CONS ZG541: Biology and Consciousness

Instructors:  Greg Anderson, M.S.; Kanwaljeet Kaur, M.S.

Course Description:

The course explores various behavioral studies conducted on animals and insects to answer the following questions: What is the extent of animal cognition? Do they have purposive behavior? Do they communicate through semantic symbols? Do animals have consciousness? The nature of life, which is closely related to consciousness, is also discussed through topics such as the linear genetic paradigm, epigenetics, morphogenesis, biological information, the origin and evolution of life and consciousness.

Evaluation Components:

  • Quiz on Module I: 10 marks
  • Quiz on Module II: 10 marks
  • Midterm: 20 marks
  • Classroom participation and Paper presentation in Module III: 3+7 marks
  • Quiz on Module IV: 10 marks
  • Comprehensive Exam: 40 marks

Number of Classroom Hours: 45

Lecture Modules:

Module I: Are Animals Consciousness?

Lecture 1: Behaviorism and avoidance of animal consciousness; Definition of perceptual consciousness vs. reflective consciousness; philosophical background; Clever Hans and inadvertent cueing (Chapter 1 of Griffin; Chapter 1 and pp 32-37 of Allen and Bekoff; supplementary: Chap 1, Dawkins; Allen (2004))

Lecture 2: Examples of Perceptual consciousness in animals (Chapter 2-5, Griffin); Examples of concepts in animals (Chapter 6 of Griffin, pp. 105-119, Dawkins)

Lecture 3: Social Play and Antipredatory Behavior (Chap 6 and 7, Allen and Bekoff); Communication between bees (Chap 9, Griffin; pp. 89-96, Dawkins; pp. 112-131, Michelson);

Lecture 4: Communication between monkeys; word usuage by a parrot (pp. 154-164, p. 169-174, Griffin; pp. 119-139, Dawkins); Communication between chimpanzees and human beings (Chap 11, Griffin; pp 65-89, Dawkins; Savage-Rumbaugh)

Lecture 5: Theory of mind in primates (Heyes; Chap 10, Tomasello and Call ) Discussion; Conclusions (Chap 8-9, Allen and Bekoff; Chap 6 Dawkins)

Lecture 6: Claims of plant consciousness (Nagel; Tompkins and Bird; supplementary: Bose); Bacterial chemotaxis (Koshland), claims of learning in paramecia (Wichterman 1953, 1986); intelligence at the level of cells (Albrecht-Buehler 1984, 1995)


Module II: Alternatives to Molecular Biology and the Linear Genetic Paradigm

Lecture 7: What is the nature of life? Reductionism, mechanism, vitalism, organicism

Lecture 8: Rosen’s relational biology and his analysis of the machine metaphor for life; introduction to category theory, ‘nonfractionability’; the Sequence Hypothesis (Rosen 1991)

Lecture 9: Polanyi: Life’s irreducible structure

Lecture 10: Systems Biology; Problems with the linear genetic paradigm for life (Strohman)


Module III: Biology and Information

Lecture 11: Introduction to Molecular Biology: gene regulation; DNA replication; genetic recombination; RNA processing; translation (Watson)

Lecture 12: Genetic Information: The central dogma of molecular biology (Crick); chemical information in DNA (Watson)

Lecture 13: Epigenetic information: structural inheritance system; chromatin marking; epigenetic fungal prions; adaptive mutation; genomic imprinting; transmission of epigenetic information thru meiosis (Jablonka and Lamb)

Lecture 14: Notion of information in Biology (Maynard Smith, Sterelny et al.)

Lecture 15: Rejection of the conception of information in DNA (Sarkar, Oyama)

Lecture 16: Meaningful information in Biology (Reading)

Lecture 17: Introduction to Biosemiotics (Barbieri)


Module IV: Origin and Evolution of Life/Consciousness

Lecture 18: The problem of the origin of form (Webster/Goodwin)

Lectures 19-20: Toward a science of form in biology; rational morphology, morphogenesis (Webster/Goodwin), field explanations; homology (deBeer 1971)

Lectures 21-22: Origin of life; Is self-organization of matter possible? (Zubay)

Lecture 23: Evolution of consciousness (pp. 129-136, Flanagan; Humphrey; Cairns-Smith)

Lecture 24: Form and function (Asma, Chap 1-5)



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Maynard Smith, J., 2000, “The Concept of Information in Biology”, Philosophy of Science, 37: 177-194.

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