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The Origins and Evolution of Perception in Organic Matter

Eric Wizenhizen
Jan 20 · 19 min read

The Big Bang theory is science’s leading model of how our universe began, offering an explanation for all-pervading background radiation that would have been produced by the explosiveness of this event, also the way more distant galaxies seemingly accelerate into empty space at a faster clip, and more phenomena. This theory claims an extremely dense point of matter was somehow destabilized chemically, creating a huge blast that ejected all the universe’s material, ultimately forming every galaxy and solar system we observe.

Implications of a big bang for the apparent development of atomic quantization phenomena are not known, but at some point material mechanisms of quantum nonlocality such as entanglement, coherence, superposition and tunneling became active. Particles can synchronize their behaviors across vast distances, on both the nanoscale (entanglement) and in more bulk quantities (coherence), exist and overlap in multiple states simultaneously (superposition), as well as travel across distances and through some substances by near instantaneous motion (tunneling). Phenomena of nonlocality seem to have causal primacy over three dimensional forms adopted by large aggregates of particles as mass, for bulking of matter as a general rule inhibits the degrees of freedom in mechanisms of quantum nonlocality rather than totally excluding these effects. Quantum behavior tends to be less pronounced the more concentrated matter becomes, which is at least true of how atomic structure subsists on an earthlike scale, resulting in complex contours of nonlocality. Variability is determined by much more than even relative density of course, as masses aggregate into a huge array of chemical bonding types, so that capacity for nonlocality probably differs with each atomic element, compound and molecule, and further in the immeasurable diversity of heterogeneously macroscopic forms. A couple examples: liquid solutes and solvents, such as comprise aqueous solutions, seem much more prone than while in the solid phase to an extremely powerful form of coherence we know as electricity transmission because their electrons are less fixed than when atoms are bonded into crystal lattices, and metals template the coherence and tunneling of electrons more readily than nonmetallic solids, giving them their functionality for electrical conductance in electronic wiring.

How life arose from nonlife is still a mystery. As has been mentioned in an earlier chapter, scientists hypothesize that deep sea hydrothermal vents may be the origin of metabolism-like, cyclical reaction pathways, with life’s basic building blocks, such as carbon-based molecules, hydrogen ion gradients and catalytic metal surfaces, either injected into porous rock from beneath the ocean’s surface or induced into existence by agitative forces. But even with all the ingredients present, it is not clear how lifelike chemistry transitioned from subsisting in relative chaos, unamenable for rapid growth and diversification, to a substantially more stable environment of microscopic ecosystems, buffered from the harsh elements and conducive to subtle processes of mutation and natural selection. Perhaps planetary conditions changed such that hydrothermal or similar such initial dynamics became more equilibrated, maybe protocellular life was able to somehow make the switch to more evolutionarily favorable environments by improbable or extremely gradual spread during the course of millions or even billions of years. It is impossible at the current stage of knowledge to know for sure, but science does supply a good grasp of organic fundamentals, from physiology down to the atomic level, so we at least have parameters within which to frame the issue, providing focus to ongoing consideration as well as derivative research.

The most important constituents for the existence of life are carbon compounds. Carbon chains, rings, and the many emergent hybrids of these shapes give life three dimensional structural integrity, rebarred by this extremely stable carbon chemistry against physical forces of bulk mass in the environment, which works as the foundation for nanotechnology as well. At the same time, carbon can combine with additional atomic elements in a practically limitless array of configurations, at least two chemical bonds per carbon in molecules containing up to millions of atoms of the element, with all of this organized into extremely involute arrangements supporting delicate interactions of biochemical pathways, including both thermodynamic and quantum effects, a diversity we have almost infinitesimally fathomed.

The next most important feature for life is the phospholipid. These molecules compose the membranes of living cells, assembled into a two-rowed ‘bilayer’ with an interior of hydrophobic lipid tails, and hydrophilic phosphate heads facing outward, altogether forming approximately spherical or oblong bubbles interposed into aqueous solutions in such a way that contents are partially sealed off from external environments. Membranes facilitate the integrity and evolutionary divergence of biochemical pathways, communicative interactions between cells via embedded molecules, and a process of naturally selected specialization tailoring prokaryotic cells for better adaptation to microscopic ecosystems, evolving billions of years ago into symbiotic roles in colonies, also giving rise to symbiosis between prokaryotes confined within single microscopic membranes, the various types of simultaneous differentiating and collectivizing that were destined to provide a eukaryotic template for macroscopic lifeforms.

