Sunday, April 29, 2012

Did the Division of Labor Create Consciousness?

Adam Smith famously explained how the division of labor leads to much greater productivity using the example of the pin factory, where he estimates a 240 and 4800 fold increase in productivity by dividing the labor into several facets. This is like the idea from "I, Pencil", which notes not a single person could completely make a pencil, and this is even more obvious for a product like an iPhone.

 Ever since the invention of farming, productive adults tend to specialize in some economic activity. People are plastic, they can become many different kind of experts, but there's a lot of domain specific knowledge involved in anything so you need to choose a parochial area of expertise at some point. Francis Crick speculates in this lecture that consciousness was basically a by-product of strategic choices like choosing a profession, an interesting thought.

 Most animal thought and most of human instincts are always online, which is why those pictures of danger, sex or food flashed at 100 millisecond intervals affects our affect even though it is all unconscious. Pictures of naked women affect my right, inarticulate, brain because my sex drive is always on, unlike my thoughts about prioritizing research strategies, which takes active thought. Another example is the frog. There is actually a special part of the frog brain that reacts to flying insects, so every frog brain allocates resources towards catching flies.  These online systems are not plastic, and don't allow one to do something else; there can be no frog factory production of fly-morsels for the general pond-frog consumption which would free up other frogs to do something different than their ancestors.

 Even in the division of labor within eusocial organisms like ants, different ant phenotypes develop based on the interaction between their genes and their early environment in a deterministic way (see E.O. Wilson's latest book The Social Conquest of Earth). Bees, dogs, and fish just run on instinct all the time but humans have to choose between being a mason or a farmer, and to make such a comparison involves what we feel as conscious thought and its companions doubt and anxiety (did we make the right choice?). You can't make such a comparison without consciousness, and this goes for all the other choices that must be made in modern societies (Farm what? Irrigate how?).  These aren't instincts, they are learned, and people specialize, forgoing some  areas of knowledge completely and relying on the market to get things where one is incompetent.

 This theory doesn't seem to pass basic empirical tests.  If consciousness was caused by the the division of labor itself, then pre-literate societies with little division of labor should consist of mainly zombies because their daily routine can be addressed without a lot of questions about whether to do this or that, or at least they would be humans with a significantly reduced level of consciousness. I don't know much about the psychological tests applied to savages but am sure they are not zombies, though I suspect they are less contemplative compared to other people.

 I rather think that the division of labor created philosophy. That is, when you choose a profession or some important avocation it supposedly is a better means to an end, but what end? Is it merely to be rich? I doubt that is really so prevalent because to have such a nakedly self-interested goal is not necessarily in the best interest of neighbors, and they would not trust or like such people. As Chris Boehm shows with his work on reverse dominance hierarchies, people hate domination, and generally prefer leaders who consolidate public opinion as opposed to dictate it. Prioritizing a purely selfish motive would not be popular, so the best way to project that raw selfishness is not your real motive is to actually believe it isn't.

 Thus, we have a lot of existential angst as we try to figure out 'why' we want to build a bridge or have five kids, and it's usually some greater good, not merely one's power and pleasure.  Real satisfaction in life often comes from advancing such higher purposes, imagined though they may be. There are many potential whys, such as helping the tribe, a king with supernatural powers, some god, and they all involve theories about how the means relate to the end, and some argument why the end is right and true.  When we didn't have choices, we didn't have to think about our purpose in life and probably didn't have a philosophy on life. It's unfortunate that modern society creates anxieties that our primitive ancestors did not have simply because they were often acting out of necessity or some inviolable tradition, but developing a healthy purpose in life when you can actually choose is a real advance in the intellectual history of humans. As with most thoughts and philosophies I'm sure your average person's is profoundly ignorant or banal, but still that leaves millions with very enlightened levels of consciousness.

 So, Adam Smith was correct to note the division of labor as a crucial step in human development, but he actually underclubbed it: it didn't just give rise to the industrial revolution, but also to the strange fact that humans think about thinking, meaning, and a sense of self.  The division of labor didn't create consciousness, but it did make us ask why we do what we do, and so lead to a higher level of consciousness.


Unanimous said...


Consciousness has different aspects - the voice in your head, vision, auditory, heat, memory, pain, loneliness, etc. You seem to be talking about the voice in your head, through which out most abstract reasoning appears to take place.

From what I've read, this probably evolved along with spoken communication. Normally, when you speak, the words just come out before you are conscious of them, so spoken communication doesn't require a voice in your head. But, practicing statements silently in your head can help improve the quality of the ones that eventually come out of your mouth, and can help you carry out the iterative abstract reasoning that arises from groups engaged in spoken communication without anyone else necessarily being around.

Given that it is a smallish step for a being that can speak and understand to also develop a voice in the head (a sort of short circuit between the voice box control and auditory processing), and that such a facility seems to be useful, it's probably an evolution that appeared along with speech, and evolved together with it.

Group reasoning probably helped people specialise in flexible ways, and possibly improvisational cooperative abilities evolved together with speech along with reasoning in a self reinforcing manner. But this would have happened way before farming, and I doubt that first an ability to specialise and cooperate evolved, and then a second ability to reason evolved in response to that. Nevertheless, there may well be a stone age link between specialisation and the voice in our heads.

Consciousness itself - awareness if you like - possibly is as old in evolutionary terms as the sensory systems to which it corresponds, and can exist to different degrees, depending on how much information is being sensed and on what timescale it is useful.

I wonder how much effect learning to read to ourselves when we are children has on the voice in our head and our abilities to reason.

I also get the feeling that our abilities to reason are very very primitive compared to what creatures may one day be able to do, whereas our abilities to comprehend auditory and visual inputs are probably not so far off what creatures can do.

Sorry if this is too big a comment.

B. A. said...

nice post, Eric. but it does feel a bit like you're using division of labour to mean "freedom to choose a career" :) in any case, sounds like people had to make important conscious decisions way before agriculture. tomasello's shared intentionality and the need to figure out what others are up to sound more promising to me, for now, than division of labour.

as for the level of primitive hunter gatherers, one of pinker's books has a nice account of the first encounter with the aboriginals in papua new guinea in the 1920s, after 40,000 years of isolation. their technology was at stone age level, but their language was very sophisticated. they were actually quick to make interesting conjectures about the white men, considering them reincarnations of their dead ancestors and so on.

and karl sagan quotes an anthropologist speaking of the bushmen in kalahari: "Every time a savage tracks his game he employs a minuteness of observation, and an accuracy of inductive and deductive reasoning which, applied to other matters, would assure some reputation as a man of science .. . [T]he intellectual labour of a "good hunter or warrior" considerably exceeds that of an ordinary Englishman"

these are the first two examples that come to mind.

@ unanimous

I enjoyed your comment, thanks Eric for hosting.

Anonymous said...

Actually, David Hume - who with Mandeville identified the nexus between "partitioning of employments" and productivity - explicitly introduced the idea that the division of labor alters the way we see our world, that increasing diversity of employments 'teaches' tolerance, and refines our social and legal norms. He believed in a cumulative civilization process such that the division of labor increases tolerance, tolerance decreases the cost of alternative problem-solving activities and, thus, increases the partitioning of employments