I want to try to explain the evolution of the human mind in terms of as few or only one faculty or ability as possible. I am operating on the premise that man's consciousness is fundamentally different from all other life forms on earth.
In academic circles, man's distinction from animals, what makes his mind different, is usually a laundry list of things: empathy, language, culture, art, reason, tool-making, free will, opposable thumbs and so on. It would be much harder to explain how all these separate abilities evolved all at once.
What if there was one essential ability that explained all the others? What if you could explain everything that man was, everything that makes man different from other species, in terms of one attribute? Philosophers have usually picked reason as the one distinguishing feature of man. Man has been called 'the rational animal' and also 'the political animal.'
What exactly is reason? In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand defined reason as the ability to identify and integrate the material provided by the senses. She also explained what makes this possible. Ultimately she suggested that everything that was special about man's mind and man's form of awareness was the ability to form concepts, which is based on the ability to abstract. If this is correct, everything that man is is narrowed down to one single ability, and all of man's other abilities evolve from this in a single lifetime, and in the history of humanity.
If there was a way to point to something in physical reality, and say 'this is what enables us to abstract' this would be the answer to consciousness. I believe that everything we are can be explained in terms of this ability.
There was only one other crucial attribute of man's consciousness that was not explained by Rand or Peikoff in terms of the ability to abstract, and that was free will. They were apparently not related to each other, so they were conceived as two different attributes. Given Randian epistemology,
we had to evolve both free will and the capacity for abstraction possibly at the same time. How likely is this?
What if it is possible to explain one in terms of the other? Is it possible that one was more fundamental and basic than the other? The answer is controversial, for epistemology in general and for Objectivism. I believe there is a way to explain free will as a derivative and a necessary consequence of the ability to abstract.