligent and Astonishingly Like Humans: Implications and Future Research Directions, at

[22] Carrington, R., Theory of Mind and Insight in Chimpanzees, Elephants and other Animals? At

[23] Tangley, L., Natural Passions, at

[24] Goodall, J., in Tangley, L.

[25] Bekoff, M., in Tangley, L.

[26] Howard, L., in Barber, T., Scientific Evidence that Birds are Aware, Intelligent and Astonishingly Like Humans.

[27] Glenn, D., Sharing the World with Thinking Animals, at

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