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Microbial Intelligence and Intelligent Physiology

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JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson


1100 words

When organisms that we don’t normally signify as ‘intelligent’ do, indeed, show ‘intelligent’ behavior, our definition of the word—what we call ‘intelligent’ behavior—needs to be reevaluated. Bacteria and other microbes can certainly respond to cues from their environments and communicate with each other. So if bacteria can respond to environmental stimulus by having plastic behavior, then they do show a semblance of ‘intelligence’. Just because bacteria don’t talk doesn’t mean that they are not ‘intelligent’ in their own right.

Bacteria respond to cues from their environment, just like any other intelligent organism. That means that they have behavioral plasticity, the ability to change their behavior based on what occurs in their environments. Bacteria have been shown to exhibit behaviors we would call ‘intelligent’, i.e., acquiring information, storage, processing, use of information, perception, learning, memory, and decision-making (Lyon, 2015). It is proposed that “bacteria use their intracellular flexibility, involving signal transduction networks and genomic plasticity, to collectively maintain linguistic communication: self and shared interpretations of chemical cues, exchange of chemical messages (semantic) and dialogues (pragmatic)” (Jacob et al, 2004).

Clearly, bacteria can and do adapt at the phenotypic level, not only the genotypic level as some have asserted in the past. Using this definition of intelligence, that is, being able to perceive, process and integrate information about the state of the environment to change the organism’s behavior is intelligent behavior (Pinto and Mascher, 2016), all organisms, from bacteria to humans and in between are intelligent. If bacteria do show evidence of behavioral plasticity—and they do—then we must look at them as intelligent creatures, as well as come to the realization that all biological organisms are, in their own right, intelligent. Intelligence is not only for any ‘higher’ organisms; so-called ‘lower’ organisms do show behavioral plasticity, meaning they know what is occurring in their environment. Is that not intelligent?

Any organism that can immediately act in a different way when its environment changes can, in my opinion, be said to be intelligent. All biological organisms have this ability to ‘go off of their genetic coding’, if you will, and change their behavior to match what is currently going on in their environment. Furthermore, the number and fraction of single transduction genes can be used as a measure of ‘bacterial IQ’ (Sirota-Mahdi et al, 2010).

This, of course, has implications for our intelligent physiology. Since our physiological systems incorporate the intelligent processes of the intelligent cell, then, on a larger scale, our physiology is also intelligent. Our physiology is constantly responding to cues from the environment, attempting to maintain homeostasis. Since our body has a need to stay in homeostasis, then our physiological systems are indeed intelligent in their own right. They incorporate the processes of the intelligent cell; looking at our physiology in this way, we can see how and why these systems are intelligent.

Further, physiologists have been referring to physiological systems as “homeodynamic”, rather than “homeostatic”, seeing chaotic states as healthy “allowing organisms to respond to circumstances that vary rapidly and unpredictably, again balancing variation and optimization of order with impressive harmony” (Richardson, 2012). If our physiological systems can do this, are they not intelligent? Further, according to physiologist Dennis Noble, “Genes … are purely passive. DNA on its own does absolutely nothing until activated by the rest of the system through transcription factors, markers of one kind or another, interactions with the proteins. So on its own, DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.”  So, as you can see, genes are nothing without the intelligent physiology guiding then. This is only possible with physiological systems, and this begins with the intelligent cell—intelligent microbes.

Some people misunderstand what genes are for and what they do in the body. The gene has long been misunderstood. People don’t understand that genes direct the production of proteins. Since physiological systems—at their core—are run by microbes, then the overall physiological system is itself intelligent. Genes, on their own, are not the masters but the servants. Genes do code for proteins that code for traits, but not under their own direction; they are directed by intelligent systems.

Think of how our gut microbiome co-evolved with us. Knowing what we now know about intelligent cells, we can also say that, by proxy, our microbiome is intelligent as well.

Understanding intelligent cells will lead us to understand intelligent physiology then, in turn, lead us to understand how genes are the servants—not the masters as is commonly asserted—of our traits. Physiology is an intelligent system, and since it is intelligent it can then react to cues from the environment, since it is made up of smaller cells, which make up the larger whole of the intelligent physiological system. These intelligent systems that we have evolved are due to the changeability of our environments in our ancestral past. Our physiology then evolved to be homeodynamic, attempting to maintain certain processes. The ever-changing environment that our genus evolved in is the cause for our homeodynamic intelligent physiology, which begins at the smallest levels of the cell.

The intelligent microbes are the smaller part of the larger whole of the intelligent physiological system. Due to this, we can say that at the smallest levels, we are driven by infinitesimally small microbes, which, in a way, guide our behavior. This can definitely be said for our gut microbiome which evolved with us throughout our evolutionary history. Our microbiome, for instance, had to be intelligent and communicate with each other to maintain our normal functioning. Without these intelligent cells, intelligent physiology would not be possible. Without ever-changing dynamic environments, our intelligent physiology and intelligent cells would have never evolved.

Intelligent physiology evolved due to the constant changeability of the new environments that our ancestors found themselves in. If we would have evolved in, say, more stable, unchanging environments, our physiological systems would have never evolved how they did. These intelligent physiological systems can buffer large ranges of physiological deficiencies. The evolvability of these systems due to the changeability of our ancestral environments is the cause of our amazing physiological intelligence, developmental plasticity, and microbial intelligence.

When you think about conception, when a baby is forming in the womb, it becomes easier to see how our physiological systems are intelligent, and how genes are the slaves—not masters—of our development. Intelligence is already in those little cells, it just needs an intelligent physiology for things to be set into motion. This all goes back to the intelligent cells which make up the larger part of intelligent physiology.



  1. What most people call intelligence is just a more complicated version of that, I guess. It occurs in an even higher order aggregation, with a larger number of cells.


    • RaceRealist says:

      Right. But if the cell, one of the smallest living things known to us, can have these traits, then it’s clear that they are Intelligent. What you’re talking about is intelligent physiology, which uses the intelligent cell. Intelligent physiology is like the intelligent cell except on a larger scale.

      We need to rethink our view of “intelligence”, that much is clear.


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