Everything Alive is Intelligent: Anthropo-centric Distortion and Life Science Re-education
If we can truly understand the miracle of life in its wondrous cornucopia of different forms — from brainy Primate extrovert tool-users to the enduring patience of Millennium-old introvert trees — we’d be as awed by anything alive as were the aboriginal people who preceded Europeans in North America. These native people, without our detailed biological knowledge, were disposed to awe, respect and wonder at the lives of other species, rather than trying to scrunch those lives into the strictures of a human-centered context.
The Anthropo-centric Distortion
That more limiting anthropo-centric view of Nature largely began in the Americas with the European invasion in the 1500s. For example, you may recall the story of Spaniard Ponce De Leon and his futile search for a fountain of youth. Ever since that time, preoccupied with the degenerative effects of human aging, folks have been tempted to view long-lived species through that narcissistic lens, asking exploitative questions such as: can we discover and extract some substance from that 500-year-old tree to prolong human life? While it’s an understandable idea, it’s not, however, one that promotes real understanding of the different concertos that evolution wrote with the same set of biological notes — crafted into diverse melodies, harmonies, and rhythmic syncopations.
It’s a central tenet of neuroscience that the human brain is computational and constructive during perception. For example, the brain creates visual reality, projecting it outward into three-dimensional space rather than simply passively registering its projection onto two-dimensional retinas. Examples abound, such as in visual illusions in which the brain fills-in missing physical information with information drawn from memory. Or the biology of visual processing, which reveals that the form, color and motion of an object are processed separately by our brains, then recombined into a unitary percept. And consider how easily most people’s brains adjusts to virtual reality environments: give the brain different inputs and it’ll gladly create alternate realities.
In our reality-creating brains, what the anthropo-centric distortion can do is to frame the smarts of other species using such human neurological biases — referent to human brain function, human lifespan, and other implicit assumptions about human life. To shed such bias requires a different, a more fundamental view of life science and life-science education. How do we know whether something is alive? Moreover, how do we avoid framing that question in a strictly human context, resist distorting it anthropo-centrically?
Beyond the constructive properties of our brains, another source of our anthropo-centric distortion of Nature is the failure to teach young people during their K–12 education about the properties that all living things share. The desired outcome is that students might come to appreciate the myriad variations on how those properties are the starting point for so many different species. Diverse in their habitats, nutrition, longevity, and bio-social relationships, those species are in all instances equally alive, and moreover, uniquely intelligent in their interactions with their physical and biological environments.
Religious doctrine can be another possible source of anthropo-centric distortions. Placing us in an exalted position dominant over other species, religious doctrines can also encourage us to look down on them as inferior. I recall courtroom scenes from the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, a biopic of the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1920’s Tennessee. The great actor, Frederic March, playing William Jennings Bryan (re-named “Brady” in the film) when challenged by the equally excellent Spencer Tracy (as a re-named Clarence Darrow) repeatedly cites books of the old testament as evidence for the uniqueness of humans. In this view, human intelligence is so deity-given that even those smart great apes (gorillas, chimps, bonobos, orangutans) are relegated to positions of relative stupidity. Hence the trial’s “monkey” nickname.
One consequence of the anthropo-centric distortion and its reluctance to acknowledge non-human intelligence can be a cavalier attitude that fosters a no-limits approach toward the exploitation of the natural world. We hear about the so-called “externalities” of market capitalism, as if the economy is the central firmament upon which life depends. It’s an expression of the attitude that humans and their economies are smarter than natural systems. This runs contrary to ecological economics and the pronouncements of its founder, Herman Daly, who rightly tells us:
“The economy is a subset of the ecosystem, not the other way around.”
Or there’s Albert Einstein’s sardonic commentary about the atomic bomb as an intelligent human achievement:
“Mankind invented the atomic bomb, but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.”
