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Intelligence in Nature Part 5

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For a c.o.c.kroach, the world is not pregiven, or defined in advance. A c.o.c.kroach can perceive the world and take action in it, and its perception is inseparable from its sensorimotor capacities. It knows because it is informed by its body and brain about the approach of predators and embodies action by scurrying away. This is no simple or merely reflexive process. The c.o.c.kroach"s nervous system decrypts the dynamics of minute air movements and sets in motion preventive action at the level of the whole organism. Just being a c.o.c.kroach and coping with the world in order to stay alive requires chi-sei.

Simple organisms can compute. But there is more to knowledge than computation. Computers are better at computing, and even playing chess, than humans. But this does not mean they have chi-sei. Chess-playing computers use mindless number crunching to figure out what move to make. For machines, playing chess better than a world master does not require a capacity to know"except in the humans who designed and built them. Building a machine capable of an apparently simple task, such as walking around obstacles, turns out to be much more difficult than designing a number-crunching machine capable of playing world-cla.s.s chess.

Machines that act on their computations and ensure their day-to-day maintenance and survival in a changing environment could be said to have chi-sei. But such machines, inasmuch as they exist, cannot do without being programmed. Nor can machines design and construct improved versions of themselves.

Machines may lack chi-sei, but the cells in our bodies do not. They constantly make decisions, responding to a variety of electrical, chemical, and tactile factors, so as to grow and differentiate in a coordinated way. Cells communicate with one another through "signaling pathways," which include dominolike cascades of proteins and a wide variety of signals with meanings such as "stay alive," "kill yourself," "release this molecule you"ve been storing," "divide," and "don"t divide." Any given cell receives hundreds of signals at any one time and has to integrate them before acting.

The human body is an edifice made of about one hundred trillion cells that communicate with one another through an exchange of chemical signals. Human cells use about eleven thousand signaling proteins. They communicate using a chemical sign system that scientists have only started decoding.



According to biologist Julian Downward, "All cells must continually sense their surrounding environment and make decisions on the basis of that information. Single-celled organisms must be able to tell which nutrients are nearby and regulate their metabolic processes accordingly. Cells in multi-cellular organisms such as ourselves must sense the presence of neighboring cells and hormones when making decisions such as whether to proliferate, move or die. These processes all require the transfer of information from detection systems referred to as receptors through intermediate molecules within the cell, to cause changes in the expression of genes and the activity of enzymes"Cells receive inputs from many signaling pathways at the same time and must interpret them together, in the context of each other, before making decisions. There are several known ways in which cells do this, although this is an area where much work remains to be done."

Even bacteria communicate. It turns out that all bacteria species relay information to one another in a "bacterial Esperanto," which they use to work together. For example, some six hundred species of bacteria coat your teeth every morning, forming a bio-film by positioning themselves in exactly the same order every time. To do this, researchers surmise, they must be able to distinguish self from other. Bacteria use chemicals rather than words to communicate, but this does not stop them from acting efficaciously.

Some bacteria communicate with one another to determine how numerous they are and only launch an attack once they form a group large enough to fight their host"s immune system. They like to gang up on their victims.

Some bacteria are particularly crafty. When a Salmonella bacterium first approaches a host cell, it produces at least ten proteins, some of which end up inside the host cell, where they trigger cascades of reactions. One of these proteins switches on critical protein regulators of host cell shape. This causes ruffles and convulsions in the host cell"s membrane, which engulfs any Salmonella present. Another Salmonella protein switches off the same regulatory proteins. A Salmonella bacterium breaks into cells like a bandit with a pair of keys. It acts with cheeky chi-sei, and it can also kill.

All cells are largely made of proteins. If individual cells including bacteria have a capacity to know, what about proteins? Some scientists seem to think so. Biochemist Christopher Miller writes in the journal Nature: "Proteins are intelligent beings. They have evolved to operate in the metabolic maelstrom of a turbulent cellular environment. Transcription factors must know when to switch genes on or off, and the cellular levels of specific "signaling" molecules"lactose, retinoic acid, tryptophan or copper, to mention a few cases"give them this information. Likewise, enzymes at key biochemical control points have to speed up or slow down according to the ever-changing demands, coded in concentrations of cytoplasmic metabolites, of, well, life. Haemoglobin, the granddaddy of all such "allosteric" proteins, knows when you are sleeping or sprinting, realizes whether you live on Cape Cod or in Kathmandu, and ascertains moment by moment whether it is coursing through your lungs or visiting vigorously respiring tissues; it makes these judgments and accordingly adjusts its conformation, and thus the blood"s oxygen-carrying behavior, by sensing cellular solutes such as CO2, H+, Cl-, NO and bisphosphoglycerate."

