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I Think Because I Survive; Introduction to Edelman, the Biological Theory of Consciousness, and Political Beliefs
June 29, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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From the draft introduction of a book I am writing on social and political consciousness

"Consciousness has been seen as both a mystery and a source of mystery."
— Gerald Edelman, A Universe of Consciousness

I think because I survive, and my ancestors survived. We humans survive because we think.

Somehow things resembling modern bacteria survived and evolved into more complex, single-cell organisms akin to modern protozoa. More survival and change brought about mobile, multi-cellular organisms, or animals proper. These diversified and developed primitive nerve cells that enabled coordinated movement and sensing the environment. My ancestors developed a notochord, then backbones, becoming what we would call primitive fish. Sensory organs and nervous systems grew more complex, as did behavior. This was quite handy when the primitive amphibians started roaming the land. Then, with a couple of hundred million years of competition, reptiles, birds and mammals evolved. The benefits of large, complex brains showed up in several lineages, notably primates, then monkeys, apes, great apes, the genus homo, and finally my most recent ancestors: modern people, Homo sapiens.

We think because not to think is to fail to survive and propagate. We are conscious because to lack consciousness means being unable to plan or to react quickly and effectively to the opportunities and dangers of the world. Our brains, nerves and sensory organs are so complicated that we are still trying to understand how they work and allow us to maintain a mental model of the world when we are awake. Or, how they maintain consciousness.

This book is about how the human brain, and in particular its ability to create a conscious scene, interacts with society and politics. It is no new thing for human to observe other humans and relate social and political developments to how people tend to think. Certainly the ancient Greek philosophers bandied such ideas about. They doubtless were building on even earlier civilized discourse.

The works of Nobel Prize winner Gerald Edelman are part of a continuum. We do not know when people started thinking about thinking, but it is well documented in ancient religious and philosophical texts. Knowledge of the animal and human nervous system took a leap forward when Luigi Galvoni discovered the relation of electricity to the human nervous system. Edelman gives an overview of some of the philosophic and scientific issues in The Remembered Present.

The development of sciences such as psychology, sociology, and economics greatly added to our understanding of human interactions. Any number of grand schemes have been proposed. Despite that, I believe crucial factors, both global and specific, have been overlooked. A lack of understanding of the nature of human consciousness has left us in some ignorance and error. To not think clearly is to fail to survive. Errors in political and social consciousness in particular threaten the survival of not just individuals, but the survival of civilization and perhaps our species and the ecosystems we depend upon.

(to be continued)

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