Evolution cannot be conscious, just as it cannot be unconscious, silly, clever, or anxious. However, conscious, sentient animals, including reflectively thinking humans, are one of the most amazing products of evolution. So while the question “Can Evolution be Conscious?” has no meaning, it is meaningful to ask how consciousness–the ability to have subjective experiences, such as smelling a rose or feeling fear–has evolved, and how, once in place, it has modified the rates and patterns of evolution. This is a particularly pertinent question when the effects of human reflective consciousness are considered. However, the effects of consciousness on evolutionary processes are more general.

How consciousness evolved and how consciousness has come to affect evolutionary processes are related issues. This is because biological consciousness–the only form of consciousness of which we are aware–is entailed by a particular, fairly sophisticated form of animal cognition, an open-ended ability to learn by association or, as we call it, “unlimited associative learning” (UAL). Animals with UAL can assign value to novel, composite stimuli and action-sequences, remember them, and use what has been learned for subsequent (future), second-order, learning. In our work we argue that UAL is the evolutionary marker of minimal consciousness (of subjective experiencing) because if we reverse-engineer from this learning ability to the underlying system enabling it, this enabling system has all the properties and capacities that characterize consciousness. These include: the unification of stimuli and actions and their accessibility to cognitive reference; formation of representations of the body, the world and the relations between them (leading to the construction of a virtual “self”); goal-directed behaviors, driven by motivations and emotions, based on a flexible value system that can assign valence to any unified percept and action-sequence; developmental flexibility that is based on processes of selection, including selective attention; and the formation of a durable (“thick”) present, which contains shadows of the past and is oriented towards the future.1,2

The evolutionary entanglement of consciousness and cognition means that animal behavior was driven not only by the direct functional significance of their behavior, but by the mediated values of desires and aversions, which were assigned to ontogenetically-constructed composite percepts and actions. An animal that could learn in such an open-ended manner could in theory assign value to an unlimited number of percepts and action patterns, and anticipate positive and negative effects on the basis of neutral cues associated with them. Such associative learning was a game-changing adaptation: animals could adapt ontogenetically rather than only phylogenetically. We have argued that this learning capacity drove the Cambrian explosion. Learned behaviors became fundamental to the fight and flight responses of mobile animals who lived in an ever-changing world, and to the construction of the niches that these animals and their offspring inhabited. For example, if an animal learned to exploit a novel and rich food source and consequently tended to stay and reproduce in areas where this resource was abundant, its offspring would have the same learning-environment and learning opportunities and would seek a similar niche; this would lead to habitat-specific habits, such as new styles of parental care, food handling, and fight-flight behaviors. Any behavioral, physiological or morphological feature that improved the ontogenetic adjustment to a specific learning environment would be selected, and would affect the evolution of interacting species. Rapid learning-guided evolution and learning-guided arms races have led to morphological and physiological diversification.3

Since what conscious animals regard as good or bad is context-dependent and not always optimal, new types of features can evolve. Consider an animal that discovers that a rare though recurrent fermenting food source gives it a very pleasurable feeling (even though the food makes it slightly less vigilant), and the habit of consuming this somewhat addictive food and even searching for it in the right season spreads throughout the group. The tradition may persist because of its strong memorable and pleasurable effects, and lead to the evolution of detoxifying enzymes, or to the consumption of foods with detoxifying microbiota, so that the slightly deleterious effects of the tradition are ameliorated. The evolution of the change in the digestive system or in the consumption of other foods was, in this case, driven by the pleasure the food gave to its consumers, rather than its nutritional value. Or consider a female selecting a mate because he has complex patterns of color on his wings and tail. The ability to perceive and enjoy these features leads to positive selection of males even if such males pay a survival cost for their attractiveness (a Fisherian sexual-selection scenario). It is not surprising that Darwin regarded animals that display complex mate-choice as a sign that they had highly evolved mentality.4 The evolution of consciousness did, of course, evolve much further: in some animals (birds such as corvids and parrots, mammals such as primates and elephants, and possibly some hymenopterans and cephalopods) imagination began to drive behavior.

The reflective consciousness of humans takes this mediated evolutionary effect of consciousness to a new level. Humans have symbolic systems of representation and communication, and through symbolic language they can communicate about the products of their imagination.5 Human evolution has led to complex artefacts, to the domestication of plants and animals, to elaborate social systems, to human moral laws, to exclusionary and cruel ideologies, to wars and horrific human and animal suffering, and to looming catastrophic ecological destruction led by short-sighted future interests. However, our reflective consciousness enables us to consider all these. We are a strange species, the evolution of which can be driven by visions of a better future-world and by abstract values like justice, beauty and truth. There is, therefore, some hope.    

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


  1.     Ginsburg, S. and Jablonka, E. (in press) The Evolution of Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  2.     Bronfman, Z. Ginsburg, S. and Jablonka, E. (2016). The transition to minimal consciousness through the evolution of associative learning. Frontiers in Psychology 7, 1954.
  3.     Ginsburg, S. and Jablonka, E. (2010). The evolution of associative learning: A factor in the Cambrian explosion. Journal of Theoretical Biology 266, 11–20.
  4.     Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1st edition. London: John Murray.
  5.     Dor, D. (2015). The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Published On: January 7, 2019

Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg

Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg

Eva Jablonka (right) is an evolutionary biologist working in the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv, and a member of the Sagol School of Neuroscience. Her main interest is the understanding of evolution, especially evolution that is driven by non-genetic hereditary variations and the evolution of nervous systems and consciousness.

