QR6.3.13 The Grand Evolution

The origin of the universe, life and consciousness are the three great mysteries of science. Quantum realism suggests they are related. Our universe began from a single event that cascaded to generate the highest frequency of light, some of which entangled into electron and quark matter that then evolved into the atoms of stars that made higher elements like carbon.

It then took the earth half a billion years to form atoms, molecules and macromolecules like DNA that led to life. The countless bacteria of the earth are simple cells that eat everything from rocks to plastic and without them, other life couldn’t exist, including us. About a billion years later, maybe in hydrothermal vents under the sea, two types of DNA fused into the complex cells that later formed plants and animals and eventually, human beings. The grand evolution is then that the evolution of matter and the evolution of life are one and the same universal process.

My body came from a single cell and simple bacteria evolved into us, so when did consciousness begin? We see ourselves as uniquely conscious but evolution doesn’t do unique. Growth and evolution are step-wise sequences so there is no line between us and them. Some say dogs are conscious and some say plants are too, but who thinks cells are conscious?

Figure 6.37 Trilobites observed!

It is unlikely that consciousness suddenly began at a past moment. If consciousness is the ability to observe and the physical world as a virtual reality only exists when observed, it must be that everything observes, so even the trilobites that filled the primeval seas observed something (Figure 6.37). One can scale the grand evolution of matter and life in terms of observation times as follows, starting with a photon:

Planck time is the shortest possible time in physics. An observation at this scale would occur more times a second than there have been seconds in the life of the universe. Planck time is taken to represent photon scale observations.

A yoctosecond (ys) is a trillion-trillionth of a second. A top quark’s lifetime is estimated at half a ys, boson lifetimes in ys and quark plasma light pulses are a few ys, so this timescale may represent basic matter observations.

A zeptosecond (zs) is a billion-trillionth of a second and the shortest time measured so far. Physicists estimate a few hundred zs for the two atoms of a hydrogen molecule to photoionize (Grundmann et al., 2020), so this timescale may represent atomic observations.

An attosecond (as) is a million-trillionth of a second. Ultrafast x-ray sources with as time resolution reveal bromine molecule vibronic structures (Kobayashi et al., 2020), so this timescale may represent molecular observations.

A femtosecond (fs) is a thousand-trillionth of a second or 0.000000000000001second. It is to a second as a second is to about 32 million years.High-energy fs scale X-rays that probe complex protein molecules in light harvesting bacteria respond to light in the order of one fs (Rathbone et al., 2018)p1433, so this timescale may represent macromolecule observations.

A picosecond (ps) is a trillionth of a second or a million-millionth of a second. Estimates of coherence times for cells range from 100fs to 1 (Rathbone et al., 2018) p1447, so this timescale may represent simple cell observations.

A nanosecond (ns) is a billionth of a second. A billion is a big number as it takes 95 years to count to a billion. Nanosecond pulsed electric fields elicit various responses in human and other cells (Koga et al., 2019), so this timescale may represent complex cell observations.

A microsecond (μs) is a millionth of a second. Bacteria existed three billion years ago but the leap to multi-cell life happened only 800 million years ago, when cells began to move ions across cell walls using ion channels that act in a few microseconds (Minor, 2010) p201, faster than any nerve, to let simple marine animals with no nerves move towards the algae they feed on (Smith et al., 2019). Microsecond pulsed electric fields are used in food production as mushrooms exposed to a ten μs electromagnetic burst can double their growth (Edwards, 2010), so this timescale may represent multicell observations.

A millisecond (ms) is a thousandth of a second. As animals grew larger, electrochemical nerves replaced chemical signals. Jellyfish nerves are all over their body but oysters have a neuroendocrine center (Liu et al., 2016), and the ten-thousand nerves of worms and slugs and the hundred-thousand nerves of crabs and insects form a chord. A honeybee with nearly a million nerves in a mm volume can fly, navigate and communicate where pollen is. These instinctive brains are fast, as an insect startle response can be less than 5ms (Sourakov, 2011) and a praying mantis can sense the vibrations of a bat attack and evade in 8ms (Triblehorn & Yager, 2005), so this timescale may represent instinctive neural observations.

