Sunday, March 07, 2010

bacterial intelligence

Astrobiology | AM: Can you explain how you view bacteria as being intelligent?

LM: If you look up consciousness in the dictionary, it says, "awareness of the world around you," and that's because you lose it somehow when you become unconscious, right? Well, you can show that microorganisms, or bacteria, are certainly conscious. They will orient themselves, they will work together to make structures. They'll do a lot of things. This ability to respond specifically to the environment and to act creatively, in the sense that that precise action has never been taken before, is a property of life. Of course, it has to be moving life, or you can't tell. You can't tell if a plant is thinking, but in organisms that move, you can tell their intelligence.

For example, take Foraminifera - they're single-celled sea creatures, protoctists. The Egyptian pyramids are built of their shells. A colleague of mine put one of these forams in a dish with a small crustacean animal, like a water flea. He was going to watch the crustacean eat the foram. The foram's a single cell, and smaller, right? And he saw the foram kill, trap, and completely destroy and eat the animal. He's got beautiful movies of it. So that group of organisms not only can eat animals, but they can make hunting towers, and they can hunt from the top of the towers.

There's a group of them, called agglutinating forams, these have offspring that look exactly like the parent, with multi colors. But every generation they construct their coloration from pebbles. This single-celled blob - it would look to you like a blob of snot, probably - can pick up pebbles of the different colors. You have to have some red ones and some white ones and some black ones in order to get an offspring that looks like a parent. They will make appropriate choices such that when you see the offspring next to the parent, it looks like they just came about by dividing in half. You can't believe that the newer one, the offspring one, was naked, and then it spent a lot of time plastering and remolding and rearranging pebbles on the surface of itself, so that it now looks indistinguishable from its parent. Those kinds of activities are rampant.

Are humans the master of tools? No, enter the chimp. Are humans the master of language? Ask the dolphin...or a dog. Rico, a dog with an approximately 200-word "vocabulary," can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination.

People think that if you can't talk, you can't be intelligent. But you know that's not true if you have a dog. You can communicate with them without talking. If you define intelligence as speaking American English, well maybe they're not. But if you define it in the much more broad sense of behaviors that are modified on the individual level, that involve choice and change and response to the environment, there's every bit of evidence that intelligence is a property of life from the very beginning. It's been modified, of course, and changed and amplified, even, but it's an intrinsic property of cells.