Intracellular fibers are key to the functioning of cells, reinforcing structural stability and organizing biochemical pathways. Organelles and macromolecules are held in place or moved about within this scaffolding, bringing minute structures into precise alignment so that nanoscale chemistry can trump thermodynamic entropy, enabling quantum-based mechanisms to subsist in the molecular randomness of amorphous solutions. How this fibrous framework in cells originated is unknown, but it apparently evolved towards stronger and more effective shaping until becoming an organelle of sorts itself, the cytoskeleton.

Mixing of metallic elements into carbon compounds produces some superlatively functional macromolecules. Metal atoms are capable of biochemically bonding in unique ways with many elements, the most well-known example being iron as an oxygen carrier in the hemoglobin protein of red blood cells that distribute this gas throughout the body via blood vessels. Metals can catalyze reactions that are highly sensitive to environmental conditions when positioned appropriately in macromolecules, allowing a huge variety of chemical processes to occur at particular pressures, temperatures, or acidities. These catalyzing molecules are of course enzymes, usually consisting of multiple proteins conjoined in a specific three dimensional shape that orients functional metals or metallic compounds at an active site. Enzymes enable the totality of body chemistry to exist within a narrow, homeostatically generated temperature range, which makes warmblooded creatures such as mammals and birds better suited than coldblooded reptiles, amphibians, insects and so on for activity in cooler weather. Catalyzation also has allowed organisms to adapt to environmental changes that happen over the course of tens or hundreds of millions of years, with metal-based enzyme structure tweaked by mutation and natural selection so that species gradually readjust. Functional metals in enzymes also equip extremophile organisms such as many bacterial strains to live under the most inhospitable conditions on the planet, in niches that would not otherwise be available. Quantum effects are no doubt key to the workings of bioactive metals, as flexibly distributed electrons readily tunnel, entangle and superposition, morphing reactive substances into bondable forms at energies that would otherwise be prohibitive. Versatile quantum reactivity in enzymes is probably the main factor modifying and expanding possible conditions at which cellular chemistry can take place.

The rudiments of life began as some form of reaction cycle, refined billions of years ago in conjunction with growingly complex membranes and carbon-based molecules until evolutionary independence from fully inorganic features of the environment arose. Though all the molecular parts of recycling biochemical loops were interdependent, these first membrane-parsed solutions, even when their protocells were clumped together, must have been more like an ecosystem than a mechanized factory, with chemical bonds breaking, forming and adaptively transforming as energized quanta of matter flowed at the nanoscale. This streamlining of dynamic equilibrium was punctuated at times by key evolutionary events, simple subunits of molecular ecosystems coalescing into more complex macromolecules, segments of reaction pathways refined by natural selection for greater efficiency until more or less stabilized as persisting, relatively large three dimensional structures. Evolutionarily developing macromolecules would have become the loci of intramembrane ecosystems, primary drivers of pathways in energized mass that brought overall chemistry into what we could approximately call their orbit. Apex molecules must have reached a stage where structural integrity was no longer especially vulnerable to decomposition via any surrounding chemical reactions, but instead mostly recycled from smaller building blocks of matter or sustained by repeatedly drawing energy out of atoms and radiation in the environment, graduating from basic chemistry to what we might call functional mechanisms. This would have been the beginning of metabolism, primordial macromolecules utilizing quantized matter for replenishment, as nutrient sources.

At some stage, molecules in these metabolic systems gained the capacity to not just generally exploit the environment for energy, but also precisely replicate external subunits, which was a huge evolutionary advance, surpassing mere utilization of various smaller molecules to the point of finely controlling their concentrations, regulating nutrient supplies as the first primitive enzymes, a sort of inanimate farming based around feedback mechanisms. Paralleling this outcome, some molecules became capable of introducing to the environment stretches of their own structure, built out of surrounding molecules, the ancestors of RNA. How these two threads of evolution — enzymatic and self-replicative activity — gelled into a stable genetic system is unclear, but judging from the nature of modern cells, it seems this process must have been complex, as molecules currently carrying out these activities span a rather broad spectrum. The following all exist in sizable amounts: self-replicators and the enzymes that catalyze their reproductive processes, partially self-replicating enzymes in likeness to the ribozyme, and the much greater quantity of enzymes not directly involved in self-replication, but which reproduce the components of recyclitive biochemical pathways.

