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Carlo Pulsoni interviews Eva Jablonka

In your book with Simona Ginsburg (The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness, 2019), you wonder what has marked the passage of organisms that lacked consciousness to organisms with conscience. What value can we give to consciousness?

We think that consciousness is a way of being, like living. Living is a way of being in the world which is very difficult from the way of being in the world of non-animate, non-living being, like  rocks and stars. Similarly, being conscious is a different way of being in the world than being alive but non-conscious (compare a living dog with a dog indeep coma). Another mode of being is the human, reflective way of being. This view is influenced by Aristotle, who distinguished between the nutritive (merely living), sensitive (feeling and conscious) and rational (reflective) “souls” (soul was for Aristotle a dynamic, self-sustaining and intrinsically goal-oriented organization).

 

What role does consciousness play in the learning process?

There are certain forms of learning that necessitate consciousness in living organisms (though not in robots). We argue that a living creature cannot learn about new compound objects and actions in the world and use them for second-order learning (we call this learning UAL, Unlimited Associative learning) without being at the same time conscious. Non-conscious beings, such as oysters, cannot learn in this way. Again, if you take the analogy with life, an organisms that has an unlimited system of heredity (like DNA) is alive according to scientific criteria of life. So unlimited heredity is an evolutionary marker of life. Similarly, UAL is an evolutionary marker of consciousness.

Have you noticed if there is an influence given by the change of the environment in the learning process?

Learning is always about some change – if there is no change there is no need to learn. There is always some change either in the environment or in the action of the organism that lead to a change in the interaction with the environment that lead to learning.

What kind of emotion does this important international recognition give you?

The venture into the study of consciousness is for me a great adventure. Most of my intellectual life I have been researching and writing about other topics, mainly inheritance, and more specifically, epigenetic inheritance (the inheritance of gene expression patterns), social learning and language. The study of non-genetic inheritance is also theresearch for which I am best known. It is very gratifying that people find our work on consciousness of interest, and it is also very challenging. This is a huge and complex topic and much more work needs to done. So I feel very humble, but also excited about the research and the new dialogue with new colleagues.

 

 

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