Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wherefore the curse of consciousness?

Around 40—50 thousand years ago, but possibly earlier, our ancestors started to become equipped for profound enlightenment:  they discovered a sense of time, and got a glimpse of self-awareness. With consciousness (variously called, 'theory of mind', the 'human spark', and the 'mind’s big bang'), our species began to interpret self in relation to the passage of time, and in relation to a recognition of self-awareness in others. With this came capacity to plan for the future, and to envisage an existence of unseen others and events from the past that was understood to have been just as ‘real’ as the present. Combined with growing powers of reasoning, computation, curiosity, insight, imagination, and memory, it meant being able to use abstract/symbolic thinking to see beyond the actual to the possible, to anticipate the thoughts and actions of others, and to deliberately control one’s behaviour. With these cognitive skills, Homo sapiens was launched on a trajectory of genetic and cultural evolution unlike any other in the history of life — sometimes called the 'great leap forward'. Our predecessors who lacked them did not become our ancestors. 

But all of this came with an emotional cost: anxiety about one’s imagined, eventual mor-tality at some unknown time in the future. The uniquely human capacity to foresee one’s own eventual death, normally evokes a well-spring of terror — the 'curse of consciousness'. It starts in early childhood and extends cross-culturally. Numerous studies in social psychol-ogy involving 'terror management theory' have shown how death reminders commonly evoke a wide range of behaviours associated with "world-view and esteem defense and striving" (Burke et al. 2010).

Many critical questions, however, remain unanswered:  Where did this terror come from? Why are humans so primed to feel it?  Was 'eventual mortality' anxiety just a by-product of something else favoured by natural selection?   Was it linked to a cost-benefit trade-off? How did our ancestors cope with it?  Did they just put up with it as best they could?  Why did natural selection not eliminate this seemingly maladaptive cognitive domain?  Or was it perhaps never really maladaptive at all?  Did natural selection play a role in shaping motivational and behavioural responses to it, in ways that facilitated deployment of 'anxiety buffers'?  Or did natural selection somehow turn the emotional cost of this anxiety into a fitness benefit?

In my new book, to be published later this year (Aarssen 2015), I explore possible answers to these questions. Below is an excerpt from the book, describing three plausible evolutionary hypotheses, where 'eventual mortality' anxiety can be interpreted — in terms of genetic fitness — as maladaptive, neutral, or adaptive.

(i) 'Eventual mortality' anxiety is just ancient 'survival instinct' gone awry, misemployed by a fitness trade-off cost of consciousness — i.e. maladaptive in terms of genetic fitness. 

According to this hypothesis, time- and self-awareness gave us knowledge of eventual mortality, which automatically deploys our primitive survival instinct, thus triggering its usual emotional response: anxiety.  But this anxiety, and hence the consciousness that caused it, imposed a fitness cost — one that was worth paying, because the fitness benefits of consciousness were greater.  Survival instinct in other mammals is mostly about responding with 'fight, flight, or freeze' (accompanied by fear) to perception of a looming danger (e.g. attack from a predator or a rival) — or responding with frantic (fearful) desperation to an immediate or impending shortage of an essential resource (e.g. starvation). Importantly, these mortality risks all involve physical pain (from injury or hunger), and the above responses of course also characterize expressions of traditional Survival Drive in humans. The crucial question here, however, is this:  Is it possible that deployment of survival instinct in humans (because we can imagine ourselves in the future) need not (as for other mammals) require an immediate or imminent threat to continued existence?  In other words, did humans inherit a survival instinct so overpowering that it also manifests as fear even in response to events that we know will only eventually happen, like death?  The answer, according to this hypothesis, is yes — i.e. humans and humans alone have a survival instinct so acute that it routinely compels us to be anxious about our own death, even though it can only be imagined, as an eventuality, sometime in the future, resulting (if young) even in the distant future from just ordinary old age, and even peacefully without violence, injury or even pain — AND even when all of this resides in the mind only subconsciously.  If this is true, the emotional cost of this anxiety may or may not — as a trade-off of consciousness — also have imposed a genetic fitness cost for our ancestors.  But if it did (i.e. impose  a cost that partially compromised the fitness benefit of time- and self-awareness), then we might expect natural selection to have favoured cognitive domains like Leisure Drive that — through distractions — at least partially mitigated the anxiety.

(ii) 'Eventual mortality' anxiety is/was just a neutral by-product of 'fear of the unknown' — i.e. neutral in terms of genetic fitness. 