If we can regard this evolutionary process as having an overall direction rather than serendipitous cooccurrence, a claim about relative progress vs. relative chance which pends further research into modern cells and their processes of adaptation, it seems biochemical pathways generally settled into a division of labor, where some molecules are specialized for extremely accurate self-replication, some for metabolism, and some a limited capacity for both. The more sophisticated forms of these cellular behaviors, inextricably linked in modern cell types by biochemical pathways, seem to have first evolved in ways that were isolated from each other, in separate membranes, with the fates of macromolecules, already partially streamlined for function, conjoined in symbiotic relationships when cells engulfed each other, sometimes without digestion as in the case of what became nuclei, mitochondria and chloroplasts. At any rate, self-replicators advanced from modest regulation of the intracellular environment to such precise control of biochemical ingredients and pathways that molecules of RNA and DNA can be analogized to hubs of information storage, the primary blueprints for cellular biochemistry, with DNA molecules duplicated almost exactly upon mitosis and templating most of the astounding variability in an organism’s physiology.

The final indispensable event to the nature of modern lifeforms was evolution of pigment molecules that are exquisitely sensitive to radiation phenomena such as light and electromagnetic fields. Responsivity to changes in the orientation of nearly massless phenomena or their often subtle signatures usually involves extremely labile quantum effects such as oscillating superpositions, entanglements and coherences between the constituent atoms of pigments, which evolved into detection mechanisms that biochemical pathways amplify for assistance in regulating metabolism or stimulating motility. Additionally, pigment molecules eventually acquired distinct colors as the spectra they respond to were honed for greater precision, a narrowed profile of absorption, reflection and emission. This was negligible for internal organs, the hues of which are probably incidental in many cases to particular lineages of functional quantum effects, but pigments could modify external coloration, a central factor in the success of organisms by way of innumerable physical characteristics and behaviors tied to attraction and avoidance, such as in camouflage, the identification of food sources, mating, and so on. Pigments ended up playing a large role for both the recognitional and aesthetic aspects of perception in all kinds of species, and are largely responsible for the beauty of our world.

Awareness had humble origins, the evolving of organelles in microorganisms for response to light or vibration, concentrations of pigment molecules in eye spots, as well as touch and motion sensitive molecules on the surface of cell membranes. These structures enhanced reaction time to all kinds of phenomena in the environment, a specialized connection between behavior and sensory molecules via growingly intricate biochemical pathways. As some biochemistry of sensation grew more sensitive, organisms became capable of engaging in nuanced stimulus and response, a transformation which was a product of not only competition, but also symbiosis as well as punctuating breakthroughs that could on occasion completely reconstitute ecosystems.

As colonies of growingly eukaryotic cells merged into multicelled organisms, a division of labor took shape for the sake of coordinated function. Cell groupings were streamlined into tissue types at various locations in these primordial bodies for greater biochemical efficiency, serving survival requisites, reproductive purposes and more if environments were sufficiently accommodating. Biochemical mechanisms of sensation evolved along with the rest of the organism, and by an unknown route made the transition to nervous tissue, a type of cellular material with such potent dynamics of electron coherence and tunneling for transmitting signals to integrate stimulus and response that it performs what we regard as conductance of electrical current, an ultrafast quantum mechanism partially trumping thermodynamic entropy in large aggregates of particles.

With the beginning of selection pressures upon and amongst eukaryotic populations, the first nerve tissues became a nervous system, stimulus/response mechanisms of electrical conductance that expanded into complex networks of cellular connections for more unified biochemistry and mobility. Molecular pathways between and internal to nerves acquired a more specialized ability to sustain themselves in some form apart from the actual moment of stimulation or behavior, etching a representation of the sensory environment into cell structure as an unconscious holding pattern of sorts, prolonging preparedness of organisms for successful response with sensitization and habituation, the original mechanisms of memory.

