Consciousness came before life

The fundamental cause of evolution

Most scientists believe that consciousness came after life, as a product of evolution. But observations of extraterrestrial organic material, along with Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s quantum theory of consciousness, provide reason to believe that consciousness came before life. In fact, argue Hameroff and his collaborators, consciousness may have been what made evolution and life possible in the first place.

You can see Stuart Hameroff live, debating in ‘Darwin vs Consciousness’ alongside biologist Denis Noble and philosopher Antonella Tramacere at the upcoming HowTheLightGetsIn Festival on May 24th-27th in Hay-on-Wye.

This article is presented in association with Closer To Truth, an esteemed partner for the 2024 HowTheLightGetsIn Festival.


Most scientists and philosophers believe that life came before consciousness. Life appeared on Earth about 3.8 billion years ago; consciousness and feelings, it’s said, evolved later due to complex biological information processing, perhaps only recently in brains with language and tool-making abilities. In fact, though, there’s good reason to think that consciousness preceded life, and was central to making life and evolution possible.

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What is life? It is often described as its functions: metabolism, adaptation, reproduction, etc. But non-biological systems can have similar functions, for example, oceanic hydrothermal vents can metabolize, transform energy and synthesize chemicals, weather and climate systems adapt to changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity, and other natural factors, and a seed crystal in a solution can lead to the formation of more crystals with the same lattice structure, essentially reproducing itself. In the 19th century “vitalists” proposed life was a living field, force, or élan vital, but vitalism was eclipsed by molecular biology and genetics.

Erwin Schrödinger suggested that a form of “quantum vitalism” accounted for life’s unitary oneness, and Herbert Fröhlich later proposed that quantum coherent vibrational modes, similar to those in a laser, could play a central role in various biological processes (“Fröhlich coherence”). The idea is that in a crystal-like structure, laser-like coherent vibrations could be driven by small random changes in temperature or energy.


Penrose argues that consciousness is made of collapses of quantum superpositions into definite states


This was proven by Anirban Bandyopadhyay’s group for biological microtubules – self-assembling cylindrical lattice polymers of the protein tubulin. Microtubules dynamically organize the interiors of all animal and plant cells, as part of the cell’s structural cytoskeleton, and appear also to serve as its nervous system and memory bank.

Anirban’s team sent low-power electromagnetic signals of varying frequency into microtubules and measured their conductance. They found distinctive self-similar resonance conductance patterns where each conductance response is grouped into sets of three, and then these groups are themselves grouped into larger sets of three. These “triplets-of-triplets” repeat in microtubules every three orders of magnitude, in kilohertz, megahertz, gigahertz and terahertz. 

The “triplets-of-triplets” are phase shifted to make a unique structure called a “time crystal” (first described for biology by Arthur Winfree in the 1960s). In ordinary crystals, like salt or quartz, atoms are arranged in a repeating spatial pattern. But in a time crystal patterns also repeat in time, in a regular, repeating cycle returning to the same positions over and over. This movement happens without using energy – it's a stable, perpetual motion at the atomic level.

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Microtubules are biologic time crystals that enable living systems to operate coherently over many orders of spatiotemporal scale. Microtubule vibrations emanate within each tubulin from aromatic organic molecules (rings that are made up of carbon atoms arranged in a closed loop with clouds of delocalized ‘pi resonance’ electrons). Simpler versions of these coherent oscillations, their resonance across frequencies, and time crystal behavior in early molecular systems may be considered putative “signs of life.”

What is consciousness? Many scientists view it as an emergent property of complex biological computation among simple brain neurons. But if so, how do we account for eons of purposeful behavior by earlier, simpler creatures, long before brains or genes? Animal behavior is driven by “reward,” which is made up of pleasurable feelings. Could feelings have been motivation for life right from its start?

We don’t yet know what consciousness is, nor what role it plays in the universe, so the possibility that conscious feelings existed before life cannot be excluded. Of course, we cannot test for signs of consciousness, which is private and unobservable. But anesthesia is selective, blocking consciousness while affecting very little else. We can therefore test molecular systems for what goes away under anesthesia. Furthermore, we have a plausible scientific story about what consciousness might be, which implies that conscious feelings did exist before life. Let’s look at that story now.


Penrose’s quantum consciousness

According to the physicist and Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose, quantum mechanics contains the key to consciousness. Quantum particles can exist in multiple wave-like possibilities simultaneously (“quantum superposition”), described by a wavefunction. In a nutshell, Penrose argues that consciousness is made of collapses of quantum superpositions into definite states.

Imagine a spinning coin that can land either heads or tails. In the quantum world it could land and exist simultaneously as both heads and tails in two locations, when no one was looking. However, when a conscious human observes the superposition, the coin is seen to have landed on either heads or tails in one position – the wavefunction has collapsed into one of the two possibilities.

For Penrose, such collapses, or “quantum state reductions,” occur spontaneously and ubiquitously in the random microenvironment due to an objective threshold, (objective reduction, OR). Moreover, OR events in the random microenvironment are predicted to be, or cause, “proto-conscious” moments, available to then be orchestrated and optimized in biological systems.

