The Unsung Intelligence of Life's Web
The recent passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs elicited a host of public tributes attesting to his genius and highlighted how much we revere our gadgets and our smart communications technology. But it got me thinking about how we appraise our own engineering acumen in comparison with the engineering acumen of Nature. This engineering prowess of Nature can loosely be called 'natural intelligence' and is part and parcel of all living things along with the selective forces of Nature that have engineered all living things. However, given that natural intelligence is basically unheard of, trying to talk about it is difficult and usually leads to head scratching or, worse, to accusations of Intelligent Design creationism. This is probably because as soon as one suggests that Nature is imbued with intelligence, or that life is a kind of intelligence, or that natural selection is a kind of intelligence, one immediately thinks that it would have to be a conscious intelligence -- which would be hard to swallow given what we know about the Darwinian mechanisms of evolution.
However, one can equally speak of unconscious intelligence (or even subconscious intelligence). Moreover, unconscious intelligence can embody great wisdom. Think about the way your body retains the same core temperature despite fluctuating ambient temperature. Or the way your eyes are constantly being bombarded with billions of photons from every direction and yet you can perceive a stable world. Or the way you can eat an apple, disassemble the molecules, and then reassemble those molecules into specific body tissue such as the neurons in your brain. It is precisely this kind of unconscious natural intelligence, which we take so much for granted, that can be contrasted with the intelligence evinced by the late Steve Jobs.
The closer one examines life the more apparent does natural intelligence become. Like brilliant ideas and hypotheses made literal flesh in space and time, natural intelligence is what you see when you look down a microscope at a cell. All those busy chemical cycles and all that frenetic protein manipulation -- that is natural intelligence. The cyclical networks of molecules and enzymes, communicating with one another, sustaining themselves and repairing themselves -- that is natural intelligence. The myriad exquisite nanotechnological machines known as ribosomes that effectively convert DNA code into long strings of amino acids that subsequently fold up into the Lego-like building blocks of life -- that is natural intelligence. Indeed, the genetic code is itself an expression of natural intelligence. A code. Think about it. Codes are usually associated with us -- machine code, binary code, Morse code, video/audio codecs, sign language and such. Codes -- language-like systems in which one sort of information is transcribed into another -- are the hallmark of intelligent purposeful activity. Yet Nature got there first. To be sure, the genetic code is so subtle and sophisticated that it took the human race hundreds of years to figure it out.
And yet... and yet, as intimated, natural intelligence is not acknowledged. At least not by mainstream science. Ask a biologist if their subject matter is a kind of clever technology and you will likely be told that life is nothing of the sort, that life's complexity is 'just' down to evolution -- as if biological evolution was the simplest thing in the world. The laws of Nature just happen to be conducive to self-organizing processes; the genetic code just happens to fall into place; genes just happen to evolve; and the resulting biospherical web of life just happens to be astonishing -- especially when perceived by a conscious brain (the brain being 'just' another outcome of evolution). The implication coming from the scientific establishment is that advanced intelligence is ours alone and something that we alone excel at -- as evinced by the Steve Jobs of this world. We are highly intelligent and we do highly intelligent things like building combustion engines and touch screens. But the self-sustaining cellular arrays that underlie our existence are not accorded the characteristics of intelligence. Nor is the three and half billion year old process of evolution considered to reflect the expression of some kind of intelligence -- not even an unconscious intelligence. In short, the evolution of life is deemed to be pointless and utterly mindless. To be sure, the same sentiments are accorded to the biosphere and to the whole of Nature. No surprise then that natural intelligence is unheard of whereas we are verily obsessed with the capacity of human intelligence. As the late author and ecologist Edward Goldsmith pointed out in his book The Way:
"It is ironic that to explain what are the paltry, not to mention socially and ecologically destructive achievements of scientific and technological man, such as the invention of the internal combustion engine and the atom bomb, we invoke his consciousness, his creativity, and his intelligence, yet we categorically deny these qualities to all other living things, let alone to the miraculous processes of evolution and morphogenesis that brought them and him into being."
So what exactly is intelligence? What is the essence of it? Well, since it manifests over time, intelligence is clearly a process as opposed to being a static thing. Say someone works out how to build a new kind of computer interface -- this is worked out over time. The mind manipulates and rearranges patterns of information. Ideas are turned over. Knowledge is churned and folded. Scenarios are explored. Language is used to express notions and possibilities. Eventually working models and solutions are manifest and repeatedly tweaked and tested. This is essentially an informational process. The human mind is good at it -- which is why we are intelligent. We take in information, we store information, and we manipulate that information. I suggest that this is the core of intelligence, that the processes that the human mind engages in have the quality of intelligence because they involve the specific manipulation of information and the specific reorganization of information.
Now, back to life and evolution. When you get down to it, evolution likewise involves the specific manipulation and specific reorganization of information. Just as the human brain/mind system takes in information, stores information and manipulates information, so too does the evolving web of life do the same. Information about the environment is stored in DNA -- in as much as our genes contain information about the historical environment our ancestors lived (and survived) in. The reason the human organism can live and survive is because we are, through evolution, adapted to do so. Everything about our constituent bio-logic makes sense, or matches up with, the environment. Which means our DNA contains a record of how to build specific body parts and specific organs that fit into the larger environment in which we are embedded. So DNA is a specific kind of information that life stores and passes down the generations. And given that DNA continually varies, this means information is continually being reorganized and re-edited. In turn, this means that evolving life involves information acquisition and information manipulation. Life processes information and learns. Life is, in other words, an active intelligence. It might be an unconscious intelligence, but the point is that, as a process, the evolution of life bears the chief characteristics of intelligence.
What does all this mean? It means that Steve Jobs was only highly intelligent because the living processes underlying his intelligence were themselves intelligent. All those billions of neurons, pumping charged ions in a specific manner and passing electrochemical impulses in a specific manner-the human brain, or any brain, is a remarkably sophisticated bit of 'kit'. A single cell can be regarded in the same way. We are only smart because the stuff of which we are made is, in its own way, equally smart. We are only able to be ingenious because the bio-logic underlying our organism permits us to be ingenious.
Noted scientist Leslie Orgel's famous 'second rule' that "evolution is cleverer than you are" is thus spot on. And the burgeoning biomimicry movement are not exaggerating when they say that we can learn from "Nature's genius". The thing is, until we start to acknowledge natural intelligence, until we stop bigging ourselves up above the rest of life's great web, we will not find our right place within Nature. For sure, we are an expression of Nature (and an impressive one at that) -- yet we are somehow blind to the true significance of life on Earth. To see and feel the biosphere for what it really is -- namely a fabulous system of self-organizing intelligence -- is to become a newly conscious expression of that intelligence. And that is the stuff the profoundest dreams are made of.
Image by shaferlens, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet