Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Article excerpt

The fossil record notwithstanding, there seems to be good reason to regard the evolutionary debut of consciousness as very possibly the most critical step in the whole of evolution. Before this, the entire cosmic process, we are told, was only, as someone has phrased it, "a play before empty benches" - colorless and silent at that, because, according to our best physics, before brains there was no color and no sound in the universe, nor was there any flavor or aroma and probably rather little sense and no feeling or emotion.

roger SPERRY, Problems Outstanding in the Evolution of Brain Function (1964)

Over many years I have taken daily walks, frequently roaming the paths in the park-like environment of the beautiful University of California, Berkeley campus near my home. While walking, I often think about how stable and enduring the campus feels - both its natural and built features - despite my awareness of how dynamic it is intellectually. I have watched the natural world change, while the people who inhabit it are continually re-inventing themselves. Years ago, students moving between classes would smoke cigarettes while ambling to their next stop. Now smokers are rare, but cell phones abound and personal details flow through the air as if my presence is invisible. Juxtaposing the intrusive commentary with the sounds of nature, my mind often reflects on how the lushness of nature and the biological mind space differ. The crux of the question here is what can we say that embraces how both nature and our brains change over time as they are faced with constant cultural change as well?

Indeed, constant flux is evident even on the most basic levels. For example, a few years ago fierce windstorms battered the campus site, leaving the lawns, paths and the small creek that winds through the grounds covered with tree limbs, brush, and other natural debris. Much of this was cleaned up in the following weeks, although some of the larger limbs were re-fashioned into the landscape's overall design. These pieces ended up looking strikingly like works of art, much to my delight; no wonder artists often call artwork "pieces." As physical changes like these are reflected in conceptual transmutations in my brain, my brain is right there evaluating what I am seeing.

Photographic documentation further supports my sense of the site's transient stability. Historical photographs in particular make it clear that if I could somehow transport myself into that earlier time I would quickly adapt, for the landscape's basic contours remain similar to what I know now. I could still gaze up at the Berkeley Hills and similarly take in the distant Bay to the west, two of the geographic pleasures that make walking on campus so appealing. Indeed, in the 1860s the original 160-acre campus was described as "a 'choice savannah' on the east shore of San Francisco Bay - a place of rolling hills with large coastal live oak, sycamore and bay trees; a lively creek that provided a yearround water supply; and views toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate" (University of California at Berkeley 2104).1

This creek, Strawberry Creek, is one of my favorite touchstones for a moment's respite. A particularly visual example of ongoing environmental change on the campus, it is also a reminder of the tension between constancy and change mentioned above, although I rarely frame it so abstractly while I'm walking. Some of the malleability of the site is particularly evident when we compare the 19th and 21st century environments of the creek. It is unlikely that anyone knowledgeable of the history would talk about the creek's water today without also mentioning how urban blight denigrated the water's quality. Images of the creek from the early 20th century show that chairs and other debris were quite evident, demonstrating the cavalier attitude to environmental factors in that epoch. Over time these intrusions dramatically altered the stream's overall composition, changing it into a degraded habitat with chronic pollution problems. …

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