Go to the Nature Institute’s home page

Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology

From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self (Part 3)

Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?
Stephen L. Talbott

RSS Feed for Biology Worthy of Life: RSS Feed for this page   

This article is part of the Biology Worthy of Life Project. Copyright 2015 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness

Posted: April 29, 2015   (Article 28)
Abstract of Part 1 (+/-)

The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology

Biologists consistently observe a certain inwardness and agency in all organisms, from the simplest to the most complex. Whether at the molecular level or that of the whole, the organism follows directed pathways — “directed” not in some linear or physical-law sense, but rather in the judicious pursuit of ends. This pursuit entails the ability to coordinate means in relation to ends, and to do so under never fully predictable circumstances. We can recognize in the organism something like reason, intention, purposiveness, learning, liking and disliking, memory, and instinct, as well as a power of judgment and appropriate response to environmental contingencies. The organism is always telling a story and always “staying in character” despite the often dramatic transformations of its life cycle and the radical internal differentiation of parts.

Given the various forms of reason, agency, and purposiveness we observe in all organisms, how can we understand the relations between the bacterium, the salmon, and the human being? The salmon does not reason or intend in anything like the way humans do, so how are we to understand its obvious biological wisdom? In Part 1 the question is merely raised and made vivid.

Abstract of Part 2 (+/-)

Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture

Every organism is a cognitive creature, carrying out mind-like functions in every aspect of its life. In our own human case it is incontrovertible, even if paradoxical, that we have forms of consciousness that are not, or not fully, conscious. Such, for example, are the complexes that many abused children carry into their adult lives, creating, perhaps, severe obsessive concerns or compulsions they may think “ridiculous” but that they have little control over. But we all can become aware of thoughts and intentions that influence us on certain occasions, and of which we may become conscious only after the fact.

Even at the molecular and cellular level, biologists routinely employ a language connoting a psychic element, but without any suggestion of consciousness. Indeed, sensing and responding, communication, information, signal, and message have become part of the core terminology of molecular biology.

Not only does a bodily rooted unconscious content rise at times to consciousness, but our conscious states influence the physical processes of our own bodies. This is true in our blushing or growing pale, in our blood pressure and pulse, or in the development of cancers, heart disease, back pain, peptic ulcers, colitis, and other ailments that correlate in one degree or another with stress, personality type, or psychosocial circumstances.

In sum: there is no sharp line separating our most intensely self-aware, conscious inwardness from the most objectified physical performances of our bodily organisms, which themselves possess an inwardness. Perhaps nothing illustrates the pervasive “speech” of the whole organism more than our explicit speaking, gesturing, and listening.

Part 3: Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?

In part 2 of this series, “Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture”, I pointed out (focusing on humans) that we find a kind of wisdom all the way down to our cells and molecules. This unconscious bodily wisdom can at times play upward into our consciousness, and, in the opposite direction, our conscious contents clearly inform our bodily performances — most obviously, when we will a physical act. There is an unbroken continuum of active intelligence at work from our cells upward through our organs and whole bodies, to our fully conscious ruminations.

Yet we must nevertheless learn to make vital distinctions, since no one will claim that the wisdom displayed in the cell or in embryonic developmental processes is an activity equivalent to the wise (or otherwise) reflections of an astrophysicist or Plato scholar.

Here I will transpose the discussion of this continuum of intelligence into a different key. For we find something like the same continuum when we look, not only from the unconscious wisdom of our own cells toward our most wakeful presence of mind, but also from the simplest one-celled organisms to ourselves.

One warning: while the following thumbnail descriptions may possess great interest, some of the conventional explanations accompanying them may induce in you a sense of unease. At least they do in me. More on that in due time.

There is profound wisdom
in all forms of life

The arctic tern migrates between its antipodal summer residences every year. The meandering and partly improvised course of its annual round trip, shaped to take advantage of prevailing winds, amounts to as much as 56,000 miles (90,000 km)1 — well more than twice the entire circumference of the earth, and mostly over the “pathless” sea. For mating, the tern usually returns time and again to the same northern colony. The slender bird accomplishing these feats, armored against the elements with nothing but delicate feathers, weighs about 4 ounces (110 g).

