Basal cognition (Evolution)

by dhw, Sunday, January 28, 2024, 13:07 (84 days ago)

A friend has sent me a very long article from the February edition of Scientific American. “Basal cognition” is simply another name for cellular intelligence, and the article contains references to numerous experiments and observations involving worms, animals. insects, plants, slime mold etc. The researchers cover a variety of disciplines, and they work at different universities. They see their findings as being important for the future of medicine and AI. I’ll select a few quotes that make their conclusions clear:

“…regular cells – not just highly specialized cells such as neurons – have the ability to store information and act on it. […] Researchers in this burgeoning area have spotted hallmarks of intelligence – learning, memory, problem-solving – outside brains as well as within them.”

"(Levin) doesn't deny that that brains are awesome, paragons of computational speed and power. But he sees the differences between cell clumps and brains as ones of degree, not kind."

“In recent years interest in basal cognition has exploded as researchers have recognized example after example of surprisingly sophisticated intelligence at work across life’s kingdoms, no brain required!”

“People are just another animal species. But real cognition – that was supposed to set us apart.
Now that notion, too, is in retreat as researchers document the rich inner lives of creatures increasingly distant from us. Apes, dogs, dolphins, crows and even insects are proving more savvy than suspected.”


“The bigger challenge comes from evidence of surprisingly sophisticated behaviour in our brainless relatives. ‘The neuron is not a miracle cell….It’s a normal cell that is able to produce an electric signal. In plants almost every cell is able to do that.’
“None of this implies that plants are geniuses, but within their limited tool set, they show a solid ability to perceive their world and use that information to get what they need – key components of intelligence. […]

“That’s not the situation for single-celled organisms, which have traditionally been relegated to the “mindless” category by virtually everyone. If amoebas can think, then humans need to rethink all kinds of assumptions. Yet the evidence for cogitating pond scum grows daily. Consider the slime mold… (dhw: David has drawn our attention to this example before.)

"What we are is intelligent machines made of intelligent machines made of intelligent machines all the way down."

Levin sees this innate tendency towards innovation as one of the driving forces of evolution, pushing the world towards a state of, as Charles Darwin might have put it, endless forms most beautiful.” (dhw’s bold)

“Indeed, the very act of living is by default a cognitive state, Lyon says. Every cell needs to be constantly evaluating its surroundings, making decisions about what to let in and what to keep out and planning its next steps. Cognition didn’t arrive later in evolution. It’s what made life possible.”

Surprisingly, there is no mention of earlier champions of cellular intelligence such as McClintock, Margulis, Buehler and, especially Shapiro, since Levin’s comment (bolded) is a direct echo of Shapiro’s theory. But this “explosion of interest” certainly gives the lie to the idea that the theory is on its way out. It’s clearly gaining more and more support.


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