As with most of my non-fiction reviews, I’ll first give a general overview & appraisal of the book. After that there’s a lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of stuff I want to keep on record, and those could be of interest to you too.
What is the mind?
It is the sound of the breeze
That passes through the pines
In the Indian-ink picture.
– Ikkyū Sōjun, 15th century
The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness is a mammoth: 482 pages of text, 62 pages of notes, 72 pages of bibliography and an index of 28 pages. It took a decade to write.
Eva Jablonka is a microbiologist & evolutionary theorist with a Ph.D in genetics. She is especially known for her interest in epigenetic inheritance, and she co-authored the landmark Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life with Marion Lamb. That book was published in 2005 by MIT Press – with a revised edition in 2014 – and on the strength of this book I’ve added it to my TBR. Simona Ginsburg is a chemist with a Ph.D. in physiology.
The title is a bit misleading in the sense that the moniker ‘sensitive soul’ might sound New Age-ish, but make no mistake: this is as scientific as non-fiction can get. Jablonka & Ginsburg use the term ‘soul’ as an hommage to Aristotle, and the next two quotes elaborate a bit on that, and at the same time set the stage:
The Aristotelian soul is the dynamic embodied form (organization) that makes an entity teleological in the intrinsic sense – having internal goals that are not externally designed for it but that are dynamically constructed by it.
From an evolutionary point of view, understanding the transitions that resulted in the three Aristotelian goal-directed systems is enormously challenging. The first problem, understanding the transition to the first living system, to the nutritive (/reproductive) soul, is still not fully solved, although great strides have been made in this domain. Very little is known about the second, understanding the transition to subjective experiencing, the evolutionary origin of the sensitive soul. The third, understanding the transition to rationalizing, symbolizing animals, to the rational (human) soul, is one of the hottest topic in present-day evolutionary-cognitive biology, and progress is being made. All of these goal-directed systems are the products of chemical and biological evolution, and there is an evolutionary continuity between them.
The book has two distinct parts: the first a history of the biological conceptions of ‘consciousness’ and some of its philosophical foundations – from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and William James, via Pavlov and Skinner to contemporary neuroscience. The second part looks more closely at major (neuro)biological transitions in the evolution of the mind, and basically sketches the evolution of neural systems and how learning ties into that. It should be stressed that most of the book is about minimal animal consciousness, not about human consciousness.
Instead of trying to summarize the book in more detail, I’ll quote some of the praise I found on the MIT website – and I can say after having read it, none of it is hyperbole. But first let me quote the blurb to give you the general idea:
A new theory about the origins of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness. What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications.
After presenting the historical, neurobiological, and philosophical foundations of their analysis, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose that the evolutionary marker of basic or minimal consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which they term unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. Associative learning, Ginsburg and Jablonka argue, drove the Cambrian explosion and its massive diversification of organisms. Finally, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose symbolic language as a similar type of marker for the evolutionary transition to human rationality—to Aristotle’s “rational soul.”
Here’s Axel Cleeremans, Director of ULB Neuroscience Institute in Brussels, Belgium:
This massive and challenging book is by far the most thorough attempt at exploring consciousness from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Most impressive is the successful integration of philosophical, historical, neuroscientific, and biological considerations in addressing this most vexing question: How and why did consciousness emerge out of biological activity?
Or Jean-Pierre Changeux, honorary professor at the Pasteur Institute in France:
It is the best synthesis I know about consciousness. It includes a fascinating history of the concepts and discoveries about consciousness together with an outstanding presentation of the most recent scientific data, theories and philosophical speculations.
And finally Cyriel Pennartz, from the University of Amsterdam:
Based on the view that consciousness subserves fulfillment of an animal’s needs and goals, Ginsburg and Jablonka take us on an engaging journey from Aristotle to contemporary neuroscience, culminating in the daring but well-informed hypothesis that consciousness coheres with complex forms of learning. This book made me think differently of the Cambrian explosion of life, the roots of animal cognition, and the very origins of human thinking. This accessible and inspiring book offers a wealth of information and deep thought for everyone interested in the rich interface between biology, psychology, and philosophy.
Last year I read Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a true intellectual feast. Ginsburg & Jablonka’s book touches on many of the same themes, but frames them differently. Powell’s book is about the nature of evolution, minds, and the possible implications for astrobiology, Ginsburg & Jablonka focus on learning and the evolutionary history of neural systems, including a chapter on jellyfish and the likes that was more informative than Jellyfish by Lisa-Ann Gershwin.
For a wee bit of critique: I would have liked a bit more sections on (the neurology of) mental representation. To me it felt as if Ginsberg & Jablonka don’t fully engage with this part of the consciousness problem, especially as I’ve read Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories – a book specifically about that. I would have liked to read the authors’ take on what Rosenberg wrote.
Anyhow, what makes this book a joy to read is its enormous scope, and what makes it truly amazing is its attention to detail on nearly everything it touches: this is no quick pop-science overview of the latest research, no, this is the real deal: interdisciplinary scholarly work of the highest order.
The book is clear and self-contained, and requires no previous knowledge, but at times it is tough reading nonetheless – especially parts of chapter 8 were beyond my level of interest of understanding. This will be different for different kind of readers, but this is obviously an academic book, so your mileage may vary.
Jonathan Birch’s 7-page critical essay on the book in Acta Biotheoretica is well-worth reading, he summarizes it in just two sentences: “Ginsburg and Jablonka’s thesis, in short, is that second-order conditioning involving novel, compound stimuli is a signature of consciousness. This kind of learning cannot happen, they claim, if the stimuli are not consciously experienced.”
If the subject matter interests you, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Together with How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – coincidentally about the first Aristotelian transition – it is the best book I’ve read all year.