A hierarchy of consciousness
FROM ATOM TO COSMOS
MARILYN MONK, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology, University College London, shares some fascinating insights into the nature of consciousness from the perspective of science.
Before I begin, let me confess that the study of consciousness is not my field. I am a molecular biologist. In over 60 years of my research of life at the subcellular and cellular level, I have been concerned with DNA replication and repair, cell signaling, epigenetics and regulation of gene expression in development, Lamarckian inheritance, regenerative medicine, early diagnosis of genetic disease and embryo/cancer genes. So why now consciousness?
Over the last year I have found presentations of consciousness studies very confusing. Is consciousness in the brain (as Francis Crick expounded), or not just in the brain but pervading all existence (as in panpsychism)? Does consciousness use material mechanisms in its operation, or is it non-material? Is consciousness a human phenomenon or is all life, and perhaps nonlife too, conscious? So, first of all, I asked myself where is consciousness for me? Experientially, I know in everyday activities I have consciousness. But then, in times of meditative experiences of wonder and beauty, when I am aware of being aware, I feel strongly that consciousness has me. As one who has always happily embraced paradox I think both are true. But is the mechanism of consciousness in either sense material? I decided to start with the definition of consciousness from the Oxford Living Dictionary, which is “The state of being aware of, and responsive to, one’s surroundings.”
People who talk about consciousness studies are mainly concerned with human consciousness and may use definitions that are human-centered – indeed, the Cambridge Dictionary definition of consciousness is “The state of understanding and realizing something.” Certainly that has been the main focus since Descartes, who confined consciousness and mind to humans. More recently, there has been much debate about consciousness in animals – even in plants – and I have observed in my research, and in my love for all creatures on this earth, that all life is aware and responsive to surroundings. The term “aware” is certainly more of a human concept, and may be taken to include a huge range of consequences of awareness – sensations, feelings, self reflection, memory, imagination, and so on. But, as a biologist, when I consider the simple definition – aware and responsive to surroundings – I see consciousness extends outside of the human realm, though in lower life forms, or even non-life forms, we see awareness more simply as detecting and sensing surrounding environment.
Consistent with my usual approach to scientific exploration, I began without investigation of the vast literature on the topic of consciousness. In this way I hoped to avoid being overwhelmed by the myriad of ways of thinking about the topic. During my early studies I was mentored by a wise scientist (Professor Bob Pritchard), and then later by my spiritual teacher (Bhagwan Rajneesh or Osho), to approach my work of exploration with an open mind. Bob said to me don’t read the literature before you begin – you will be indoctrinated and think it has all been done already. Rajneesh said to me that there should be no a priori hypotheses, no preconceived ideas guiding my research. So I decided to start thinking about consciousness at the level of the atoms, molecules, cells and tissues of my laboratory research, and found myself working my way up from the micro- to the macro-cosmos, looking for the mechanisms of consciousness (sensing environment and responding to change) at each level of increasing complexity.
All life is aware and
responsive to surroundings.
The term “aware” is certainly
more of a human concept, and
may be taken to include a huge range of
consequences of awareness
– sensations, feelings, self reflection,
memory, imagination, and so on.
My starting rules for this analysis were views I had already – specifically, that everything is interconnected and everything is in service to its own higher order structure. These principles came from influences in Edinburgh University in the early 70s: Henry Kacser taught the concept of interconnectedness as metabolic flux in the metabolome – the intricate interconnected biochemical pathways within a cell; and Conrad Waddington taught the concept of service as epigenetic programming of different cells in the body to serve their higher order structure – the different tissues and organs. My scientific approach was to look for material mechanisms of consciousness at each level. And, indeed, I found that material mechanisms were known at all levels, with a few exceptions that might require a greater knowledge of quantum theory and entanglement. Surprisingly, with such a materialist approach throughout, I ended up with a model encompassing a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose throughout evolution.