In this case, the anxiety had an emotional cost only, without im-posing any significant fitness cost (or benefit). Imagining a non-vio-lent and painless death, happen-ing sometime eventually, in our advancing years is just as much a personal mystery today as it was for our ancestors. We have no idea what the experience will be like, or even whether there will be anything to experience at all.  Eventual mortality then can be considered as just one item in a list of several unknown and unseen things that provide no clue about what they are — like the quiet dark. Behind some of these, however, at least some of the time (but regularly enough in the experience of ancestors), danger was lurking — maybe a predator or an ambush by compet-itors. Accordingly, humans apparently evolved a general all-purpose, hard-wired, instinct-ual caution, and sometimes fear (despite its emotional cost), regarding anything and everything that couldn’t be understood, couldn’t be sensed, or couldn’t be predicted, because this was, on average, good for gene transmission success in ancestors.  Importantly, however, this differs from the survival instinct triggered by known hazards (like lack of food, or an attacker that is in plain view, or that makes a familiar sound revealing its presence nearby). Much or most (and in some cases virtually all) of the time, when ancestors were confronted with a mysterious unknown, there was really no danger 'lurking in the dark' at all.  The latter, according to this hypothesis, was true all of the time with respect to ‘eventual mortality’ anxiety.  In other words, a general anxiety ('just in case') about things unknown was undoubtedly adaptive for our ancestors, but the specific anxiety about one’s imagined eventual death, at some unknown time in the future, never was. And neither was it maladpative [but even if it was, then again, we might expect natural selection to have favoured cognitive domains like Leisure Drive, serving to buffer the anxiety]. This is whimsically captured in the definition of life from Bierce (2011): "LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost, it is not missed." 

(iii) 'Eventual mortality' anxiety was directly favoured by natural selection — i.e. adaptive in terms of genetic fitness. 

In this case, the anxiety itself directly promoted gene trans-mission success in ancestors. This seems counter-intuitive at first, but according to this hypothesis, the anxiety here is not really associated with the eventual ex-perience of literal death; it is associated more directly with what eventual death imposes: self-impermanence.  Hence, it is not really rooted in what is traditionally understood as a survival instinct, or 'survival drive'.  Self-impermanence anxiety is about worrying that life is absurd — pointless and meaningless — not just because time brings eventual death, but more specifically because (in bringing eventual death) time inevitably annihilates all that we do, and all that we are.  Self-impermanence anxiety then can be buffered by Leisure Drive, but also by Legacy Drive — i.e. a drive to leave (despite knowledge of inevitable mortality) something of oneself — a legacy — for the future. Legacy Drive then essentially 'comes to terms' with mortality salience. And yet, at the same time, it is always just a delusion. Consider that today, for every deceased human that has ever existed (save for a miniscule micro-fraction), it is as though s(he) never did.   Only genes have legacy (Dawkins 1989). But Legacy Drive has a powerful hold on human nature nonetheless, because (according to this hypothesis) it has evolutionary roots in an ancestral attraction to 'memetic legacy' through offspring; i.e. through feeling a sense that one can create a lasting 'carbon-copy' of self by shaping the minds of one's offspring — to instill within them the same things (the ideas, values, beliefs, ego, self-image/esteem, personality, and virtue of character) that define who you are.  This is also mostly a delusion, with parents easily fooled (e.g. see Harris 1998).  But importantly, the reward nevertheless goes to gene transmission because offspring are the very vehicles of genetic legacy, including for genes that might inform Legacy Drive (as well as Leisure Drive) (Aarssen 2007, 2010). As Barash (2012) put it, "Maybe awareness of mortality isn’t merely a tangential consequence of consciousness but its primary adaptive value, if it has the effect of inducing people to seek yet another way of rebelling against mortality: by reproducing."

Humans are not as smart as they often think they are.  We are easily fooled, distracted, and deluded.  Our motivations did not evolve to deliver us truth — only fitness.  


Aarssen LW (2007) Some bold evolutionary predictions for the future of mating in humans. Oikos 116: 1768-78.

Aarssen LW (2010) Darwinism and meaning. Biological Theory 5: 296–311.

Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen’s University, Kingston.

Barash DP (2012) Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature. Oxford University Press, New York.

Bierce A (1911) The Devil’s Dictionary.

Burke BL, Martens A, Faucher EH (2010) Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14: 155-195.

Dawkins R (1989) The Selfish Gene, rev. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harris JR (1998) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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