Nervous systems became highly cephalized, with most of their sensitization/habituation transmission of electricity and biochemical activity gathered together near the locus of sensation and feeding, the head. At some stage, glial cells also began to evolve, which seem to be of importance for orchestrating development of nervous tissues as an organism grows, also key in producing some auxiliary structures such as the myelin sheath — a layer of insulating fat encasing neurons that increases synaptic efficiency in many organisms — and no doubt more functions not yet discovered.

In exactly what way consciousness emerged via evolution is a mystery, but we can be fairly certain about what eventually had to obtain in order for it to be possible. Initially, the electrical properties in aggregates of tissue such as the brain needed to be robust enough that a stable supervenience of electromagnetic field (EMF) was created by systematic electron fluxing. Quantum effects in molecules of the body are sensitive to trace EMF energy sources, creating a structural complex of relatively thermodynamic matrix and its pockets of relatively quantum biochemistry integrated with sustained radiation. EMF/quantum hybridization is likely responsible for the existence of qualia, how we perceive unfathomably minute and diverse fluctuating of environments as a perpetualized substrate, perturbed by its surroundings but never vanishing while we are awake and lucid, the essence of perception or “stream of consciousness”. Nonlocal phenomena are ever underlying the macroscopic substance of qualitative consciousness, its EMF properties as well as bulked three dimensional matter in which nonlocality is partially dampened, and quantum processes in cells interface perceptual qualia instantiated in bodies with the more or less nonlocal natural world mostly still enigmatic to scientific knowledge. Quantum features of biochemistry have likely been refined evolutionarily so that mechanisms by which relative nonlocality affects organisms, mechanisms of EMF/matter interfacing, mechanisms targeting particular environmental stimuli via functionally tailored pigments along with further classes of molecules and cellular tissues in structures of sensation, and mechanisms for the translation of stimulus into representational memory all combine in such a way that what we call ‘intentionality’ is possible, a mind constructed to perform executive functions of deliberative interpretation and behavioral strategizing, beyond mere reflex-centric memory conjoined to stimulus/response. Thus, qualitative consciousness precedes the degree of unification we experience as humanlike awareness, for qualia can exist and perform a functional role in consort with quantum effects and additional gradations of nonlocal reality while an organism is almost entirely lacking executive, centralized control in the form of intentions.

Abstract reasoning, the precursor of intentionality, also made a very humble start. It began with extremely simple inferences as a supplement to preexisting sensitization and habituation. Stimulus/response mechanisms of the neuromatter/EMF complex, which are largely responsible for qualitative experience as we know it, had gradually become more influenced by mechanisms for processing memory. As was mentioned, primordial awareness had first been a translation of stimulus into lasting biochemical structures and pathways within individual cells, linked to discharge of their processes, then intercellular connections between neurons and additional nervous system features developed to perform a similar function, but many orders of magnitude greater in structural flexibility. For example, neurons in the human brain make more than a hundred trillion individual connections, an integration constantly reassembling itself as environmental, physiological and behavioral conditions change. At some point these rewiring processes became large-scale enough that what we could characterize as primitive intuiting materialized, a sort of meta-inferencing involving even further synthesis of disparate functional groupings of neuromatter, the translation of environmental phenomena into physiological forms with a more adaptationally advanced alignment to both external stimulus and bodily needs of the organism. Essentially, this inferencing was naturally selected for its priming function, enabling organisms to “figure out” their environment in lieu of future exertions, informational processing of causality that is then held in a unifying unconscious ‘mind’ so it can slip to the foreground as working memory when needed, a protracted orientation for discharging more complex behavioral responses simultaneously employing large arrays of tissues and organ systems.