Many factors have been proposed to explain bird migration in general: navigation is variously said to be guided by sun and stars, earth’s magnetic field, environmental cues such as odors and visual landmarks, and “mental maps” constructed from experience. It’s commonly thought that, with any given migrating species, a number of such factors may play a role.

When a Pacific Ocean Chinook salmon is prompted by some deep urge to migrate from the open ocean to its natal stream — there to lay its eggs and die — several years may have passed since it left that stream as a juvenile. Supposing it hatched in a central Idaho waterway — and leaving aside thousands of miles of ocean travel so as to reckon only from the mouth of the Columbia River — its return journey could well extend over 900 miles. Struggling against stiff currents and strong rapids, the fish must gain several thousand feet in elevation. Upon reaching its birth stream, the male “knows” to pair up with a female, the female “knows” to dig a depression in the stream bottom in order to lay her eggs, and the male “knows” to fertilize the eggs. Both fish “know” to protect the eggs from predators — and both very likely die before the eggs actually hatch.

Biologists have recently claimed to show that juvenile Chinook salmon possess an inherited magnetic map that “facilitates their navigation during their initial oceanic migration”, taking them to their feeding ground and enabling their eventual return to their place of birth for spawning2.

Huge numbers of migrating monarch butterflies, starting from as far away as the northern midwest and eastern Canada, home in on a single wintering location in central Mexico with the precision of an intercontinental ballistic missile — except that the trajectories followed by the butterflies are hardly missile-like. Different groups follow separate paths, and these paths vary depending on conditions. Migration routes may also evolve historically: apparently there are no mentions of monarch butterflies in American colonial times, and it’s been argued that the insects moved northward to take advantage of the luxuriance of larval host plants following the deforestation of northeastern America3.

In any case, none of the butterflies traveling from Canada or the northern United States to Mexico has had any previous life experience of that journey, since the return trip northward in the spring occurs only over several generations. There are no “guide butterflies” to lead the way southward.

Then again you may have heard about the archerfish, found in warmer waters of the far east. This fish “spits” a forceful stream of water sufficient to dislodge an insect from its sticky attachment to a stem or leaf up to at least two meters away. Of course, when looking from the water into the air, the fish must correctly compensate for the same refraction of light that, in our own experience, makes a stick look “bent” at the point where it enters the water.

That itself is mystifying enough. But researchers recently showed that the archerfish’s achievement is even more startling. This cunning hunter emits its lethal jet in such a way that the last water released (the trailing part of the stream) eventually catches up with the water released earlier — and does so right at the distance where the insect is located, making for maximum force of impact. Moreover, the way to do this changes a great deal, depending on whether the insect is 10 cm away or, say, 100 cm.

The gathering of water in the fish’s mouth, its dynamic shaping, and the force of propulsion imparted to the stream in order to achieve the proper result at each distance, are extraordinarily complex — and not fully understood. But researchers, in testing the fish with targets at 20 cm, 40 cm, and 60 cm, reported that “jet tips recorded just before impact were equally well focused, and their shapes bore no information on how long they had traveled before”.4 That is, the fish adjusted the dynamics and timing elements of its water jet in order to have it “come together” in just the right way at whatever distance the target resided.

Then there are plants. A few years back, Nature columnist Philip Ball reported5 that

plants appear to “think”, according to US researchers, who say that green plants engage in a form of problem-solving computation. David Peak and co-workers at Utah State University in Logan say that plants may regulate their uptake and loss of gases by “distributed computation”.

More specifically: plants open and close microscopic pores called “stomata” in order to regulate their exchange of gases with the atmosphere. Especially under the stressful conditions of drought, plants must (in Peak’s words) “solve a sophisticated formal problem: how to maximize carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere while experiencing no more than a fixed amount of evaporative water loss”. The researchers believe their statistical analyses of pore openings and closings provide quantitative support for the idea that “a plant solves its optimal gas exchange problem through an emergent, distributed computation performed by its leaves”6.

