Systems Science Friday Noon Seminar Series

The Development and Role of Mental Action During Early Evolution and the Origin of Life



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Studies of the earliest part of an evolutionary sequence and the origin of life have, to now, focused on molecular factors without discussing how a lineage starts evolving and generating behaviors. In an important sense such research has been done blindly, without a measure of success, since no broadly accepted definition of life exists to separate pre-biological phenomena from the simplest of biological phenomena. Actually there is one, but it has been overlooked for over 200 years: In 1676- 1677 the Royal Society accepted that microbes were alive because they were seen to act alive – a decision still accepted today. Generalizing that definition to include spores leads to “Things that can act alive are alive, while other things are not.” To act alive an object requires the means and motive to seek external resources – implying the presence of an integrated mind with sufficient knowledge to supply the directive services needed for its body to act appropriately. Therefore living begins when mental activity becomes sufficiently mature.

This lecture offers an hypothesis explaining how mental action and bodies coevolve during the earliest phase in the evolution of mental action – the period from when a lineage begins evolving to the point during the development sequence where a member of the lineage first recognizes the existence of an external environment as the source of resources. That first act of recognition starts proactive resource harvesting, thereby generating an inferential and behavioral turning point – and the moment when living begins. It follows that an interim period of development exists in any evolutionary sequence during which members of the evolving lineages are neither mineral nor alive. By explaining the development of perception-based behaviors in the context of the origin of life, this research connects evolutionary theory to the mind-body problem, and raises issues that involve a host of other questions and areas of research. Time permitting, some of those connections will be discussed.

Biographical Information

Steve Staloff received his PhD from the University of Oregon in Economics. He taught at the University of Maine and Portland State University, and did theoretical and statistical research at Resources for the Future and Pacific Northwest Laboratories in resource, solar and conservation issues. A research question aimed elsewhere exposed a possible connection between a modern act of human thinking and a simple molecular invention of a sort likely to occur early in an evolutionary sequence – a switch or logic gate controlling a behavior. His research interests focused thereafter on understanding how choices could evolve in tandem with bodies and societies.


Decision making, System theory, Evolution (Biology), Mind and body, Natural selection, Coevolution


Evolution | Philosophy of Mind | Systems Science

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The Development and Role of Mental Action During Early Evolution and the Origin of Life