So the mind evolves in two arenas, at the biochemical level within cells, and as interactions between neurons and additional types of cells. In the realm of intercellular connections, the cerebrum is the main structural innovation, especially well-represented in higher eukaryotes such as mammals and birds. This thin membrane enveloping the top half of the brain is composed of neuronal masses distinguished by their extreme plasticity, capable of growing into dense, complex webs of interweaving dendrites and axons that wire and rewire into synaptic firing patterns. The brain region’s ability to rapidly generate adaptive inferencing via hybridized cellular activity exceeds by far the rest of the nervous system, and is largely responsible for the possibility of not only more synthetic concepts such as numerical definitions of objects and the integration of objects as components in structure-building, but also complex reasoning, a particularly flexible way of thinking that can disassociate from concrete qualia, generalizing causality as abstract forms with practically infinite permutability for the sake of context-neutral problem-solving facility, of course crucial to the technological behavior of Homo sapiens and also additional species to a seemingly more limited extent.

A salient example of evolution in the cellular biochemistry domain are von Economo neurons, located in the anterior insula and prefrontal cortex. These types of cells must have some unique internal properties yet to be elaborated in great detail, which are found exclusively in humans and the great apes, closely tied to an experience of self-awareness that is no doubt categorically richer than any closely related species, such as birds and other mammals. Substantial presence of these neurons in the prefrontal cortex suggests a close relationship with formation of personality, a social identity reflective and malleable enough to produce not just complex behavioral constraints of status but the deeper meaning of status as individuality, a possession of one’s own rationality and desires that constantly compels improvisation as self-expression and also cooperative bonding, in essence the most advanced incarnations of what is termed ‘theory of mind’.

Backtracking a tad, a major transformation in brains occurred with evolution of the organs of intentionality, foci of functionality for organizing modules of qualitative perception with inferential and meta-inferential modules of conception so that the mind became able to pattern its own structure in a configuring and reconfiguring purposefulness. This executive processing made mentality a self-defining phenomenon without yet constituting humanlike self-awareness. Innumerable brain regions delegated to separate tasks are melded into more efficient form, a spontaneously generative “presence of mind” with overall direction labelable as meta-meta-inferencing, though perhaps not distributed within neuromatter in a way analogous to more basic inferencing. These cognitive behaviors give probably more than a hundred thousand species relatively reflexive forms of what is nonetheless judgement, unceasing consolidation of experiences from many times and places into a holistically coherent model of the environment embodied semiconsciously in the neuromaterial psyche, aimed by thought as willpower, further unifying the iterative interactions of neuronal linkages and cellular chemistry, heightening an organism’s preparation for future events with keener observational awareness.

Once awareness as qualia, perception as stream of consciousness, conception as inference, and intentional observation altogether pass a critical level resulting from sufficient convergence of diverse nervous system structures, an organism’s concepts of environment, body, mind, behavior and relational sociality weld into self-awareness, a conceptual complex in the psyche that interprets the environment as having personal meaning. To what extent this evolved in response to social or other environmental selection pressures is uncertain; it was probably due to a complicated mixture. Humans at least form a mental picture of their own self in commerce with both intragroup individuals who provide feedback that assists the assessment of one’s own actions and nature, and also environmental stimulus in general as a vehicle for actualizing oneself via subjective growth, consummating urges towards curiosity, technical problem-solving and creativity. Higher level thought not only exacts intentions with some degree of reflection, but contemplates the act of intention itself as it intersects with qualitative reality, willfully pushing past semiconscious mental and physical behaviors to a fully conscious image of self-agency out of which the world and one’s place in it is constructed as “identity”. Full-fledged definition of self propels human organisms from awareness of status, found throughout the animal kingdom, to what we consider ethical standards. Behavior in an environment of complex identities turns into the projected meaning of oneself, making community more than instinctual and conditioned by continuity of circumstance as in a herd of quadrupeds or similar such entities, but crafted, often in progressive ways, as a sort of ideal lofted above gratification of what for most species amounts to more or less delayed immediacies, converting the initiative of cognitive agency into an adapting transmittal of transcendentally emergent meanings and practices we call culture, with social life more than the sum of its naturally selected functions. In this state, the human psyche self-consciously makes and remakes itself, its society, its ecosystems and its future, injecting its own nature into the structure of apparent reality in ways that are hugely amplified as communal efforts.

