I am not usually known for my orthodox thinking about evolution, and yet in this case I have to reject the premise of the current exercise: no, evolution is not a conscious process, and to think so is an example of what philosophers call a category mistake, predicated on a fallacy of equivocation, to boot. How 20th century of me.

Let’s parse this out a bit. First off, consciousness is a complex and inherently fuzzy concept, and Wittgenstein taught us that such concepts are best described by example or by a lose series of characteristics (a “family resemblance”), not by rigid definitions based on a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Wittgenstein’s famous case study was the concept of “game.” You may think it is trivial to give a good definition of what counts as a game, but that’s far from the reality. There is no necessary and sufficient set of conditions that clearly rules in the astounding variety of games — from chess to soccer — while simultaneously ruling out everything we don’t consider a game. Instead, there are various threads running through many, but not all, games (e.g., competitiveness, featuring rules, done for fun, etc.), and the best we can do is to form a search image for the concept, based on the enumeration of examples that do or do not fall into its domain. So, taking on board Wittgenstein, and in agreement with the Introduction, I think of conscious processes as being also described by any or all of the following attributes: deliberate, intentional, purposeful, calculated, planned, volitional.

Notice that one attribute prominently not featured in this list is directional, and another one is non-random. So to suggest, as some do, that evolution is a conscious process because some mutations are not random, or because natural selection clearly imposes a (local, both in time and space) direction to the evolutionary process is a non sequitur, it doesn’t follow. Yes, 21st-century biology is discovering that things are a heck of a lot more complicated than either Darwin or the architects of the Modern Synthesis ever thought possible and that inheritance — which for Darwin was a mystery — needs to be understood as far more encompassing than just genetics. There is epigenetics, niche construction, and cultural evolution, just to mention three phenomena that have deservedly attracted a lot of attention of late. But this conceptual enrichment in evolutionary biology still does not make the teleonomic process of evolution into a teleological one. Teleological processes have a purpose, teleonomic ones, by contrast, appear to have a purpose, but they don’t. Human conscious decision making is teleological, while natural selection is teleonomic. That was Darwin’s crucial insight, which spelled the death of natural theology, and it makes no sense to attempt to resurrect the zombie now.

The Introduction mentions two examples of conscious evolution: genetic algorithms and human decision making. I would add a third one (which is actually a subset of the second one): artificial selection, Darwin’s own analogy for natural selection, which is likely to blame for the unhappy consequence of a continued confusion between teleology and teleonomy. But this is entirely uncontroversial: of course, human beings make conscious decisions, and it is human beings that design computer genetic algorithms (and computers, for that matter), so it is no surprise at all that these are (partly) conscious processes.

But it is a fallacy of equivocation to suggest that, because human conscious decision making results in directional, non-random evolution, therefore natural instances of directional, non-random evolution are further examples of consciousness at play. Whose consciousness anyway? Is the suggestion that a natural process such as evolution is itself conscious? What would that even mean? Or are we conjuring a 21st century variant of William Paley’s idea of an intelligent designer? Or what else?

(Incidentally, and I write this parenthetically because it’s about science communication, not science per se, do we really want to go down that road again, confusing people with talk of conscious evolution? I mean, Intelligent Design creationism is already always lurking in discussions about public education, ready to take advantage of legitimate scientific debates such as this one in order to further their ideologically obscurantist agenda. If there are strong reasons to talk about conscious evolution, by all means. But to do so on the basis of superficial analogies simply plays into the unscrupulous hand of apologists for creationism.)

If my criticism is correct, then to talk about conscious evolution is to make a category mistake. This was a concept introduced by 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe situations where one applies one attribute (e.g., conscious) to a category of objects or phenomena (e.g., evolution) to which it clearly does not belong. The classic example is that of a visitor to Oxford University (where Ryle taught). The visitor is shown the campus, the buildings, the faculty, the students, the administrators, and so forth. But at the end of the visit he asks: “okay, but where is the university?” thus betraying a fundamental misunderstanding: “the university” is the thing constituted by the campus, the buildings, the faculty, and so forth. There is nothing above and beyond that.