Just starting with consciousness as a state of being aware (detecting or sensitive) and responsive to surroundings, it is clear to me that my experience that I have consciousness relies on my senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. I also get messages from my body to my brain if I am hungry or tired or in pain, and messages from my brain to my body for different emotions I experience. And indeed messages from within the environment of my self as I am conscious of my mental functions of memory, imagination and the machinations of mind (the latter more confined to human life). These are functions of human brain/body communication. A lot (but not all) is known about material mechanisms involving the wiring of millions of neurons in the brain, and transmission of signals between brain and body via informational molecules binding to special cell receptors. However, it is evident to me that all forms of life have consciousness but at different levels of sophistication of the consequences of their consciousness.
A worm is conscious – it detects and responds to changes in its environment. A bacterium can detect a gradient of sugar involving special receptors on its surface and responds by transferring the information to its means of movement, its flagellae, to swim towards a food source.
Everything is interconnected and
everything is in service to its
own higher order structure.
As an example of consciousness in lower life forms, we can look at an area of my own research in the early ’70s, namely, how slime mold amoebae (Dictyostelium discoideum) become aware of changes in their environment and how they respond. Aggregation of the individual free-living amoebae into a multicellular structure is triggered by their awareness that they have run out of food. The individual amoebae detect the effects of a change in their environment (starvation) and start to emit a signal (pulses of cyclic AMP), which diffuses out into the territory (see Figure 1). The fastest signaling amoebae establish and take control of the territories. Amoebae in a territory, detecting the gradient of cyclic AMP, make movement steps towards the source, and emit their own signal to attract amoebae further out to join the aggregation. So the signal is relayed out and bands of amoebae move inwards.
They move towards each other as they come closer to the center to make amazing spirals looking like galaxies. The aggregate formed in the center of the territory forms a multicellular slug capable of movement over a greater distance than the individual amoebae could manage. The slug develops phototactic and thermotactic receptors at its tip so that it moves towards the light and heat at the soil surface where it forms a fruiting body. A third of the amoebae in the slug sacrifice their lives to create a stalk, which bears the spores aloft so that they will be distributed to better feeding grounds. I worked on the material mechanisms and parameters of aggregation in the early ’70s and it was amazing to understand how clever this organism can be when triggered by the need to move to new pastures. It is a good example of a lower organism sensing and responding to the environment at several levels and the material mechanisms are known.
Figure 1. Aggregation, movement and fruiting body of Dictyostelium after the amoebae detect they have run out of food. a) Amoebae in the field emit a signal of cAMP triggered by starvation and those with fastest periodicity form territories with amoebae relaying the signal outward and making a movement step inward towards the source. b) As they approach the center, amoebae are attracted to each other’s cAMP signal and the streams form spirals. c) The slug, measuring several centimeters, has receptors that detect heat and light, and so can detect, and move the distance, to the soil surface. d) At the surface the slug transforms into a fruiting body. A third of the amoebae in the slug sacrifice their lives to form a stalk to bear the spores aloft (Alcantara and Monk, J gen Microbiol 81;321-334, 1974).
So consciousness can operate at the level of whole populations of individuals. What about lower and higher levels of complexity – atoms, molecules, cells and tissues, or ecosystems, solar systems and galaxies? Does it make sense to say that the mechanisms of consciousness are still material throughout?
In the following model of a hierarchy of consciousness, I propose that mechanisms at all levels of complexity depend on interconnectedness of the parts serving their higher order structure. A model of interconnectedness applied to increasing orders of complexity is shown in Figure 2. This is illustrated as a binary model for simplicity (clearly more than two atoms make a molecule, more than two molecules make a cell, and so on). Nevertheless the binary interconnected model links all parts at all levels of increasing complexity into one unified structure. The steps to increasing complexity are due to a conglomeration of parts from the level below (survival of the fittest due to safety in numbers). Note, however, that this rule is broken at the step from populations to ecosystems where I have brought in another hierarchy of non-life to create the ecosystems – soil to rocks to mountains, rivers and oceans.
Analysis of this hierarchy of interconnectedness will show that, at each level, the parts are in service to their higher order structure – the electrons to the atom, the atoms to the molecule, the molecule to the cell, and so on. The parts in service at each level are conscious, in that they detect and respond to their environment. In fact, service of parts to their whole is essential for survival of the whole in evolution. The mechanisms are material at all levels, as we will now examine, starting with the atom.