After noting that the same sort of calculation is thought to “regulate how ants forage” — a process during which they lay down signals for each other in the form of chemical trails — Ball goes on to say:

This might not sound much like what a computer does, but it is. In distributed computation, signals exchanged between components of the system define the process for solving a problem.

An Australian biologist, Monica Gagliano, along with her collaborators7, investigated learning responses in the plant, Mimosa pudica (a creeping herb sometimes called “touch-me-not”). This plant is known for folding its leaves when physically touched or disturbed. The researchers built an apparatus to drop potted Mimosa plants in a series of training experiments. Initially the shock of the drop caused the plants to fold their leaves. However, after just several drops the leaves were already starting to re-open between impacts. And after further training they never even “bothered” to close.

The interesting part is what happened when a different stimulus was applied immediately after the drops. The plants were shaken, whereupon the full folding response occurred. This showed, according to the researchers, that the loss of response after the “drop training” was not “due to exhaustion of energy or other resources”.

Further, when the plants were dropped again ten minutes after the shaking, they almost fully retained their previous “learned” response, failing to fold their leaves. And there was no difference between the results obtained at the ten-minute mark and those obtained six hours later. The plants, Gagliano and colleagues write, undergo an “active learning process whereby [they] perceive an innocuous stimulus but choose not to respond to it while still remaining responsive to the surrounding environment”.

(For dramatic revelations about current research into the intelligence of plants more broadly, see Michael Pollan’s article in the December 23, 2013 issue of The New Yorker8. You will, I am confident, find the piece eye-opening. The scientific work Pollan reviews is the basis for an intense and ongoing reevaluation of plants by biologists.)

The Physarum polycephalum slime mold is a one-celled, amoeba-like organism that can grow to occupy a surface area of a square meter or so. During one phase of its development, the expansive single cell possesses millions of cell nuclei. You may have seen this slime mold as a bright yellow mass growing on forest litter in shady, cool, damp environments.

According to an article9 published in Nature in 2000, P. polycephalum consists of “a dendritic network of tube-like structures (pseudopodia). It changes its shape as it crawls over a plain agar gel and, if food is placed at two different points, it will put out pseudopodia that connect the two food sources”. And that’s where things become intriguing.

The authors sliced up a slime mold and scattered bits of it upon a culturing medium within a maze. They provided food at the start and end points of the maze. The slime mold, after filling the entire maze with its pseudopodia and locating the food sources, proceeded to shrink back from dead ends and always finished by occupying only the shortest of four possible routes between the food sources. The researchers summarized the situation this way:

To maximize its foraging efficiency, and therefore its chances of survival, the plasmodium [the multinucleate, amoeboid, feeding form of the organism] changes its shape in the maze to form one thick tube covering the shortest distance between the food sources. This remarkable process of cellular computation implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence.

An article in Scientific American reports10 that slime molds have also solved more complex problems, shaping themselves so as to reveal the most efficient way to network a group of locations:

When researchers placed oat flakes or other bits of food in the same positions as big cities and urban areas, slime molds first engulfed the entirety of the edible maps. Within a matter of days, however, the protists thinned themselves away, leaving behind interconnected branches of slime that linked the pieces of food in almost exactly the same way that man-made roads and rail lines connect major hubs in Tokyo, Europe and Canada.

In other words, “single-celled brainless amoebae” behaved, as the article’s author puts it, “like a team of human engineers”. Some urban planners have used slime molds to aid in mapping out the most efficient transportation networks.

Other intelligent behaviors are also found in slime molds, persuading the author of the Scientific American piece that these versatile creatures “remember, anticipate and decide. By doing so much with so little, slime molds represent a successful and admirable alternative to convoluted brain-based intelligence”.

“Bacteria”, we’re told, “must often make regulatory decisions on the basis of limited information about their external world11”. It’s been established over the past few decades that these “decisions” are made, at least in part, by a pooling of resources: the bacteria “sense and overcome environmental challenges as a group using collective mechanisms of sensing, known as ‘quorum sensing’”12.