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Penrose’s proposal is a novel answer to the “Measurement Problem” – the problem of explaining why we can never measure quantum superpositions because the very act of doing so seems to collapse them into definite states. The quantum pioneers John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner earlier suggested that the act of conscious observation causes quantum collapse, so that “consciousness collapses the wavefunction.” But although this interpretation still has some supporters (including Henry Stapp and David Chalmers), it cannot explain consciousness itself, and nor can it explain how quantum superposition is possible.

Penrose reverses von Neumann and Wigner’s interpretation. For Penrose, it’s not that consciousness causes the collapse of the wavefunction, but that the collapse of the wavefunction causes (or, perhaps, is) consciousness. This suggests the beginnings of an explanation of consciousness, but it raises the question: what collapses the wavefunction, if not consciousness?

To answer this question, Penrose first tries to explain the nature of superposition. How can a single particle exist in multiple states simultaneously? Here Penrose applies Einstein’s theory of general relativity (in which matter and gravity are equivalent to curvature in spacetime geometry) to tiny quantum particles with tiny spacetime curvatures. Superposition of a single particle in two locations could then be seen as two opposing curvatures in spacetime – a blister or separation in the fabric of reality at the most fundamental Planck scale, 10-33 cm.


He supports his claim that consciousness is caused by or made up of waveform collapses by appealing to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem


Now Penrose can explain what collapses the wavefunction. He suggests that spacetime separations are unstable and undergo spontaneous objective reduction (OR) due to a threshold related to fundamental spacetime geometry at times t= ħ/EG. This is a form of the uncertainty principle, where ħ is the Planck-Dirac constant and EG represents the gravitational self-energy of spacetime separation. This is the energy required to separate an object (or its equivalent spacetime curvature) from itself. When the threshold is reached, separation/superposition terminate, and an OR event occurs which selects a single local reality, collapsing the short-lived beginnings of multiple, separated universes into one.

This alone is significant, but Penrose goes further, reaching for an explanation of consciousness. He supports his claim that consciousness is caused by or made up of waveform collapses by appealing to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. This states that within a sufficiently complex formal system, there are always true statements that cannot be proven within that system – they are “non-computable.” We call these statements the Gödel sentences of the system; an “external determinant,” or a more powerful system, is required to prove a system’s Gödel sentences.

Penrose argues that conscious minds are not like these complex formal systems, since they don’t have any Gödel sentences. Put differently, consciousness involves a non-computable process – a process which cannot be classically computed. In contrast, familiar, classical reality is algorithmic and “computable.” Penrose therefore concludes that the non-computable process and its attendant conscious “feelings” or “qualia” must come from outside classical physics, namely from quantum physics with its own set of laws.

Although the quantum processes are non-computable and non-algorithmic, their selections are not random, according to Penrose. Rather, they are influenced by “Platonic values” intrinsic to spacetime geometry. Penrose proposed that each OR event marked a moment of phenomenal awareness – a fundamental unit of conscious experience. His picture thus provides the beginnings of explanations of quantum superposition, wavefunction collapse, and consciousness itself.


Occam’s razor would surely favor one grand solution to three great mysteries. Why couldn’t Penrose OR be the solution to the quantum measurement problem, consciousness, and the “spark of life”?


Penrose’s OR events would have been happening at the level of spacetime geometry in the microenvironment since the early universe – long before life arose. The qualia would presumably be random, disconnected, and lacking context. Penrose thus calls them “proto-conscious.” However, occasionally proto-conscious OR events would be pleasurable, and occur in molecules which could stabilize, resonate, desire and rearrange for more pleasure, prompting the origin and evolution of life.


Life and proto-consciousness in the primordial soup

How might proto-conscious OR events give rise to life? Life on earth is envisioned to have begun in a “primordial soup” – an oily froth of liquid and nutrients with occasional energy inputs. Simulations of this primordial soup in the 1950s found “amphipathic” molecules, which have sweet-smelling, oil-like (“aromatic”) rings on one end, and water-soluble structures on the other.

The aromatic rings are the basis for organic chemistry – the chemistry of life – due largely to clouds of delocalized “pi resonance” electrons, which envelop hydrocarbon rings and have quantum interactions with neighboring rings in quantum-friendly regions where photons can be absorbed, re-emitted (fluorescence), couple to mechanical vibrations (optical phonons), electricity (excitons), and enhanced light emission (super-radiance). Regions of aromatic rings inside certain brain proteins, friendly to quantum effects, are where anesthetics act to selectively block consciousness. Aromatic rings are also central to many psychoactive compounds including dopamine, serotonin, LSD and DMT .


The origin of life may have been prompted and driven by conscious feelings right from the start


In the ancient primordial soup, amphipathic molecules are thought to have formed soap molecule-like “micelles,” which envelope the insoluble, oil-like aromatic rings. These micelles were theorized by Alexander Oparin to have become biological “proto-cells,” developed behaviors for survival, and then become cells and organisms. But why would this have happened, long before genes and brains? What would motivate simple creatures’ purposeful behavior to survive?