Figure 2. A diagrammatic representation (an inverted ancestry model from Gregoire, 2014) of an interconnected hierarchy of increasing complexity in evolution. This is a binary model for simplicity – the number of atoms making a molecule, or molecules making a cell, and so on, is greater than two. It also shows a path of increasing complexity limited to eight levels, going through life forms familiar to the author (my own expertise is at the level of molecules and cells and differentiating tissues). Clearly there are many other intermediate life forms between the atom and plants and animals, which are not included here. A similar hierarchy could be created for non-life, starting with grains of sand.
Atoms consist of a balanced number of neutrons and positively charged protons in the nucleus and negatively charged electrons in their orbits. For example, a carbon atom has six electrons and six protons; an oxygen atom has eight protons and eight electrons. When the balance of protons, neutrons and electrons is disturbed, the atom decays. The components or parts of the atom are in service to their higher order structure – the atom.
Next we have the molecules, which consist of several atoms joined together by covalent bonds formed by a sharing of electrons in outer orbits. The stability of molecules is variable depending on the strength of bonding between the atoms and the possibility, or not, of their bonding with another atom or molecule. One could say that the atoms are in service to the molecule and the mechanisms by which they bond and form the molecule are understood.
Molecules interact in an interconnected way to form cells. There are approximately 3,000 biochemical pathways, with their associated substrates and products, enzymes and cofactors, interconnected in every cell. This is called the metabolome. As students in the ’60s and ’70s, we would have a Boehringer chart attached to a door or wall somewhere as a sort of biochemical bible. I developed many single cell enzyme assays to monitor gene transcription changes in early embryonic development from studying my Boehringer chart. Interconnectedness means that a change in any biochemical pathway affects all the pathways in the cell. The interconnected changes in all pathways are called metabolic flux, which can be observed by mass spectrometry. For instance one can distinguish a starvation metabolome, from an addiction metabolome, from a sugar eating metabolome, and so on. Metabolic flux shows the interconnected pathways detecting and responding to a changing environment – our definition of consciousness. The molecules are serving their higher order structure, the cell.
Referring back to Figure 2, we see that the next items in increasing levels of complexity are tissues and organs. Taking a mouse as a mammalian example, all cells in the mouse body have the same 20,000 genes. The differentiation into over 100 different cell types in the mouse body is directed by signaling from the different environments of the cells in the developing fetus to program their genes to be on or off, up-regulated or down-regulated. The programming is by epigenetic mechanisms – modifications superimposed on the DNA of the mouse genes to regulate their expression.
In computer language, the genes are the hardware and the programming is the software. The cells detect information from their environment in the developing fetus and respond by differentiating into cells with the required function (bone, muscle, blood, skin, nerve, and so on). In this sense, they are conscious and serving the tissues and organs of the body. Maybe even more incredible is that all mammalian embryos have 90 per cent of their genes in common, yet differential epigenetic programming from the speciesspecific environments of ovary, testis and uterus, determines the differential development of species.
We have been looking so far at two rules – interconnectedness within and between levels of increasing complexity, and service of parts to their higher order structure at each level. It is time to observe a third rule: even though the parts are in service to their higher order structure at each level, the parts do not know what they are serving. However, if they do not serve correctly the higher order structure will not survive. It is also important to note a fourth rule: the whole is looking after its parts at each level.
Referring back to Figure 2, we see the next level included is populations. Populations of different species can form a higher order structure, for example, the beehive, or the Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish. Here we have a colony of organisms working together to make a greater whole. One can see this too in simultaneous movement in flocks of birds and shoals of fish all moving as one. And indeed in humans sharing a common event, like football crowds moving as one in response to events on the field.
I do not know the mechanisms of communication between individuals in flocks and shoals and football crowds; however, the material mechanisms are known in populations of individuals living in service, e.g., in the beehive. The genes of different worker bees – nurse, farmer, forager and warrior – are epigenetically programmed to differentiate them to perform their specific tasks. If they do not serve their higher order structure, the beehive will die and so will the bees. Anarchic behavior in worker bees causes destruction of the beehive. Throughout we see that service of the parts to their higher order structure through consciousness, aware of their environment via interconnectedness and responsive to change by service, ensures material survival at every order of complexity. One could argue that consciousness is primary and that matter is derivative from consciousness. Indeed, evolution can be seen as a model of interconnectedness (awareness) and service (responsiveness) ensuring harmonious survival at each increasing level of complexity.