While the exact “strategies” by which they achieve this cooperative behavior are still debated, the behavior has been found to underlie many features common in bacterial life, including bioluminescence, the secretion of virulence factors, the forming of biofilms, the production of antibiotics, the development of resistance to antibiotics, and so on. In describing what goes on in bacterial quorum sensing, some of the leading researchers are inclined toward phrases such as “social communities”, “public goods”, and “quorum-sensing-controlled cooperation”.

As happens so often with biological discoveries, initial explanations of quorum sensing, based on a single signaling “mechanism”, have now become more elaborate. Recent studies “have demonstrated that quorum sensing is significantly more complex than first appreciated”, so that the phenomenon is interwoven with basic metabolic processes and apparently much else. Interfering with molecular pathways contributing to quorum sensing “may have unexpected and unintended consequences in vivo13”.

The authors of a recent paper on quorum sensing propose that bacteria are not merely interpreting univalent signals, but rather are able to parse signals in different, meaningful combinations. The paper concludes on the highest possible note:

The combinatorial use of multiple signals is a hallmark of human language … Our results [on quorum sensing in bacteria] show that combinatorial communication has a much broader taxonomic distribution and is computationally achievable in single-celled organisms14.

I have been offering examples of animal and plant activity that many are tempted to compare with highly sophisticated and conscious applications of human intelligence. But something similar happens when researchers look at human infants. We have been beset in recent years by research, fascinating as far as it goes, purporting to show infants engaged in surprisingly advanced cognitive activity.

An experiment might run something like this. Infants are shown a video where three human figures are doing things in a room. All three then exit through a door, and so are hidden from view. Subsequently, two of the figures come back into the room through the same door. Or, in some cases, all three figures return. Meanwhile, the infants’ eye movements are being tracked. It may turn out that, when only two figures have returned, the infants spend more time (on average) looking at the door than when all three have reappeared. Ergo, infants understand that 3 > 2; having done the math, they are looking for the missing person.

Using such indirect methods, investigators have been tracing the “calculational” and related skills of many different organisms. Just recently we’ve been told15 that chicks have a “number sense”, preferring, like humans, to associate smaller quantities with the left side of an imaginary number line, and larger quantitites with the right side. Beyond that, it is claimed that various birds can somehow reckon up numbers, and that just about any mammal you can think of has one sort of mathematical ability or another. Also, some form of learned tool use is being demonstrated for an increasing number of animals. These abilities can seem to imply extraordinarily sophisticated powers of ratiocination.


Perhaps by now you, too, have felt some slight unease at certain points of this narrative. If so, I sympathize with you. My own unease is of three sorts, which I will discuss in turn.

Anthropomorphic thinking
is hard to avoid

The search for intelligence in other organisms often focuses heavily on skills construed by the investigators as “calculational” or “computational”. Not surprisingly, these happen to be the skills emphasized in our own highly mathematized scientific activities and in our increasingly computerized society. All too often little distinction is made between the skill and tool use of humans and the activities of organisms with no scientific sensibilities, none of the internal structure of computers, and a complete absence of the powers of wakeful abstraction required for mathematics and computation.

“But certainly”, one might reply, “even if the proposed ‘mechanisms’ at work in humans, salmon, and slime molds differ greatly, just as a computer, slide rule, and abacus differ — still, mathematical precision requires something that we can recognize as calculation, does it not?”

Actually, no. Planets do not calculate their mathematically well-behaved pathways around the sun. More to the present point: A frightened young child runs to his mother in the straightest of straight lines. Yet he has never carried out anything like a proof that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Nor has any collection of cells in his brain derived such a proof. Nor, in his short life, is he likely even to have considered the bare fact of the matter. The most we can say is that the child’s flawless sentient and muscular performance, with its uncalculated mathematical precision, may suggest something about his future mathematical potentials16.

My remarks here will be as brief and blunt as possible. Further justification will emerge in the following sections.

