A Panpsychist Response to ‘Is Evolution Conscious’?

To answer the question of whether or not evolution is (or could be) conscious, we must first consider what makes something conscious. Approaches to consciousness can be divided into two camps. Reductionist approaches attempt to explain how consciousness could arise out of non-conscious components.1,5 Fundamentalist approaches such as panpsychism bypass the problem of getting consciousness from non-conscious components by positing that consciousness is a universal primitive.4,14,16

Panpsychist approaches are faced with the combination problem:14 how do you get from the primitive sort of consciousness present in everything to the clearly distinctive form of consciousness possessed by humans? Building on Chalmers’ double aspect theory of information4 which holds that information has a phenomenal aspect, it was suggested that an entity is conscious to the extent it amplifies information.8 The origin of life through autocatalytic closure,13 and the origin of a self-organized understanding of the world and one’s place in it—i.e., a worldview—through conceptual closure,7 induced phase transitions in the degree to which information, and thus consciousness, is locally amplified. Much as light gets trapped and locally amplified in a diamond or a spherical mirror, organic systems provide a first level of locally amplifying information, and thus consciousness, and human cognition forms a second such layer.

Another challenge for panpsychism is that it strikes most people as counterintuitive; rocks and thermometers don’t seem conscious. However, much as a mirrored surface can block outside light from reaching the interior of a sphere, the localized amplification of information in a living system could effectively shield us from external consciousness; in other words, the apparent paucity of consciousness may be an illusion.8

If one accepts this position that consciousness is a universal primitive, then evolutionary processes are conscious, not to the same degree as the (locally amplified) conscious systems they give rise to, but to the same degree as everything else.

Evolution and Locally Amplified Consciousness

From here onward, let us restrict the discussion to the locally amplified sort of consciousness that we ourselves experience. Although the subjects of biological evolution are conscious in this way, the underlying process of biological evolution is not obviously so, unless one considers situations wherein these ‘subjects’ play a role in how the evolutionary process unfolds, as in cases of assortative mating, selective breeding, or genetic engineering.

However, a case for conscious evolution is more easily made with respect to cultural evolution. The fact that cultural change is cumulative, adaptive, and open-ended suggests that culture evolves,3 and computational models of cultural evolution have been around for some time.6,12 Since cultural evolution is fueled by the creative efforts of human minds which, by anyone’s definition, are conscious, it would seem that consciousness plays a central role in cultural evolution. However, although some view the term ‘conscious’ to be synonymous with ‘deliberate’ or ‘goal-directed’, most people would probably view activities such as mind-wandering or doodling, which would not be characterized as deliberate or goal-directed, to nevertheless be conscious. Creative ideation may be preceded by a period of subconscious incubation followed by a sudden burst of insight,15 and experiments on the ‘intuitive antecedents of insight’ have shown that, prior to insight, one is actually honing in on an idea even when one is not consciously aware of doing so.2 Thus, ironically perhaps, the creative processes that fuel culture may be less conscious than other cognitive processes (such as learning and planning).

It is interesting to note that the moment of insight is often portrayed as a light bulb turning on, and words involving light are used to talk about creative insight, e.g., flash of insight, creative spark, and so forth.10 Creative insight feels like a particularly conscious experience, and consciousness itself is also discussed using the concept of ‘inner light’.

How can the Notion of Conscious Evolution effect Positive Change in the World?’

It has been proposed that what evolves through culture are not discrete artifacts, gestures, and stories, but human worldviews, which as mentioned above are the self-organizing webs of knowledge and experience that guide how we see and be in the world.9,11 It has been suggested that worldviews locally amplify information by maintaining their self-organizing dynamics at the proverbial ‘edge of chaos’.8 Thus, although it is sometimes implied that directed is the opposite of random, the opposite of random is, in fact, deterministic, and it is the edge-of-chaos regime between these two extremes that may be most conducive to consciousness.