Similarly with evolution: outside of the well known instances of human-directed evolution (like artificial selection, computer programming, and the like), we are talking about a natural process characterized by certain properties (non-randomness), made possible by certain processes (natural selection, biased mutation pressure, developmental constraints, niche construction, epigenetic inheritance, etc.), resulting in a teleonomic pattern. To additionally apply the property of consciousness to it — thus making it teleological — is a category mistake because natural processes are not conscious, though some results of a subset of natural processes (namely, us) happen to be.

Of course, what appears to be a category mistake based on current science may turn out not to be in the light of future science. It is conceivable that biologists will discover really solid reasons to think that evolution itself is conscious. Frankly, I can’t even imagine what the pertinent evidence would look like, yet I’m open to the possibility. But we have certainly done nothing remotely like that as of now. Indeed, let us remember that in the past we thought that natural processes were teleological in nature, just think of Aristotle’s classification of causes, and in particular of his final cause. Within the framework of Aristotelian biology, it would make perfect sense, and it is not a category mistake, to think about evolution in terms of consciousness (of course, Aristotle didn’t really think in terms of evolution in the first place, but rather talked of the natural unfolding of things). But the rejection of the Aristotelian approach, which natural theologians during the Middle Ages and until the 19th century turned into the famous argument from design, is precisely one of the greatest accomplishments not just of Darwin, but of modern science. Before we attempt to reverse it, we better get both our logic and our facts very, very straight.

Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:

  1. Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
  2. Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
  3. Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
  4. The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
  5. The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
  6. Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
  7. The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
  8. Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
  9. One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
  10. Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe
  11. Why Teleology is the Elephant in Evolutionary Theory’s Room by Felipe A. Veloso

Published On: December 13, 2018

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is a blogger and author, as well as the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He writes regularly at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. His books include How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism (co-edited with M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press).



  • John Mears says:

    Sadly I’ve been saying this for a year and everyone thinks I went nuts

  • Hans Kuijper says:

    This reminds me of the old Chinese concept of zìrán cìxù (the order that by itself so is). Long ago, at Leiden University, The Netherlands, I learned about this concept and the related concepts of Dào (way, process) and Lĭ (structure, pattern). Many years later, I learned that the concepts of structure and process are central to astronomy (cosmology), geology, demography, macro-ecology, and geopolitics. Recently, Chinese and Japanese (!) physicists have shown that the relationship between the structure and dynamics of a network is of crucial importance for understanding the behavior of complex systems. “Pattern” and “process” refer to the arrangement of different things into order. The cardinal concept of order (the struggle for the truth of which is, according to Max Weber, “die eigentliche Substanz der Geschichte”) is related to the Vedic Ṛta (that which is properly joined; the truth), i.e. to the Cosmos, which is essentially a huge dynamic system, a vertiginously complex whole evolving in time. Seeing order is also the essence of intelligence (the capacity for comprehending, for taking and seeing things together, orderly). Interestingly, qì (breath, spirit), that which does the ordering, i.e. that without which there can be neither dào nor lĭ, is der Dritte im Bunde. It cannot be equated with the Holy Spirit (understood differently in the competing Abrahamic religions). A critical comparison between dào, lĭ and qì on the one side and the Trinity dogma on the other side would therefore reveal the most basic difference between the Chinese and Western ways of thought, something the Jesuits who, in the 16th and 17th centuries, were the pioneers and trailblazers of Western Sinology did not see and something of paramount importance in this age of globalization. Whereas most Westerners believe that God (male or female?) created the world and that the order of things was imposed on the chaos by somebody OUTSIDE of it, leaving the vexed theological problem “Who created God?”, or “Where did God come from?”, unresolved, the Chinese have tended to believe that things are ordered spontaneously, arranged by themselves, dictated from the INSIDE rather than from the outside. Modern Chinese thinkers are thus not surprised by the idea of self-regulation now greatly advanced in the West. The difference between the Western and Chinese ways of thought has grave ethical consequences, for in the West it is often said that without God, there can be no morality, that the very meaning of “good” and “bad” stems from God’s will, that only belief in God can serve to motivate man to act morally, and that the “Death of God” (secularism) is the root cause of the problems of Western society. This would mean that the Chinese are completely devoid of any sense of morality and mentally ill, an insulting and immoral conclusion that flies in the face of reality.