Plant leaves do not perform “emergent, distributed computations”, and Philip Ball is dead wrong when he says, “This might not sound much like what a computer does, but it is” — not if he really means like what a computer does. When we look at the flows and growth processes of plants, or their molecular “signaling”, their adaptation to circumstances, their management of gene expression, or their shaping of their own form, we find nothing remotely consistent with the operations of a computer17. If Ball is simply saying that we might go about the plant’s business by employing computers or performing our own mental computations, then fine. But that doesn’t seem to be his meaning.

Likewise, migrating animals do not calculate according to the stars or the sun or magnetic fields (see below); birds and mammals do not count; and infants do not note the fact that three is greater than two. Actually, we can be quite sure that infants don’t note facts, period. Facts are just not the kind of thing they have in their possession. Nor can they carry out mathematical reasoning — not even the simplest counting. How could they at an age when they have not yet even learned clearly to delimit one thing from another? The projection of adult forms of intelligence onto the child leads only to absurdity. And how much more so when we extend the projection to animals and plants!

The experiments with plants, animals, and human infants certainly indicate that some form of understanding is at work. Biologists refer to the wisdom or intelligence of the organism for good reason. But saying this much is a long way from saying anything very meaningful about the locus of that intelligence, or the manner of its operation, or its relation either to the organism’s own physiological activities or to conscious human intelligence.

What’s the big deal
about intelligence, anyway?

The Scientific American article cited above quotes a University of Sydney biologist, Chris Reid, as saying, “Slime molds are redefining what you need to have to qualify as intelligent”. And again: “In the earliest research, no one thought [a slime mold] could make choices or behave in seemingly intelligent ways”.

Looking at this from one angle, we might naturally respond, “What in the world is all the fuss about? Who could ever have doubted the discovery of intelligence anywhere in the biological realm?” After all, we never see anything but intelligence. It’s what biologists are always trying to understand, what they are forever talking about. No organism — when looked at as a living performance rather than a dead weight — is ever not displaying intelligence in every aspect of its being. Whether we speak about instinct, or adaptive processes, or learning, or communication, or behavior in general, or the development of form, or circadian rhythms, or stress responses, or immune responses, or wound healing, or growth processes, or any other organic functions — it is impossible to avoid the conviction that we are dealing with expressions of an active intelligence.

We all share this conviction, whether we are playing with a pet cat or trying to shoo away a pesky blackbird diving around our heads during nesting season, or watching a paramecium through a microscope. We know that the creature is aiming at something — that is, trying to accomplish something (or many things at once), enlisting diverse means in the service of diverse ends, telling a kind of life story. The fact that it fails to put its meanings, intentions and intelligent capabilities into the words of a human language is irrelevant to this fundamental and readily observable fact.

But it is not just we, and it is not just those (few remaining) naturalists studying whole organisms, who are convinced of the wisdom radiating through all life forms. The conviction is also deeply rooted among molecular biologists. You can glance through the abstracts of almost any relevant technical journal and find sentences like this:

The ability of a cell to transform an extracellular stimulus into a downstream event that directs specific physiological outcomes, requires the orchestrated, spatial and temporal response of many signalling proteins18.

Try taking the words I have italicised and applying them to a rock or cloud, and you will see what I am getting at19. But, really, the matter of pervasive intelligence is as simple as could be. Follow any collection of molecules carrying out their appointed task in the organism — for example, the great variety of molecules whose coordinated activity accomplishes the surgically precise operation required for DNA repair or RNA alternative splicing — and, if you try to think the process merely in terms of physical forces, you will find yourself exclaiming, “They can’t do that! Where is the coordination of it all coming from?”

And you’d be right. No “dumb” object would have the power to coerce its constituent molecules into such intricate, cooperative, sustained and end-directed activity, elaborately and rationally adjusted to the needs of the organism as a whole in its dynamically changing context. There are no strictly defined circuits and wires, no mechanically rigid structures such as we must employ to build computers or cell phones. The living cell consists predominantly of plastic patterns and ceaseless, often rhythmic flows. No physical necessity prevents molecules from wandering off in other directions, or from combining their forces in “wrong” ways at step #347 of a particular process (which might need to be step #288 under slightly different conditions), or from just not showing up at the right place and the right time and in appropriate quantities.20

The decisive question regarding molecules and intelligence is curiously absent from the massive literature speaking of “molecular machines”. This question has to do, not with the immediate play of forces, but with how the molecules are constrained so as to track the minute-by-minute and day-by-day twists and turns of the coherent, ongoing story of the organism and each cell in its body21.

