My approach is explored by considering Aristotelian Causal Categories (1), focusing on Final Cause. I then consider the possibility of understanding this question from an ‘internalist’ perspective.

Organism ontogeny could be non-controversially viewed as finalistic. That is, it can be viewed as being globally entrained by full realization, as well as being pushed forward by local efficient causes. The fact that it can surmount many experimental impediments argues for this. Then, the concept of convergent evolution (2) should also be considered an important application of finality in evolutionary biology.

Even basic physics entertains finality — in the Second Law of thermodynamics. Thermodynamic equilibrium is attained via multiple pathways. This final inevitability is implicit in Big Bang cosmology. Also, the logical inevitability of finality is demonstrated by the fact that dynamical systems theories involve structural attractors. In evolutionary biology, one can consider a population’s situation in this way as well. Thus:

  • Formal Cause:  relevant environmental conditions
  • Material Causes:  population genotypes
  • Efficient Causes:  organism interactions with environmental challenges followed by reproduction of the survivors
  • Final Cause: adaptedness of the population

Adaptedness to local conditions was taken as the attractor in the logic of the basic Fisherian understanding of natural selection, (3) although the currently predominant Dobzhanskian approach views selection as a continuing gene pool adjustment in the context of ever-changing environmental conditions. Clearly, a ‘moving’ target, is still logically an attractor — and is logically a final cause.

In order to examine the possibility that biological evolution may be viewed as a conscious process, one must define ‘consciousness’ appropriately. Upon Googling ‘consciousness,’ we find one major definitional attractor: the condition of being aware. While awareness is a reasonable definition of consciousness in many applications, it is unusable here, being too organism-based. Looking further at these definitions we find: “the moral consciousness of a nation.” Or “the state of being … responsive to one’s surroundings”. And there is Caroline Jones’s “ … consciousness as a much more diffuse participation in the energies of the universe” (4) If a collectivity may be conscious, it is freed from limitation to neural systems. If moral consciousness might be assigned to a nation, that means it is embodied in laws, valued behaviors and favored circumstances. Then, a population is, in Darwinian discourse, responsive to its surroundings.

Then we might ask: suppose we do view evolution as conscious, what would that tell us that we would otherwise not understand about evolution? Above I suggested that it might be held to entail directionality via final causation. We can see that once a population has, say, taken up swimming, then adaptations to walking or flying would no longer be possible. But here we might recall, for example, the handfish or the flying fish! This only tells us that watery situations are many, and complex. The handfish can escape by swishing its tail, and the flying fish sculls with the lower lobe of its tail fin while aloft. Swimming in these cases was not abandoned, but, supplemented. However, considering our own earliest ancestors, the sarcopterygians, they did eventually leave the water altogether. However, living in shallow stagnant waters in swamps, they had been walking on their muscular fins and breathing air long before departing the waters. They were preadapted to living completely out of water. (5) Was preadaptation an actual condition? Had landlubbing become predestined instead of fortuitous?

We now face the dichotomy between chance and choice. (6) My perspective on this involves the ‘internalist’ discourse. (7, 8) Internally a system makes a choice; if apparent externally and not fitting some theoretical scheme, it appears to be random. Both things are ‘true’. Internalism attempts to understand a system from within, the inquirer being a part, and therefore unable to see itself as if from outside.

Internalism is modest in scope, being focused locally, as things are happening, and would be reported in the present progressive tense. Examples in serious discourse moving in the internalist direction have been Maturana and Varela’s ‘autopoiesis’, dialectics, phenomenology, operationalism in physics, second-order cybernetics, the ‘emic’ approach in anthropology, aspects of quantum mechanics.

While externally we might describe, say, a dinner — the setting, menu, and so on — internally the representation of the dinner could be reports on a sequence of tastes. Note the incommensurable kinds of knowledge here — externally we test things, internally we ‘prove’ them (in the Buddhist sense) to ourselves. The reason for taking the internalist stance is that generativity cannot be approached externally. In that context nothing new is produced except by error, giving us, e.g., the mutation model in current evolution discourse. Internally chance is choice. Important internally would be the concept of vagueness. Fuzziness is a step in this direction but is still externalist. Any system during its development changes by becoming more definitely embodied. As a system hardens into senescence, it becomes unable to marshall the requisite variety needed to survive perturbations and gets recycled.

Then, might evolution be understood in an internalist mode? Might that be how we would locate its consciousness? Again, what difference would this make to our understanding of biological evolution?. Perhaps it could lead more of us to love its products more than we do? Might it allow us to anticipate some of its current trajectories in organisms that we relate to? And could that ultimately inform social or political policies?

Read the entire Conscious Evolution series:

  1. Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
  2. Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
  3. Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
  4. The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
  5. The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
  6. Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
  7. The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
  8. Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
  9. One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
  10. Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe



  1. Salthe SN (2006) On Aristotle’s conception of causality. General Systems Bulletin 35:11.
  2. McGhee G. (2011) Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful. MIT Press.
  3. Salthe SN (2005) Semiotics in biology: inside neo-Darwinism. J. Biosemiotics 1: 505-518.
  4. Jones CA (2018) A common sense. A conversation with Caroline A. Jones. Edge, 3:15:18.
  5. Salthe SN (1972) Evolutionary Biology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  6. Salthe, SN (2008) Vitalism versus physical-chemical explanations. In: Jorgensen SE and Fath BD (eds) The Encyclopedia of Ecology. Elsevier, pp. 3694-3699.
  7. Salthe, SN (2012c) The uncanny position of ‘Now’ in science. In Tracing the Road to Reality. Simeonov PL, Smith LS, Ehresman AC (Eds) Springer. pp. 279-282.
  8. Salthe SN (2014) Creating the Umwelt: from chance to choice. Biosemiotics 7: 351-359.

Published On: February 6, 2019

Stanley N. Salthe

Stanley N. Salthe

Ph.D. in Zoology, Columbia University, 1963. My interests and work have ranged widely, in order, as follows: ichthyology, herpetology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology, systems science, semiotics, natural philosophy, with publications in all but the first. I taught various biology courses at the City University of New York from 1965 until 1990, and have been associated with Binghamton University’s Biological Science department since 1992.

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