Consider the following scenario, which contains a possible answer. In the primordial soup, quantum-coupled, entangled aromatic rings in superposition within micelles could have reached threshold for Penrose OR at times t=ħ/EG, resulting in sequences of random, disconnected proto-conscious moments. Some of these would exhibit positive reinforcement, a primitive form of pleasure. Thus, this mechanism could have served as a feedback fitness function for aromatic rings on amphipathic molecules to arrange within micelles for OR events which increase pleasure and avoid displeasure. Thus, the origin of life may have been prompted and driven by conscious feelings right from the start. Evolution may have worked to optimize, organize, and prioritize more advanced conscious experience involving memory, belief, forecasting, intention and iteration, driven by primitive, and then more advanced forms of pleasure-seeking. Life became the vehicle for consciousness.

How could we possibly find out whether something like this story is correct? The key might lie in the asteroids, ancient relics from the very dawn of the solar system.


Searching for extraterrestrial “signs of life” and “roots of consciousness”

The first section of this article suggested that we might consider collective coherent oscillations and other features as putative “signs of life.” Recent Japanese and US missions to near-Earth asteroids Ryugu and Bennu have returned with organic-rich materials, including some spherical structures reminiscent of micelles, called organic nanoglobules. These come in various forms, some of which involve aromatic molecules arranged in complex patterns with a range of textures and compositions.

We are studying the samples from the recent NASA mission to near-Earth asteroid Bennu led by Dante Lauretta and intend to study PAHs and especially nanoglobules for putative “signs of life.” These would be in the form of:

1) coherent oscillations among aromatic rings

2) cross-frequency phase coupling and resonance, like music

3) quantum optical fluorescence with phonon vibrations

4) time crystal behavior, e.g. repeating “triplets-of-triplets” at different scales

5) entanglement between separated aromatic rings

6) psychopharmacological effects of extraterrestrial poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, e.g. in cerebral organoids

7) self-replication and/or self-assembly

8) interaction with genetic material (RNA).

We will pay special attention to nanoglobules with complex patterns of aromatic materials, which could conceivably be akin to the micelles that Oparin thought were the starting point for life. Initially at least we will study intact nanoglobules “noninvasively” with quantum tunnelling and cloaking.

In preparation to analyze samples from Bennu we have revisited a well-studied polyaromatic molecule retrieved from the Murchison meteorite which fell in Australia in 1969. It is known as “Murchison Insoluble Organic Material Molecule” (M-IOM-M) and has numerous clusters of polyaromatic rings in a branching network, usually shown in two dimensions. Meteorite samples carry possible earthly contaminants, but this type of molecule has not been seen on earth, and similar molecules are apparent in the Bennu samples.

In three-dimensional energy minimization simulation, M-IOM-M folds into a two-nanometer, cigar-shaped dimer. Simulation of numerous such dimers showed they self-assemble into linear filaments, and numerous filaments align in parallel in a slight offset lattice, which curves into a cylinder, resembling a microtubule. Molecular dynamics simulation of M-IOM-M show time crystal behavior, with “triplets of triplets” petahertz oscillations, and binding to RNA. Thus four putative signs of life (numbers 1, 4, 7 and 8 above) were observed in simulation of M-IOM-M.[1] These analyses will be carried out with actual experiments on PAHs and nanoglobules from Bennu. If the simulation results are confirmed, standard evolution “life-came-first” theories will be challenged.

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What about consciousness? Penrose OR is the most specific scientific proposal for consciousness but is difficult to detect. However, some “signs of life” are pre-conditions for OR and could be detected, e.g. coherent oscillations, quantum optical superposition effects and triplets-of-triplets. If we find such signs of life in a sample, we will expose them to anesthetic gas to see if they are inhibited proportional to anesthetic potency in blocking consciousness in animals and humans. If so, these processes may be considered putative “roots of consciousness.”

In this way, we hope to dig deeper into the role and place of both life and consciousness in the universe. Our strategy depends on the idea of Penrose OR. This is controversial, both as a solution to the quantum measurement problem and as the source of consciousness. But Penrose OR is testable, profound, more sensible than alternatives, and comes from one of the truly great minds of these past two centuries. Occam’s razor would surely favor one grand solution to three great mysteries. Why couldn’t Penrose OR be the solution to the quantum measurement problem, consciousness, and the “spark of life”? If it is, then consciousness has to be seen as fundamental – not a consequence of evolution, but a prerequisite for it.


Acknowledgements: We thank Sir Roger Penrose and Eugene Jhong

You can see Stuart Hameroff live, debating in ‘Darwin vs Consciousness’ alongside biologist Denis Noble and philosopher Antonella Tramacere at the upcoming HowTheLightGetsIn Festival on May 24th-27th.

This article is presented in partnership with Closer To Truth, an esteemed partner for the 2024 HowTheLightGetsIn Hay Festival. Dive deeper into the profound questions of the universe with thousands of video interviews, essays, and full episodes of the long-running TV show at their website:



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