NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

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:

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

Now, back to life and
evolution. When you get down to it, evolution
likewise involves the specific manipulation and specific reorganization of
. 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

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. 

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