Whether proteins truly have a capacity to know is ultimately a matter of opinion. Proteins are merely folded chains of amino acids. In my view they behave as if they have the capacity to gauge a wide variety of variables and take appropriate and precise actions. If they did not, we would not be alive. But my mind boggles when I think about the chi-sei of proteins. How could a string of amino acids know anything? Amino acids are simple organic compounds that contain a carboxyl group (-COOH) and an amino group (-NH2). They are not much more than a configuration of atoms. Yet scientists report that proteins "recognize" the molecular pattern of specific pathogens. They also "recognize" DNA damage, and either "repair" it or, if the damage is too extensive, "send a signal" to the cell to kill itself. One protein, ubiquitin, does everything from "degrading defective proteins" and "directing protein traffic" to "regulating DNA activity." Ubiquitin is no simple, mechanical device. It knows its way around the cell. How it works is the question.

I asked Thomas Ward, a professor of chemistry at a Swiss university and a protein specialist, whether he thinks proteins have a capacity to know. He replied, "A protein can move, powering itself from an external food source. A protein can interact with others of its own species, as well as with individual ent.i.ties from other species, such as DNA and RNA molecules. A protein can use other ent.i.ties to build a large edifice, such as a cell. A protein can even reproduce itself, according to recent research. A protein can lose all of its functions, or "die." The foremost function of proteins is to recognize. For example, they recognize RNA molecules, or viruses, or other proteins. Then, based on this recognition, they can take appropriate measures. If this is what you mean by "to know," then I find proteins undeniably have the capacity to know."

When I first started this investigation, I expected scientists would consider my interest in nature"s "intelligence" with suspicion. But this turned out not to be the case. Science seems to have evolved in recent years. Now few scientists describe proteins as stupid bits of matter involved in automatic reactions. There are too many clear indications of a capacity to know all through the edifice of life. Tens of thousands of scientists in many different countries are busy studying these indications and trying to discover how nature knows. They study cell signaling, or DNA repair by protein-enzymes, or neuron decision making, or slime mold maze solving, or a dodder plant"s capacity to gauge its environment. The data they generate is a treasure trove of chi-sei. Scientists now confirm what shamans have long said about the nature of nature.

TRANSFORMERS AND TRANSFORMATION kept cropping up during this investigation. My hunch is that part of nature"s essence is to transform itself, to evolve. The beings of this world seem driven to transform themselves, one way or another. By conducting this investigation, I was transformed. My understanding of science changed. I used to think that scientists were dogmatic, particularly when it comes to considering other species as anything other than machines. Instead I found a broad base of scientists studying biology with open minds.

I also look at living beings with new eyes. Learning that plant cells send one another signals similar to those used by my own neurons, and that plants gauge the world around them and make appropriate decisions, has made me look at all plants, including weeds, with increased respect. And now I admire slime molds, appreciate nematodes, fear Salmonella, and respect c.o.c.kroaches. And when I drive in the summertime and insects crash into the windshield, I know too much.

Now other species seem more human to me, and humans seem more natural. Recognizing that the capacity to know exists outside humanity leads to a richer, more adventurous, and more comfortable life. Instead of trampling blindly all over the planet, we can see that life"s prodigious powers are housed in all its denizens. Chi-sei forms a continuum across the living world.

There does seem to be one difference between contemporary humans and other species: we acc.u.mulate our knowledge outside ourselves in artifacts such as written texts. This greatly accelerates the transmission of knowledge, putting us on a learning curve shared by no other species. We acquire and transmit knowledge at an unprecedented rate. But this has given us dominance over most other species, which we are currently abusing by depleting nature at an unsustainable pace. We have yet to learn how to control our predatory nature.

Jaguars set an example on this count. They stand at the top of the Amazonian food chain yet lead discreet lives. As top predators in the rain forest, they can both swim and climb trees with ease; their prey ranges from fish, turtles, and caimans to rodents, deer, and monkeys. These versatile cats often kill their prey by piercing the skull with one swift bite. Their name comes from the Tupi-Guarani word yagura, meaning "an animal that kills its prey with one bound." Jaguars have no rivals besides humans, but they tend to hide. In fact, they move around with such stealth that biologists have difficulty studying them. These impeccable predators control their power.

Humanity can learn from nature. This requires coming to terms with the natural world"s capacity to know. We are a young species, and we are just beginning to understand.

ALSO BY JEREMY NARBY.

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the.

Origins of Knowledge.

Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path.

to Knowledge (with Francis Huxley).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR.

Jeremy Narby, Ph.D., grew up in Canada and Switzerland, studied history at the University of Canterbury, and received his doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University.

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