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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.
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 House, looking 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.