Simona Ginsburg (left) is a neurobiologist who retired from the Open University of Israel, where she headed the MA Program in Biological Thought (in philosophy of biology). Her past research interests have been artificial membranes, neurobiology of synapses and the stochastics of ion channels. More recent work focuses on the evolution of early nervous systems and the evolutionary transitions to consciousness in the animal world.


  • Joan Gould says:

    I would like to receive this consciousness info in the mail at 5090 N Camino del Lazo. Tucson AZ 85750. Too difficult to think about on line. I am reading Harari books and he talks about progress in the future without consciousness.

  • Bata says:

    Human / hominin evolution is all about intelligence. It is a long story about fire, emotions, infants, speech… That is on surface (consciousness too) but below is evolution of IQ. https://evolutionofhumanintelligence.wordpress.com/

  • Cecile Green says:

    Hello Eva and Simona, thank you so much for writing this article. I have found myself interested in whether or not consciousness was capable of altering the laws of evolution, and while this is not exactly what you are laying out above, your article spoke to my inquiry. I am curious if either of you have ever considered the possibility that consciousness might be capable of upgrading the very laws that gave rise to it?

  • Peter van den Engel says:

    Sure evolution has a consciousness. Depending on how you would describe consciousness.
    If it means free of will, obviously the material world does not have that. But still its actions, which are time energy patterns, are interdependend. Like a ball bouncing on a floor takes two subjects, so it creates a consiousness, meaning one could be aware of the other. In fact they are aware of each other, since what they do is predictable.
    So, the only difference between living creatures with a free will decission in between, is that they make future unpredictable/ but the interacting world they live in is exactly the same and therefore contains full consciousness/ while the animal or human only knows a fraction of it.

    The only difference which creates an imparallel in the definition is, that a brain which registers that reality creates a ‘virtual’ world on its own, which lives independend from it. In its own perception of past and future.
    This (breaker) can be called science, or an attempt to define reality since it has become unknown, or art recognizing the free will element which allows for fantasy interpretations which are unreal. But nevertheless create new worlds.

    Because the virtual consciousness which is an interpretation of the real world, also materializes in behavioral patterns, it leaves artifacts and symbols in the real world, with on their turn new evolutionary consequences.
    Like an ecological footprintcfor instance.

    The underlying science how the material (real) world can have a consciousness, I discovered, however is till unknown to science.
    Since I am not a doctor nor a professor, so far it has been impossible for me to break through the hierarchy of academics.
    But some day it will work, or I will leave the knowledge for future generations in writing.

  • […] the Evolution Institute. “How consciousness evolved and how consciousness has come to affect evolutionary processes […]

  • Elizabeth says:

    The brain serves as a bio-computer; a mechanism by which consciousness can function through what we call ‘mind’.

    There is more than just gradations of conscious self-awareness in humans at different levels of early development; we can clearly see conscious self-awareness gradations throughout adulthood. There have been many models created to describe these gradations and I wrote about them here: https://www.beyondyou.coach/human-conscious-evolution/

    It is important to understand that our biology is the result or consequence of consciousness; not the predictor. You may want to also familiarize yourself with Bruce Lipton’s work as I feel it will offer a new perspective of how we view genetics, disease, and the power of belief in altering physical reality.

  • Gabby says:

    You did the academic dance but when you got to the real meat of your line of thought you never really developed it. Piece felt predigested with
    no actual original thought. Nice bland academic piece.

  • Mohanraj R says:

    Consciousness is the term, nothing but getting rid of from fear.

    {To make it simple, you, my fellow human being, has written this article regarding “the origin and evolution of consciousness” with having utmost carefulness ( or to say, )with your utmost consciousness. If you have not tried to let it know others, you may not satisfied your consciousness that on the newly evolved discipline, i.e., CONSCIOUSNESS, you have some insights with rationalising opinions, which may be true or otherwise.

    You visualised this concept that you have something new to propagate to others. Before you visualised, your consciousness told the going to be written things are true and from your perspectives.}

    Consciousness is nothing but true sense of oneself. Consciousness emerge out of being free from fear when you are afraid of. Consciousness emerge to run when you see a snake in front of you. Sweetly speaking, living in this brave world, in this democratic world, that allows you to do freedom of speech to everything, as an intellectual, you have the tendency to opine about consciousness and to debate.
    Human consciousness is all.
    A nation’s president’s consciousness shape the nation’s present and future. The past was ofcourse shaped or affected by the people lived and live.

    Scientist cum imaginative like ALBERT EINSTEIN, Scientist cum teacher like Richard Feynman, revolutionary thinker like Nicolas Copernicus, Mathematician like Pythagorean ….. etc. had fear. Apart from fear , an iota of free will blossomed in their brains. That shaped the world. We should not forget the past.

    Our consciousness now has to be what? Study Mathematics, Physics and skil yourself with computer simulations. Human brain is godly gifted. Every human has some fear circles. Once they come out, they do not fear or restrict, we will be radiating the true non-violence, will be enjoying the Nature.

    To conclude, consciousness is the billion years evolutionary processes of upheaval. Consciousness of non living things to living things are part and parcel of our mother universe.

  • […] este sistema habilitador tiene todas las propiedades y capacidades que caracterizan la consciencia, explican las investigadoras en This View of life, otra revista de culto especializada en la […]

  • Xliee Blog says:

    […] este sistema habilitador tiene todas las propiedades y capacidades que caracterizan la consciencia, explican las investigadoras en This View of life, otra revista de culto especializada en la […]

  • […] por valores abstratos como justiça, beleza e verdade. Há portanto, alguma esperança. (texto original) jan/2019    […]

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