Universality of Biological Intelligence
We could reframe Daly’s eco-economics observation as: the complex adaptive natural system is smarter than the human-contrived one. And while our current dilemma of species extinctions, rampant environmental toxicity, and planetary heating is sad evidence of this assertion, accepting the reality of this idea is far easier if the intelligence of that ecosystem and its component species are clearly apparent. It’s easier to exploit or poison something that we view as comparatively insignificant, whether that something is a squashed ant, a pulled weed, or a harvested tree.
So what are those fundamental intelligent notes and rhythms and how can they help us see Nature through a clearer lens? Stated differently, how can they help us to understand that each living organism, bacteria to bonobo to human to tree, exhibits intelligence that is merely a variation on a common theme.
Five Properties of Biological Life
In my experience teaching college freshmen, this necessary foundation for learning about non-human intelligence encompasses five major ideas that define biological life:
1]Anything alive not only requires, but also transforms* energy obtained from an external source — and must do so continuously.
2] That energy use is organized and regulated by logical computational processes that parse, interpret, and respond to a multidimensional barrage of signals. Such computation (information processing) occurs at every level of biological organization, from genes to cells to brains to bodies to ecological communities.
3] Part of that energy is used to continually re-create the self, regularly replacing components, some of which may still be functional.
4] The processes of re-creation and energy transformation continuously exchange matter with the environment.
5] All life is cellular. This is true for the smaller, simpler, single-celled Bacteria and Archaea) to the many-celled fungi, plants, and animals, in which numerous cells collaborate-communicate to form whole organisms greater than a simple sum of their cells. The cell is the fundamental living unit of energy transformation, information processing (computation) and matter recycling. Hence every cell is correctly thought of as both micro-factory, micro-engine, and micro-processor (microchip).
Some readers who recall the concept of homeostasis might wonder why it’s not on my list. But homeostasis, the tendency of a living being to adjust its internal properties so as to maintain a reasonably stable internal environment is an outcome of these five more-fundamental properties (So homeostasis is a type of derived property analogous to density in physics). Homeostasis relies on the computation of feedback signals to initiate logical change-responses (property two). Moreover, these stabilizing change-responses require expenditure and transformation of energy (property one). And at least partial re-creation of components through recycling of materials (properties three and four). This also tells us that homeostasis is incomplete without the modifying adjective “dynamic.”
Dynamic homeostasis describes relative stability through continual change, a reasonably accurate picture of what it means to be alive.
To briefly elaborate, I’ll discuss property two before property one.
Property 2] Biology is a computational (as well as a physico-chemical) science.
Every cell on the planet is a microchip integrating several types of molecule-sized nanochips such as DNA (genes), RNA, and protein signal receiver-decoders.
In general terms, computation means logical processing of input signals to produce appropriate adaptive output responses at every level of biological organization — molecular, cellular, tissue, organ, whole organism, and ecosystem.
For example, bio-computation can refer to the genes of a single cell turning on-off or up-down in response to signals coming either from its internal or external environment. Certain skin cells sense ultraviolet (UV-A) light as a signal that after logical processing, leads them to respond by turning up genes for pigment (melanin) production. If you’re light-skinned, you begin to tan, a logical response to protect you from UV-induced DNA damage.
Bio-computation is also demonstrated by the immune system’s white blood cells computing chemical input signals from bacterial invaders or viral-infected cells before they reach a decision to produce one of several possible output defensive immune responses best designed to eliminate the invader.
Or there’s your heart computing a response to signals coming from both your brain and nerves and from hormone-like substances in your blood. It responds by adjusting how forcefully and how rapidly it pumps, logically computing heart pumping that will produce the optimal oxygen and food-energy delivery to other organs.
All these responses, whether occurring at the gene, cell, or organ level require computation — information processing — and the fact that the computers are wet and carbon-based rather than dry and silicon-based is largely irrelevant to the fact that so many levels and types of computation exist in living beings, information processing that produces intelligent responses.
