Psychology and Brain Sciences | Evolution and Learning: From Molecules to Conscious Minds
P717 | 25810 | Timberlake & Lucas


Our goal in this course is to provide an integrative overview of
the evolution of mind by exploring the chain of emergent properties
which extend from the origin of life to conscious minds. Darwin’s
realization that natural selection explains how novel properties
emerge in phylogeny started a revolution in biology. It is now clear
that natural selection is only one of the selection processes which
shape emergent properties in nature. Using the origin of life as an
example, we’ll propose that emergence is best understood as an
organizational effect.  The organizations that form when component
parts interact add dynamic properties which can differ distinctly from
the properties of their components.  Thus, a key strategy for
understanding an emergent phenomenon is to examine how its
organization contributes to its properties.  The first half of the
course will follow this strategy to explore how properties that we
attribute to mind-- purpose, knowledge, meaning, and intentionality--
emerge within specific kinds of organization.  Our claim is that
understanding how organization contributes to function and how
different selection processes guide organization provides critical
insight into how the properties of mind arise.
	The second half of the course will focus on the organization and
function of the modern mammalian brain.  We will propose a
three-streams model of brain function and show how evolutionary forces
to manage activity across the three streams have produced a number of
coordinating mechanisms.  One of these mechanisms, the thalamocortical
architecture of the brain, makes centralized attention possible.
We’ll argue that consciousness emerges within minds that can sustain,
manage, and build on their own attention.  To back this up, we’ll show
how organizational features in the thalamocortical architecture make
the experiential effects of consciousness possible, and how other
coordinating mechanisms have evolved to manage the flow of attention.
Our focus will be on how network organization contributes to
higher-level properties of mind with the aim of providing a
sufficiently detailed systems view of the architecture to consider how
we might build a crude approximation.  (If you can’t build it, you
don’t know how it works).  This approach will also enable us to answer
several critical questions about consciousness, such as why it
evolved, what qualia are, and what function they play in conscious
minds.
Readings will be drawn from relevant papers in each topic area and
from an emerging version of Lucas’s book, The Emergent Chain: From
Molecules to Minds.  The scope of the material should appeal to
students of mind, from philosophy and cognitive science to biology,
neuroscience, and robotics.  A willingness to explore the adjacent
possible (Kauffman, 2000) and to participate in class discussions will
be essential.  There are more data and possibilities here than one
mind can manage, so your insights will be valuable.  Students will be
expected to do weekly readings, provide short written comments, and
actively participate in discussions.  In addition each student will
help present and lead a discussion on material in one or two topic
areas, and will write a final 20-25 page paper mapping ideas from the
course to their own area of interest.