How does consciousness arise in matter? While much ink (and toner) has been more or less unproductively spent on attempts to answer this question, rarely (if ever) has it been addressed in its proper context, as a question about the natural history of consciousness. Most of the time (if not always) the physics, chemistry, or neuroscience deemed relevant is taken for granted, and the question that is actually addressed is: how does consciousness arise ahistorically from the material matrix described by these sciences.
In her outstanding essay “Consciousness: A Natural History,” Maxine Sheets-Johnstone presents reasons for thinking the question in this ahistorical form spurious; genuine understanding of consciousness demands close and serious study of evolution as a history of animate form. She pours well-deserved scorn on D.C. Dennett, who is loath to find consciousness in any creature that does not speak and therefore lacks a “center of narrative gravity.” (His answer to the question of whether deaf-mutes are conscious: “Of course they are — but let’s not jump to extravagant conclusions about their consciousness, out of misguided sympathy.”) The question Dennett does not ask himself is how human language itself arose.