Our brain is generally touted as the most complex example of bio-information processing, capable of logical processing of many parallel information streams. For example, our brains compute visual input from the retinas of our eyes into a 3D construct of our surroundings, even as they simultaneously process input from our muscle stretch receptors into outputs for various types of muscle movement from walking to hitting a tennis ball. We may also be simultaneously thinking linguistically.
And while animal brains perhaps exhibit the most complex and sophisticated computations, they are surely not the only evidence of biological intelligence or the only parallel processors of diverse information streams. Unless you feel comfortable calling a thousand-year-old tree stupid. Even a slimy mat of bacteria receives and computes input signals from its environment, responding with intelligent output on a biochemical level.
Property 1] Every living cell and organism continuously transforms energy* in accord with laws of the physical sciences
Coming from the external environment, this energy can take the form of sunlight (radiant) energy that green plants and diverse algae transform to food energy (photosynthesis). And it can come from these sunlight-produced foods transferred to eaters and recyclers connected in webs of energy transfer (food webs). Food-energy takes the form of biological molecules like carbs, fats & proteins. There are also a few groups of living things, mostly bacteria and archaea which can produce bio-energy by chemically manipulating substances from their environments. For instance, some sulfur bacteria can thrive on the rotten-eggs odor of sewer gas because they can obtain chemical energy while doing this. And just as we eat veggies made by plant photosynthesis, other organisms can eat these bacteria which made their food by chemosynthesis. All of this energy transformation is regulated and optimized by computation, but not necessarily by a formally organized brain.
Whether an eater, recycler, photosynthesizer, or chemosynthesizer, organisms change (transform) their initial environmental energy source (sunlight, food, or sewer gas) into more immediately useful bioenergy bitcoin (bio-bitcoin)**. This bio-bitcoin is a universal feature of any living being on earth. Ultimately, bio-bitcoin energy is used for both communication, computation, and other physical-chemical processes like movement — of macro-pumps like your heart or of the muscles that move your body. Or of nano-pumps that keep your nerve cells functional; or of the micro-hairs that move mucus and trapped allergens away from the deepest passages of your lungs. Or of the nano-sized transportation tracks inside your nerves that allow molecular motors to move cargo very rapidly for distances of sometimes a half-meter (almost two feet); this is a formidable distance for a cell whose main portion measures only about fifty millionths of a meter (fifty micrometers). In each of these examples, some amount of bio-bitcoin energy is transformed to the kinetic energy of directional movement.
This collection of energy transformations organized by information processing (computation) is what we call “metabolism.” And the thermal energy (heat) produced during these energy transformations is what we measure as body heat. #
Viruses: Occasional Life
By these standards, viruses are only sometimes alive. While they exist as virus particles floating in air or in watery fluids, their life is latent because they have no metabolism, they neither use/transform energy nor perform computation. Their latent life becomes actualized metabolic life once they infect a living cell, at which point the virus’s metabolism initiates by taking control of an infected cell’s metabolism, using up a cell’s bio-bitcoin energy to reproduce itself.
Property 3] Every living being re-creates its own body
Examples are readily found in our own bodies: our skin, our blood and the lining of our stomachs. Our skin continually flakes-off cells that used to be alive, but have morphed into protein flakes. Wear a black, clingy layer in winter and this becomes obvious in the tiny flecks left behind. To achieve this ongoing loss of cells, such a dynamic organ must continually make new cells. So a large part of the skin’s energy transformations and bio-bitcoin energy use (metabolism) goes toward making new cells. Clearly the speed and other details of the skin’s re-creation must be controlled by computation to produce appropriate output. This is illustrated by the different thickness of the dead protein-flakes layer in different body regions — thinner on your face and lips, thicker on the soles of your feet (callouses).
Your stomach lining follows suit. So many cells are made and lost, and so rapidly, that the cells lining the inside of your stomach three days hence will be entirely new, different from — and the offspring of — those lining it right now. Of course, the DNA and information-processing capabilities they inherit from their predecessors will make them metabolically identical to those parent cells.
