Evolution of Cognition


The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.

2 brains

Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.

To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.

early humans2

Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.

The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.


Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.

As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.

Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.

2 thoughts on “Evolution of Cognition

  1. I think of cognition as something possessed at a minimum by any organism with a nervous system. It might go back to even lower levels on the evolutionary tree. Consciousness, at least in my latest writings, is something I reserve for the higher organisms – people, apes, dolphins, etc – and relates possibly to the establishment of a sort of feedback loop where cognition can cognate about itself if that makes any sense.

    I don’t think you are using the terms in that way but I won’t argue about it. I like this post.

    There are some really interesting ideas about human cognitive development in a talk by Iain Davidson that begins at the below link at about minute 38.


    You might find this book really interesting since it blends neuroscience and Eastern philosophy. I have been trying to put up a post about it on my blog, but never seem to be able to finish it.

    1. Jim,

      Thanks so much for taking time to comment and for the links to the additional content regarding this issue. Terminology regarding consciousness and cognition is clearly one of the areas where I think we see a number of different interpretations or where the meaning is not always clear, and I think I have spent a fair amount effort to be clear in the way I express the terms I use. It’s not always a simple matter to get people to agree about the words we use and what they speak to specifically, but I appreciate that those who read here may wish to define terms differently, and I genuinely believe we can still discuss the subject while still allowing for these differences.

      One of the difficulties in setting the minimum standard for cognition as simply possessing a nervous system is that while the process of perception, or knowing, or being aware, while quite possibly having some degree of possibility in organisms who only have a rudimentary nervous system, is that we are not able to establish that such processes are taking place in any meaningful way. If you wish to suggest that a thermostat has a degree of cognition because it knows when to open and when to close, I suppose that any simple nervous system might be considered to be capable of some degree of cognition also. Generally speaking, it seems to me that cognition requires a great deal more than that, but I don’t want to argue about that either. My point was that even the very first modern humans had a fully competent brain structure for cognition, but did not immediately begin to demonstrate awareness of the sort that showed cognition was taking place. Simply having the structure isn’t enough, in my opinion.

      Our ability to reflect upon our thinking, to be cognizant of our cognition does constitute a difference as organisms go, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that some form or degree of cognition may be present in other organisms. It’s definitely an interesting subject to investigate and reflect upon and I’m glad to share ideas about it.

      I am somewhat familiar with Iain Davidson’s work in human cognition and anthropology, and he does seem to allow for a degree or type of cognition in our close relatives, as you enumerated them, and in his talk, “Stone Tools and Cognition,” he says the aim of cognitive science is to “discover the representational and computational capacities of the human mind and their structural and functional realization in the human brain.” He also feels as I do, that we cannot understand the mind simply by looking at the structure of the brain. He suggests that cognition is also partly a product of the “interaction of people with other people, and between people.” I’m looking forward to following the link you provided.

      Evan Thompson’s book is on my list to read and it also promises to provide some great material for a blog post. I’ll be glad to share your ideas about the book when I’ve had the chance to review it.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment……John H.

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