    For consciousness, see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2398212818816019.

  • The terms “conscious” and “evolution” are extremely general, and it seems iffy to propose strong conclusions on the basis of such a fuzzy subject. The argument may be entirely semantic. What about saying that 1) human beings in the course of their evolution are capable of learning; 2) humans can apply this learning to their collective behavior, which will of course affect their collective evolution (“are we capable of getting along with one another, or are we doomed by innately compulsive behavior?”), and 3) if we can apply learning to our collective wellbeing, that seems proof that conscious evolution is a meaningful idea. We know we are evolving. We are learning. We are applying our learning to our evolution. We are getting better at it. Ergo, this is conscious evolution.

    • Hans Kuijper says:

      What is learning? What are its conditions? How does it relate to knowing, and to doing? Are values involved in learning? What are we learning?

  • Peter van den Engel says:

    No, consciousness is a natural physical element which is very common. It sets a dominator regarding a gravity field which will determine its future.
    Like a high pressure atmosphere will flow to a low pressure atmosphere. This is also consciousness, as in intent.
    In the human brain which is able to think in chosen sets of equations by free will, its consciousness is related to memory and observation, which contain the very same natural laws and duplicates them.
    Because it creates consciousness again, we believe this must be a property of our own brain, because we can think.
    However it is nothing but a duplicate of the consciousness all around us.
    We simply reject the idea matter or cellular life could have consiousness, because it cannot think. But we forget our thinking is nothing but a duplicate factor of what “it” was doing already.

    • Hans Kuijper says:

      If mind is related to, but not the same as, matter, how are the two related? Is it matter-over-mind, mind-over-matter, or mind-meaning-matter?
      If culture is a manifestation of the mind (which I think it is), what is te relationship between nature and culture?

  • Rory Short says:

    I see the Universe as a manifestation or expression of consciousness thus consciousness must be more than the Universe. Even though we are part of the Universe our consciousness gives us the possibility of communicating with the consciousness that gave birth to us. This possibility is open to every conscious being and the realisation of this possibility is what underlies every religion. I am a practising Quaker. Quaker silent meetings for worship realise this possibility every time that the participants gather together and settle down in silence.

  • Hans Kuijper says:

    Dear Rory,
    You seem to belong to the crowd of believers. I will not try to burst your bubble, but I wish to remind you that there is no universally agreed-on definition of consciousness.

  • Bata says:

    Yes, there is nothing divine in human / hominin evolution. It is all about intelligence. It is a long story about fire, emotions, infants, speech… That is on surface but below is evolution of IQ. https://evolutionofhumanintelligence.wordpress.com/

  • Eli Rector says:

    Massimo, I always enjoy watching your conversations on Bloggingheads. As a behavior analyst, I find Stephen Hayes work enormously important. I even sent a suggestion the the folks at Bloggingheads that he be interviewed. After reading your piece here, and then his piece on the same subject -with quite a different perspective – in this series, I would LOVE to hear a dialogue between you two. Thanks!

  • Chris Dowdeswell says:

    It seems you are reading the phrase “conscious evolution” as “self-conscious evolution.” I haven’t read all the articles on this site, but are the authors you are engaging in this context of TVOL really arguing that evolution has its own consciousness? That’s certainly not the argument Hayes makes in his article. I think you are expanding the context of interpretation too widely, including the wider American religious preoccupation with ID, and distracting from the less-fuzzy way that the concept is being used here. I’d love for you to post another article responding directly to the uses of the phrase by the other TVOL authors.

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