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Our View of ‘Intelligence’ Needs to Change

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What is intelligence? How would we define it? Would intelligence be reacting to what occurs in the immediate environment; having the ability to have behavioral plasticity or even communicating with others? Amazingly, bacteria have been found to do both things noted above: They have been found to be able to react to their environment, i.e., have the ability for plastic behavior and they have even been shown to communicate with one another. Hell, even something as simple as a slime mold has been found to navigate a maze to find food. Is that not intelligence?

Ken Richardson, author of the book Genes, Brains, and Human Potential: The Science and Ideology Behind Intelligence writes:

Living things, then, need to be good at registering those statistical patterns across everyday experience and then use them to shape the best response, including (in the cell) what genes to recruit for desired products. This is what intelligence is, and it’s origins coincide with the origins of life itself, and life is intelligence. (Richardson, 2017: 115)

In multicelluar systems, of course, the cells are not just responding to one another, but also collectively to the changing environment outside. That requires an intelligent physiology, as described in chapter 5. However, it is still the statistical structure of the changes that matters and that forms the basis of a living intelligence. Even at this level, closest to the genes, then, the environment is emphatically not a loose collection of independent factors to which the cells respond, in stimulus-response fashion, under gene control. This reality makes the additive statistical models of the behavioral geneticist quite unrealistic. (Richardson, 2017: 120)

Currently, our view of intelligence has an anthropometric lean. But, as I’ve been saying for months now, why should we view humans as a sort of ‘apex’ to evolution? Why should we be the measuring stick? If you really think about it to put us—our brains—at the top of a rank order as ‘the best’ and not recognize what other, smaller supposedly ‘archaic’ forms of life can do, then maybe it’s best to take off our human-centric glasses and look at the whole of the animal kingdom as intelligent—including bacteria, as they show the basic things necessary for what we would call  intelligence, i.e., behavioral plasticity.

In this paper published just two months ago, the authors write:

Bacteria are far more intelligent than we can think of. They adopt different survival strategies to make their life comfortable. Researches on bacterial communication to date suggest that bacteria can communicate with each other using chemical signaling molecules as well as using ion channel mediated electrical signaling. (Majumdar and Pal, 2017)

Furthermore, looking at definitions of the term ‘behavior’ from ethology, we can see that bacteria exhibit these behaviors that we have deemed ‘human’ or ‘human-like’:

  • “Externally visible activity of an animal, in which a coordinated pattern of sensory, motor and associated neural activity responds to changing external or internal conditions” (Beck et al. 1981)
  • “A response to external and internal stimuli, following integration of sensory, neural, endocrine, and effector components. Behavior has a genetic basis, hence is subject to natural selection, and it commonly can be modified through experience” (Starr and Taggart 1992)
  • “Observable activity of an organism; anything an organism does that involves action and/or response to stimulation” (Wallace et al. 1991)
  •  “What an animal does” (Raven and Johnson 1989)

Bacteria have been found to fit all of the criteria mentioned above. If organisms can react to how the environment changes, then that organism has—at least a semblance—of intelligence. Bacteria have also been found to be able to learn and they also have memories, so if this is true (and it is), then bacteria are intelligent. 

Finally, Westerhoff et al (2014) write that leaving out the terms ‘human’ and our brains as measuring sticks for what is intelligent, that “all forms of life – from microbes to humans – exhibit some or all characteristics consistent with “intelligence.” For people with anthropocentric views of evolution, however, this is a hard pill to swallow. If the data says that bacteria have evidence of ‘cognition’ and an ability to react to outside environmental cues then bacteria have a semblance of intelligence. There is no denying it.

We clearly need to look at intelligence in a different way—one that’s free of any anthropocentric bias—-and if we do, we would recognize numerous species as intelligent that we would never have thought of before since we view ourselves as some sort of ‘apex’ of evolution, that we are supreme on this earth, when the bacteria—the modal bacter—reign supreme and will continue to remain supreme until the Sun explodes. So if bacteria show the ability to communicate with one another and the ability to change their behavior when their environment changes, i.e., that they learn and have ‘memories’ of past events, then maybe it’s time for us to change from our human-centric view of intelligence (which makes a ton of sense; viewing us as an ‘apex’ of evolution makes no sense and doesn’t allow us to appreciate the wide range of variation on earth).

As Gould wrote in Full Houselooking at only the right tail we would believe that some sort of ‘progress’ reigns supreme, but looking at the whole sum of variation, we can see that the bacteria are the mode of all life, have been the mode of all life and will remain the mode of all life until the Sun explodes and all life forever perishes from Earth.


1 Comment

  1. To begin with, if you use information to change the world then you have cognition. Crows are as smart as a gorilla and praying mantises hunt prey. A brain is an information processor. The human brain has many components to deal with different types of information. If we are to quantify intelligence it would be to sum the total variety of information a brain can process. Any cognitive creature uses information in mental manipulation. Intelligence is an adaptive survival strategy because changing the environment requires mental manipulation. If you are highly intelligent you can control more resources because you can account for all variables in complex environments. It is like business management. Several problems all connect and must be dealt with at the same time.


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