We assimilate elements of culture by reframing them in our own terms, and we, in turn, contribute to culture by adapting ideas to our own needs and tastes. When our worldviews are integrated as opposed to fragmented, we can more readily see ideas from different perspectives; thus we are more likely to contribute creatively to culture in ways that are conducive to higher or longer-term goals and to effect positive change. It is interesting that exerting positive change in the world can, like insight, bring a sense of ‘inner light’. Perhaps in these moments, our consciousness is heightened.  

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


This work was supported in part by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


  1. Baars, B.J., (1988). A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press
  2. Bowers, K. S., Farvolden, P., & Mermigis, L. (1995). Intuitive antecedents of insight. In S. M. Smith, T. B., Ward, & R. A. Finke (Eds.), The Creative Cognition Approach (pp. 27-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  4. Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Churchland, P. S. (1986). Neurophilosophy: toward a unified understanding of the mind-brain, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  6. Gabora, L. (1995). Meme and variations: A computer model of cultural evolution. In (L. Nadel & D. Stein, Eds.) 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems (pp. 471-486). Boston: Addison-Wesley.
  7. Gabora, L. (2000). Conceptual closure: How memories are woven into an interconnected worldview. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 901, 42-53.
  8. Gabora, L. (2002). Amplifying phenomenal information: Toward a fundamental theory of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(8), 3-29.
  9. Gabora, L. (2013). An evolutionary framework for culture: Selectionism versus communal exchange. Physics of Life Reviews, 10(2), 117-145. 
  10. Gabora, L. (2014). Physical light as a metaphor for inner light. Aisthesis, 7(2), 43-61.
  11. Gabora, L. (2017). Honing theory: A complex systems framework for creativity. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 21(1), 35-88.
  12. Gabora, L., & Tseng, S. (2017). The social benefits of balancing creativity and imitation: Evidence from an agent-based model. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(4), 457-473.
  13. Kauffman, S. A. (1993). Origins of Order, Oxford University Press.
  14. Seager, W. (1995). Consciousness, information, and panpsychism. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3), 272-288.
  15. Wallas, G. (1926). The Art of Thought. London: J. Cape.
  16. Whitehead, A.N. (1929). Process and reality. New York: Macmillan.

Published On: December 10, 2018

Liane Gabora

Liane Gabora

Liane Gabora is a Professor of Psychology at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia. Her research, which employs both experimental studies with humans and computational models, focuses on creativity, how it arose in the hominid lineage, and in what sense culture evolves. She has almost 200 scholarly publications in peer-reviewed journals, books, and conference proceedings, has obtained over one million dollars in research grants, given lectures worldwide, and was awarded the Berlyne Award for Outstanding Research by from Division 10 of the American Psychological Association. She is also a published fiction writer and composes piano music.


  • What you are talking about is spiral dynamics. It’s great to hear that mainstream evolutionary science is opening the door a crack.

    Conscious Evolution is much more than what you describe however. It is also a value system. A way of looking at the world and deciding what is right and what is wrong, what is meaningful and what is worth aiming for in life.

    Exciting time to be alive.


  • Rory Short says:

    I have been a practising Quaker for 50+ years. What we each experience in our silent meetings for worship [MfW] we term the Light or the Spirit. Like all experiences the experience itself precedes words which are merely labels attached to experiences in order to try to communicate something of the experience to others. The experience itself is profoundly fulfilling to the individual but not in a way that can easily be pinned down in a definition. I see consciousness as a primary attribute of the Universe and it is this all pervasive consciousness that we are in communication with in our MfWs. I also see consciousness as the driver of the evolution of the Universe at every level from the Nano to the Macro. We are the unconscious products of evolution but not only that because we are conscious beings we can consciously choose to participate in the evolutionary enterprise both our own and as a consequence that of humanity. Spiritual practice is the historically tried and tested way for the individual to consciously join the evolutionary enterprise.

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