The next level of complexity I have included in my hierarchy is the ecosystem. An ecosystem is an interconnected biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. It will have the right pastures for the herbivores, the correct herbivore to predator ratio, it will have rivers (and maybe an ocean) and mountains and forests. The parts are in harmonious interconnected service to the whole for survival of the ecosystem. The mechanisms are known. As we know, if the forests are destroyed, if a river is diverted, if the top predator is removed, e.g. the wolves in Yellowstone Park, these disturbances can create imbalance in the whole system, leading to the death and destruction of the ecosystem.
And the case is the same with the next level, our solar system. Although we trust that our planet Earth will safely look after us in the future, a glimpse at the past is not so reassuring as it contains inhospitable ice ages and a meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. And now our planet is threatened by climate change and the melting of ice caps; or possibly a solar flare. Indeed only this year, Nature published a report that astronomers had observed a distant star spitting out a flare 100,000 times the energy than any seen from our own sun (Argiroffi et al., Nature Astronomy 3:742749). This is the first detection of a remote star emitting a coronal mass ejection of a type that could wreak havoc on surrounding worlds.
We have reached our galaxy and the cosmos, and we can summarize in the following key points:
A view of a hierarchy of interconnectedness through, and within, levels of increasing complexity from atom to cosmos.
At each level the parts are conscious – aware of, or detecting, or sensing, their surrounding environment, and responsive to change – in service to their higher order structure. The material mechanisms of service are established and known.
Even though the parts do not know what they are serving, the higher order structures are caring for their parts.
Some important consequences flow from the above model:
Interconnectedness means that reverberation (or flux) can move through a whole system, top down or bottom up or middle out. For example, a solar flare might disrupt ecosystems, scattering populations into new environments, leading to cellular adaptation and reprogramming of the DNA of genes. Or the human race could become extinct leading to the recovery of ecosystems.
Flux through the system leads to events that do not seem to have a material mechanism because consciousness (awareness of change and response to change) is happening across several levels of complexity. This leads me to wonder whether aspects of the paranormal might be explained in this way, certainly in space, for example, remote viewing. However, it is not so clear to me how paranormal events happen across time. Here, connections made between individual aspects in the interconnected system due to flux must be recorded in some way and be recoverable later. What could be the mechanism of recording previous events in time and re-membering?
Service of parts to the higher order structure to which they belong is essential for survival at all levels of complexity, and ensures development in evolution. However, it is important to note that this is not an imperative, because it is essential that there is turnover – the replacement of the old with the new. Extinction is equal to creation; for all species that exist on Earth today an approximately equal number have become extinct. The rule is that death equals birth. One wonders whether this means that birth and death apply to our whole cosmos.
This scheme of things establishes consciousness as the unity of everything, and the belonging to the unity of all things in service to their higher order structures. It fits with my experience that I have consciousness at my particular level of the hierarchy, and that consciousness has me though my interconnection to everything else. It celebrates belonging, and meaning, and purpose, for everything on planet Earth and beyond. My scientific approach is material – understanding the material mechanisms throughout and even showing how aspects of the paranormal might be understood. My current scheme, based on interconnectedness and service, provided that we use sensing and detecting as part of our definition of consciousness, shows that consciousness is all-pervasive and its material mechanisms at each level of complexity are known.
And finally, service is imbued with the concept of unconditional love. Unconditional service in humans is an evolutionary selectable, in that it activates the pleasure centers in the brain. And, beyond that, unconditional love for all beings and every thing works to support the flourishing of all. Anarchy in this scheme may lead to extinction.
So now, do we draw a line at the top of this hierarchy? Remembering that parts cannot know who or what is being served at all levels, and that the higher orders structures are looking after their parts, we cannot know the next higher order structure beyond the cosmos. It is plausible to argue that beyond this entire scheme of all that exists, beyond the cosmos, there may be a yet higher power caring for everything.
Adapted with permission from the author from a publication with the same name in Paradigm Explorer, Vol. 2, 2019, pp. 3-7.
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