This re-creation of self happens everywhere in living organs, but at different speeds. Your muscles (including your heart) re-create themselves, albeit more slowly. Your blood components are re-created relatively rapidly. Neutrophils, the most numerous human white blood cell are made at a rate of billions per day because they continually patrol your body as a first-line defense against infection.
And while, unlike your skin, your brain doesn’t normally lose too many cells, brain cells are continually re-creating their internal components, such as their nano-factories, -motors and -pumps.
Lifespan and the Metabolic Pace of Self Re-creation
One reason we may not appreciate the intelligence of other life forms is the vast diversity in Nature regarding the pace of metabolism, what biomedicine calls metabolic rate. We tend to see this in strictly human terms, through the lens of the anthropo-centric distortion. For example to lose weight on a diet, we’re strongly advised to exercise to burn more calories (energy). And we need to know from physicians that our level of thyroid hormone — a major computational controller of metabolic rate — is within acceptable limits.
In contrast to skin or stomach lining re-creation, hours or days for humans, in deciduous trees shedding/re-making of bark and leaves occurs over spans of months or years. So the metabolic rate of a maple tree’s re-creation of self, a six-month spring-to-fall growth/divestiture season is equivalent to a few days for our skin/stomach lining. Considering our 70-year lifespan contrasted with the several hundred–year lifespan of many trees in their native mature-forest habitat, this becomes partly a case of different metabolic rates, rather than some fundamental disparity as living beings. Trees (and other plants) are intelligent in their own right, re-creating themselves on terms that conform to their specific metabolisms adapted to their environments. Variations on a theme.
For instance mature trees need to figure out how thick and stiff their bark should be in each of their major and minor branches, both during growth and into maturity. Then they must implement that computation with responses. Aside from some living tissues on bark’s inner surface, the bark can contain mixes of different nonliving substances with more flexibility as well as those with more stiffness and strength. It’s no surprise that this mix of substances might be different in smaller twigs flexing in the wind than in larger branches that are stiffer and where support is more important. The tree therefore executes appropriate output decisions that determine the thickness, substance mix and consistency of bark required for each of its branches and twigs. This is no small feat, especially since trees re-create their structures as do all living things. More slowly, according to their metabolic rate. Speaking of which, there’s an old Juniper along one of my hiking trails that I’m fairly sure is running its metabolism faster in its eastermost half than in its westernmost. I can tell by the differences in the piney aroma of terpenes coming from its needles when I stick my nose into them. That trees do all this without a nervous system in the animal sense is reason for wonder and admiration. At least to this biologist.
At the other extreme is the metabolic rate of bacteria, often far more rapid than that of humans; they can double their numbers as rapidly as every 30 minutes. And while relating to bacterial intelligence is a challenge, without the decomposing-recycling actions of environmental bacteria, ecosystems would be not just less healthy, but actually non-operational. It’s useful to remember that our own digestive and immune systems have learned to cooperate with our gut bacteria (microbiome) in another mutually beneficial and communicative relationship. Medicine’s interest in probiotics and fecal transplants is illustrative.
Property 4. Anything alive continually exchanges materials with its environment
This one is at least partly an outcome of continual re-creation of self. Those skin cells continually flaking off your body return bio-materials to the environment where decomposer-recycler bacteria and fungi use them as material and energy input to their own metabolisms. Your urine returns a mix of salts to the environment. Meanwhile foods you eat serve as replacement bio-material and energy input to your human metabolism. As we’ve seen throughout the biosphere, living beings obtain matter and energy in a variety of ways. And these exchanges are connected to the fact that these beings are re-creating themselves.
Property 5. All life is cellular
Amid the immensity of the topic of cell biology, we can, for simplicity, broadly categorize the structures within living cells as different types of nanomachines, (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) that frequently require the use of bio-bitcoin energy. So for example, we find nano-factories that create, change, and recycle materials, nano-motors and nano-pumps that move materials, and nano–signal translators that decode incoming information.
