By Meg Olson
In his latest book, Point Roberts resident Arthur Reber makes the argument that if it’s alive, it knows it, at least at some level.
“The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes and Consciousness,” published by Oxford University Press in December 2018, puts forward a theory Reber has called the cellular basis of consciousness – that being sentient, conscious and aware is an inextricable part of life itself.
Reber says the idea behind the book crystalized for him, “during an impromptu and mostly one-way chat with a small green caterpillar who was laying waste to my basil plants.” The caterpillar might not be wondering whether Reber was conscious, as he was wondering about it, but it did have a level of awareness. “We usually think of animals like that as organic robots but it struck me as thinking, deciding which leaf might be better, checking for predators,” he said.
The book pulls together the work of researchers in a wide variety of disciplines from cell biology to philosophy.
“In the past several decades, the issue of consciousness has become one of the more intensely examined in the biological, psychological and philosophical areas,” he said.
Researchers who draw a line of biological complexity, like having a brain, under which living things aren’t conscious run up against the problem of why the line is there. “You’re going to have to identify precisely what physiological, bio-mechanical events suddenly allowed consciousness to blow into existence,” Reber said. “Worse, you’re going to have to explain how it happened again and again.”
A more elegant and simple solution, according to Reber, is that consciousness is a quality of all living things. “If we are comfortable viewing all life as having evolved from a single occurrence 3 or 3.5 billion years ago, we shouldn’t have a problem viewing experiential elements, awareness, sentience, minds, in a similar fashion.”
The book has plenty of examples of sentience where you might not expect it, such as altruistic bacteria on the edge of a colony who slow down their use of nutrients in response to a chemical signal from cells at the center of the colony. Reber also looks at evidence of sentience in plants, presenting some evidence that “might make vegetarians a tad uncomfortable.”
Reber said he hopes the book will spark discussion and further research into what the American Association for the Advancement of Science has dubbed the second most unanswered question in all of science – how does the brain make consciousness?
The book is available at Albany Books in Tsawwassen as well as on Amazon and from Oxford University Press online.