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This July I will be speaking with this title at the University of Québec at Montréal summer institute "The Evolution and Function of Consciousness". With me will be such luminaries as Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, Wolf Singer, Simon Baron-Cohen, Patrick Haggard, Stevan Harnad, Joe Ledoux, Alfred Mele, John Searle and many others. What an impressive line-up! It will be the highlight of the summer for me.
It's a little strange (and somewhat intimidating) for a fly researcher to speak at a meeting on consciousness, but the organizers apparently intend to include researchers who can show the range of brain fucntions that do not require human consciousness. Here's what I sent them as an abstract for the program:
The collaborative actions of chance and necessity make up the foundation of evolutionary success: the deterministic rules of selection act upon the stochastic genetic variation to bring about adaptive change. Genetics studies both the variability of genomes and the almost faithful transmission of genetic information from generation to generation. The same concerted action of chance and necessity underlies bacterial chemotaxis: Escherichia coli uses straight runs and random tumbles to orient in odor plumes. In both instances, we understand both the mechanisms underlying the generation of variability and those of the the deterministic components. The behavior of organisms with nervous systems also employs this powerful combination when at first different behaviors are tried out in a new situation until the desired goal is achieved. Subsequent encounters with the same situation then lead to the successful behavior increasingly quickly. While we understand the deterministic selection processes ('reinforcement') leading to the reliable production of the behavior comparatively well, we know next to nothing about how the behavioral variability is generated that provides the substrate for these selection processes to act upon. Mutation, sexual recombination, jumping genes or horizontal gene transfer are crucial not only for evolution to take place, these fundamentally stochastic processes also make evolution principally unpredictable. Analogously, the processes by which brains generate variable and sometimes genuinely new behaviors are crucial for brains to generate adaptive behavioral choice and make brains principally unpredictable. It is this unpredictability which forms the evolutionary basis for behavioral freedom, a candidate for the evolutionary precursor to what we today call 'free will' in humans.
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