A centisecond (cs) is a hundredth of a second. Frogs and reptiles evolved brains with tens of millions of nerves to process sense data from one nerve to the next. It takes at least a cs for a signal to travel a meter of nerve, so the response time for cerebellum-based one-center brains is in hundredths of a second. Tadpole startle responses occur within 1-2cs (Yamashita et al., 2000) and our blink responses take 3-4 cs, so this timescale may represent one-center brain observations.

A decisecond (ds) is a tenth of a second. Bird and small mammal brains are about ten times larger than same-size frogs or reptiles mainly due to midbrain and neocortex increases. If two-center mammal brains require thalamic coherence that takes two-tenths of a second to occur, the rat reaction time of about 2-3ds is expected (Blokland, 1998). In 100m races, elite sprinters take 1.2-1.6 tenths of a second to start moving (Tønnessen et al., 2013) and responses under a tenth of a second are a false start, so this timescale may represent two-center brain observations.

The speed of thought seems to be about a second. Lower brain parts respond faster but if brain-wide consciousness takes half-a-second or so, human thought will take longer. The speed of thought is hard to define as different brain parts have different timescales. Our brains blink in hundredths of a second and change highway lanes in tenths of a second, but it takes longer to do what humans do – think. For mental tasks, it takes about a second to mentally rotate an 80° shape (Harris et al., 2000) or a 3D shape (Shepard & Metzler, 1988) or do mental arithmetic (Han et al., 2016), so this timescale may represent three-center brain observations.

Table 6.1 below reviews observation timescales from a photon to a human, where the estimated times increase with degree of evolution. It’s hard to swat a fly that sees 250 frames a second to our 60 because to the fly, we move in slow motion. Consciousness as the ability to observe then evolved as matter and life did, so the difference in consciousness between us and a fly is one of scale not kind. Working back from us to what came before suggests that consciousness was always there, just on a different time scale.

Figure 6.38 S. Roeselii responses

Consciousness benefits all life as even single cells face choices that demand unified actions. The trumpet-shaped S. Roeselii is a one-celled animal that attaches to sea rocks to feed on passing rotifers. When subjected to an irritant, it tries various responses (Figure 6.38), in order, before finally detaching to relocate elsewhere (Dexter et al., 2019):

They do the simple things first, but if you keep stimulating, they ‘decide’ to try something else. S. roeselii has no brain, but there seems to be some mechanism that, in effect, lets it ‘change its mind’ once it feels like the irritation has gone on too long.

How does a cell with no brain make choices like that? The answer proposed is that cell-level observations allow cell-level choices. The details are unclear, but the evidence suggests that consciousness helps every step of evolution, from cells to our brains.

When watching a movie, consciousness combines the sights and sounds into one experience. Bottom-up sensory competition would pit picture data against sound but attention can choose from all the senses. We experience the pictures, sounds and feelings of a movie all at once because consciousness integrates on our timescale and on every timescale.

Each of us is a walking, talking, thinking collection of 30 trillion cells that grew from a cell by a path discovered by evolution. We grew as humans evolved from cells, one step at a time. We are conscious because countless less-conscious life forms found ways to become more so. When a baby looks at you intently, it may be forming the observer as well as the observed. Whether we admit it or not, our consciousness evolved.

If only the physical world exists, evolution is going nowhere but if it is a virtual reality, then the grand evolution is one of consciousness.

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Table 6.1 The Evolution of Consciousness

Observer

Time Scale

Examples

Light

Planck time

̴10−44 seconds

Photon

Basic matter

Yoctosecond

10−24 seconds

Electrons, quarks, neutrinos

Atoms

Zeptosecond

10−21 seconds

Periodic table atoms.

Molecules

Attosecond

10−18 seconds

Oxygen, carbon dioxide …

Macromolecules

Femtosecond

10−15 seconds

DNA, RNA, mtDNA

Simple cells

Picosecond

10−12 seconds

Bacteria and organelles

Complex single cells

Nanosecond

10−9 seconds

Paramecium, amoeba

Multicell life

Microsecond

10−6 seconds

Placozoa, algae, fungi

Instinctive brains

Millisecond

10−3 seconds

Fish, insects, crabs

One-center brains

Centisecond

10−2 seconds

Reptiles, amphibia

Two-center brains

Decisecond

10−1 seconds

Mammals, birds

Three-center brains

Seconds

Seconds

Humans