How did the process of Darwinian evolution lead from inert matter to the ability of knowing and understanding? When did the ‘mind’ come into being and how was it possible? A recently published review article from Neuroforum, focuses on the complicated development of animal behaviour to the animal mind.
By Martin Heisenberg
It is widely assumed that the mind is part of nature and arose in the course of Darwinian evolution. Very little is known about this process but researchers are certain of one thing: the process contains a few significant steps which are worth summarising.
A question of behaviour
Firstly, the mind evolved in living creatures. Nothing resembling a mind has ever been observed in inanimate matter. Secondly, research shows that not all organisms have minds, only animals and humans do. But why did the mind evolve in animals and humans and what distinguishes them from other organisms? The answer lies with their behaviour and their brain.
The process of living has two major domains, the stable maintenance of the process of life in the organism, and the interaction of the organism with the world. In animals, the interaction with the outside world occurs mainly via behaviour.
Behaviour evolved as it served the fitness, or the ability to produce healthy offspring, of the animal. It had to provide resources, protection and social contact. The richness of the world, the active mobility of the animal and the limited predictability of behavioural outcome were excessive challenges.
A higher level of behavioural organisation
As a result, the animal had to decide where, when and under which circumstances the respective behaviour had to be activated. The animal needed the brain to improve the effectiveness of the behaviour by organising behavioural activation. The mind is considered a higher level of behavioural organisation and meta-organisation.
In his article published in the journal Neuroforum, author Martin Heisenberg documents the behavioural studies over the last 50 years on the fly Drosophila, also commonly known as the fruit fly. The article shows that even in such a small insect, the main task of the brain is to organise the activation of the respective behavioural modules. For instance, the fly can improve the quality of its decisions by gathering knowledge about the world and about itself.
All share a common ground for survival
The article demonstrates how mobile animals with several symmetrical pairs of appendages have a common ground plan of behavioural organisation, even if they are as different as flies and primates. They all need to get orientated in the world, have to find food, communicate, fight, copulate, solve problems, find shelter, hide, sleep, and many other activities.
Mind improves behaviour
The article reiterates how little we still know about the mind and its evolutionary history and still throws up several significant questions: What were the large and small innovations that played a significant role? How did behavioural organisation evolve? How important was social behaviour and, in particular communication? And could thinking be considered a higher level of behavioural control? What is known, however: mind improves behaviour, and this could explain how, during evolution, mind could have arisen from matter.
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