As I’ve already mentioned, the cell is the basic unit of both energy transformation and information processing — the basic unit of metabolism. Computationally, each cell can be thought of as a micro-processor (microchip) composed of and integrating many smaller nano-processors (nanochips) composed of such biomolecules as DNA, RNA and proteins. These nano-processors regulate energy transformation and matter recycling by the cell’s factories, pumps, motors, and signal receiver-decoders.
Ecological Computation and Eco-Strokes
Many of us probably understand that human strokes kill brain cells, in almost all cases making the brain a less-effective information processor (computational device). In parallel, one can think of the extinction of a species as an eco-stroke. The consequence is that some portion of a particular ecosystem — and often the entire system — now processes information less effectively. Ecocide weakens the biosphere by killing ecological intelligence.
Life is not begun, it’s continued
Without plunging into the debate among pro-lifers and pro-choicers about a human life, it’s quite incorrect to talk about when a life — let’s say a Bonobo embryo’s life — begins in its mother’s womb. This is simply because that mother’s egg is already alive. It transforms food energy to bio-bitcoin, performs computation, and uses its bio-bitcoin to move and re-create its internal structures. In other words, unlike quiescent virus particles in the environment, the egg has a metabolism. So does the sperm that fertilizes it, albeit a metabolism considerably more limited than the egg’s; most of its bio-bitcoin fuels the nano-motors that propel its swimming. Hence when egg and sperm come together to form the Bonobo embryo, life is continued.
As far as we know, life arose from non-life only once on earth, at some point around four-billion years ago when a collection of appropriate biomolecules, formed through environmental energy input, became the first primitive cellular unit with its own metabolism. (There are several hypothetical variants of this scheme.)
Robotics and AI: Intelligent machines but not alive
Since AI is an intelligence at least partly designed to mimic human brain processing — visual, linguistic, cognitive etc. — but not other bio-intelligent processing, the fact that it confers problems concurrent with its benefits should not surprise us. And like latent viral particles before they infect a cell, robots (at least current ones) don’t continually re-create themselves, hence failing at least that metric of life. Robots can compute, even display human-like intelligence, but they can’t be fully alive.
A Biological Turing Test of Intelligence
The great British mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, is credited with the Turing test of artificial intelligence (AI). A machine is considered intelligent if its computations produce a response indistinguishable from that of a human brain. Turing — optimistic despite persecution for his sexual orientation — predicted that AI would pass this test by the year 2000. Although AI structures like neural networks may approach brain-like computation, there are a variety of opinions about AI’s having genuinely fulfilled Turing’s prediction.
The test for biological intelligence is simpler. Does a structure or device illustrate the five properties of life? Does it transform energy and compute metabolic responses that are adaptive, beneficial for survival or reproduction in the context of its environment (dynamic homeostasis). Does it exchange matter with that environment and continually re-create itself from environmentally obtained substances? This last metric suggests that no AI device can be said to be alive or biologically intelligent, except as it mimics, duplicates or exceeds the particular form of information processing modeled by the human brain. “Gods” do in fact create offspring in their own image and likeness. Ours, not Nature’s.
If this last point seems trivial, it’s really not. For consider that it requires a ton of sophisticated computation to have your heart remain a fully functional blood pump while it gradually replaces its individual heart-muscle cells. There’s no going off-line for repair. The nerve cells in your brain remain fully functional microstructures even as they are re-creating their internal nano-pumps, transportation systems and nano-motors. Even sections of their DNA.
Think about how daunting is the prospect of an intelligent machine connected to a source of the metals and other chemicals required to re-construct its components. Imagine a machine, an android if you like, able to fully sustain its function while simultaneously re-creating new components and tearing down existing ones, passing materials back out to its external sources. This is far beyond current capabilities. And I present it not to be critical of AI, but solely to illustrate how mind-bogglingly complex and intelligent bio-computation must be to maintain full functionality simultaneously with the re-creation of extremely complicated structures. Another way of saying this is that living beings are self-organizing. (Which is also a model for the reorganization of human economic structures.)