Along with this evolution of intentionality into complex reasoning and the related sublimation of affect into emotional meaning, thus far culminating as concepts of identity and communal purpose in an individual personality, quantum mechanisms continued to be refined by natural selection in many ways. All indications are that nanoscale quantum processes will be found central to most biology at the cellular level because they provide for greater nonlocality and thus more potent mechanisms of fluxing, overcoming partial decoherences induced by mass, probably inhering in many classes of molecules with functions yet to be theorized. Most of this quantum behavior has in all likelihood been exhaustively selected by nature for efficiency, so it is doubtful that basics of enzyme catalysis or photosynthesis for instance will be greatly modified by any future evolution, but processes of quantum morphology are probably still quite active in the realm of perception as the EMF/neuromatter complex can change substantially by way of the brain’s protean plasticity, in turn altering how nonlocality interacts with states of awareness and the psyche’s conceptualizing of its own qualia.

Deeply understanding the seemingly paranormal experiences many have will require experimental science only in its nascent stages, but we can conjecture that higher consciousness such as is found in humans probably involved an evolutionary growing together of conceptual, perceptual, and various stimulation mechanisms such as those of sensation. So to speak tendrils of nonlocality connect with the aggregate mass of organisms via quantum effects embedded in a plenitude of bodily structures, producing phenomena such as qualitative synchronicity in the brain waves of human meditators, observed with scientific instrumentation, a “spooky action at a distance” in neuromaterial functionality that is yet to be theoretically explained. Conceiving of one’s own perception in coordination with self-awareness also most likely affects the way contours of relative nonlocality — thermodynamic, quantum, and even more spatiotemporally diffuse material occurrences yet to be modeled — manifest to the mind. How executive functions of intentionality, reflective purpose and self-concept together with behavioral conditioning intuitively manage the qualia that are still obscure to physical knowledge, and the way this whole apparatus of socially-oriented cognition changes along with theoretical advancement and memetic dissemination over relatively long periods of time, will require detailed analysis to track and comprehend.

How an essentially nonlocal reality that is mediated by quantum effects in earth’s thermodynamic and radiation-based organisms impacts consciousness, how it influences behavior, and the degree to which the experience of it is irrational or conducive to rationality is an unbroached subject. The way it is sensed, the way it is conceived, the way it modulates human decision-making, belief and action, the range of possibilities for emergent sentience in nonlocal substances, and future prospects for evolving our consciousness so as to optimize the well-adaptedness of brain plasticity and social environment are all on the cutting edge of material, psychological and sociological research.

In similarity to circulatory systems, the evolutionary profile of human consciousness has been relatively stable for at least hundreds of thousands of years, no doubt with some level of drift in its traits, but lacking any cataclysmic or massively transformational events approaching anywhere near speciation. Both human hearts and brains are not radically restructured by biological selection pressures, but the way we organize society is of utmost cruciality in determining whether biological potential of the species, mostly held in common, is maximized. Civilization has put a big wrinkle in the human psyche: we are more technologically advanced in the 21st century than ever, but this massive progress is not handled particularly well for many ecological and economic purposes, our ethics seem to perhaps be recently declined even though they surpass much of the mainstream in some previous eras, we certainly have less freedom from invasive authority than citizens of numerous earlier epochs, and it is generally difficult to ascertain which institutions in the most large-scale and fluctuating societies yet to exist are degenerating and which are on the ascent. It will be the colossal task of populations to theorize all of this transitional vastness for the sake of engineering a world that avoids losing sight of hard won ideals previous millennia labored to introduce, and which keeps citizens mobilized to pursue them.

In addendum, an issue can be touched upon that is so difficult to theorize it almost defies speculation. We have seen how the thermodynamic world of three dimensionality, the quantum world of relative nonlocality, the mysterious nonlocal substrate existing beyond the scope of current objective knowledge, and radiation that saturates this medium of substance may in some form suffice to theorize image perception, but what we call “feelings” are still inexplicable. What are the shocks and contours of auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and interoceptive sensations: not spatial, yet extremely localized, nor temporal, yet time-lagged, not objects or concepts in themselves, yet intrinsic to our experience of reality? No present quantum or thermodynamic dabbling can begin to describe what disembodied feelings are without epiphanies of causality that have probably not even been attempted, but perhaps we should attempt? Science and the culture of objectivity have some monumental challenges ahead of them, and it will be fascinating to witness hypotheses and theories of the future unfold.

Eric Wizenhizen

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Philosophy of science, history and culture.

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