The point is not to denigrate smart machines. Machines are built to minimize turnover of matter, rather than to re-create themselves. It’s a very different strategy from that of living beings. The point is to elevate the biological strategy for intelligence as applicable to anything alive, bacteria to bug, bonobo to beech tree. Humans, river rats, fungi, algal slime: nothing alive is excluded.
Ecosystem (Community) Intelligence
Most readers are probably at least somewhat familiar with the colony or hive intelligence of honeybees, so I’m instead going to mention a multi-species intelligence found in rich forest soil, particularly in old-growth forests. The trees may be intimately connected by a common root system. And they’re also intimately connected to soil fungi in a communicative mutually beneficial exchange of signals and food-energy or other energy-requiring services. The tree roots will pass sugars (food energy) to the fungi. The fungi, in turn, expend bio-bitcoin for pump energy, which allows them to service the trees’ needs. They take a plant-required mineral (like zinc) from soil, make it more concentrated, then move it into a tree’s roots. Within that soil are also many different bacteria and other fungi, among them decomposers that recycle biomaterials of deceased beings back into the soil for community use. They may be both assisted by and eaten by worms and insects.
This barely scratches the surface of soil complexity, but it hints at a collective intelligence that is supported by various levels of interspecies signaling and computation, underpinning what can be thought of as ecological intelligence. Go above-ground to include birds, bats, insects and other animals, and more bacterial and fungal species. Put them all in communication and you begin to get a feeling for the fact that this is a higher-level bio-information processor (computational device). It may not be our brain, but it continually computes parameters for the dynamic homeostasis of the entire ecosystem. And if the tree stands are 500-year-olds, they might even conceivably be storing useful memories of their deep experience of many good and bad years. Perhaps even epigenetically.##
“Saving the Planet”: Interacting with Ecological Intelligence without the Illusion of Perfection
Two last points involve our current climate-change dilemmas and our sometime obsession with perfection. First of all, action on the climate catastrophe isn’t about saving this planet, at least some of whose bio-intelligence in its non-human species and ecological communities would probably persist beyond the end of our tenure, just as it always has beyond the tenure of other extinct species. Rather, action to mitigate climate change is really about saving enough human habitat to keep our species here, in its natural (and naturally amazing) milieu.There are, unfortunately, also apocalyptic scenarios in which we push climate over a tipping point leading to extreme temperatures that might wipe out most plants and animals. In that case only some bacteria might make it through.
Second, whatever those actions are, they should dispense with the idea of perfection, a word wildly over-used by our radically linguistic species. Although Nature abhors a vacuum, it’s likewise not marching toward perfection as some would have us believe about human civilization. For evolution and its spawn seem to be about optimization, doing their best to connect and preserve living systems.
Enough Ponce de Leon thinking¶; it’s less compatible with a really effective environmental movement to save species, prevent more eco-strokes.
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* For example plants transform radiant (light) energy from the sun into the chemical energy of carbohydrates. Your muscles transform chemical energy from those carbs into the kinetic energy of the motion of your body
**ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the primary currency of bio-bitcoin for those interested in biochemical details. Other nucleoside triphosphates like GTP, as well as creatine phosphate serve as ancillary bio-bitcoin.
# Obeying the Second Law of Thermodynamics
## Epigenetics describes ways in which life experience (including environmental toxicity) can be remembered without changing the code in DNA, but rather by changing other biochemistry in your chromosomes that can affect expression of that DNA code.
¶ Like an article in the February 4, 2020 NY Times, which while reporting on the awful Australian-fires damage to the platypus, manages to focus on a potential human drug, an antibiotic protein in its milk. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/science/platypus-australia-wildfires.html