Yes, we observe in the organism that all the physical processes required to achieve the desired ends are completely lawful, but such lawfulness knows nothing of the extended, goal-directed narrative we witness in the organism. Nor are there gears and levers organized so as to guarantee the result, and neither are there precisely printed electrical circuits or any other mechanisms to underwrite the task in advance — a task that, in any case, can always involve kinds of needs that couldn’t be known in advance or programmed into a machine.22 What we are watching is an intelligently present and improvisational response. If it were a conscious human activity (which most assuredly it is not), we would say it showed remarkable presence of mind — although far beyond anything our own minds are capable of.

I have often thought that if every biologist were required to spend ten minutes just once in her career truly contemplating any one of the molecular performances of the cell — contemplating it as the wisely narrated story it is, rather than in terms restricted to the isolated and momentary lawful interactions usually investigated in the laboratory — we would have a biology scarcely recognizable by today’s professionals. The isolated interactions are physics; the profoundly wise stories are biology — or, at least, the biology we ought to have.

So, no, the phenomena cited above shouldn’t surprise us for their intelligence. It’s just crazy that so much fuss should center on the fact of intelligence (“Is this or that behavior really intelligent?”) given that nothing organic lacks intelligence. The real and sorely vexed issues arise when we ask about the different ways intelligence can be expressed in organisms.

If my first concern has to do with the projection of adult forms of human intelligence into organisms lacking such forms, the second source of my unease lies in the treatment of intelligence as if it were an exceptional fact about organisms, pertaining to some aspects, or forms, of organic life and not to others.

Material and causal
explanations of intelligence
never do explain it

My greatest discomfiture with discussions of intelligence in various organisms (including ourselves) has to do with the inadequacy of the “mechanisms” proposed as explanations. It becomes evident enough upon inspection that the explanations do not explain.

Regarding the Chinook salmon, we hear blithe references to “inherited instructions” and an “inherited magnetic map23”. As for instructions, I’m not aware that anyone has ever pointed to a materially embodied instruction — or a reader of those instructions — in any organism, including humans24. And the idea of an embodied map is, if anything, even more problematic. Someone should point to one of these things somewhere within the kingdoms of life before wielding such terms so casually.

This is in no way to deny that every migrating organism has means for its navigation. Let us assume that sooner or later marine biologists will discover small particles of magnetite somewhere in the salmon — as they have in the beaks of birds — and that they will also discover meaningful connections between the magnetite and the fish’s nervous system. This would lend excellent support to the idea that magnetic fields play a role in salmon navigation, and I can easily assume that some such discovery will eventually be made, if it hasn’t already.

So far, so good. But this kind of thing is too often taken as explaining (or explaining away) the living intelligence of the organism, whereas it does nothing of the kind. While an organism must have means for its navigation, the means are not their employment, and their employment requires some form of present, active intelligence. Place a GPS device or a printed Google map with instructions in front of a human being’s eyes, and he still won’t be able to find his way out of a Walmart parking lot — not without possessing a capacity to perceive the map and parking lot (what is perception?) and not without exercising a sophisticated understanding and bringing his contextualized powers of thinking to bear on the current situation.

Assuming a fish had some sort of inherited map, where would the necessary understanding come from? How would the fish use the map under all sorts of unpredictable circumstances — such as ocean currents that transport the organism with its map hundreds of miles “out of the way”? Whatever the researchers mean by “map” — for example, if they are referring to the kind of data structure we find in complex computer programs — let them say as much and then justify their language in biological terms.

If, as I have argued, every molecular process in the organism already expresses an active and present wisdom, then it makes no sense to view such processes as bottom-up explanations of how intelligence arises from the non-intelligent. Nowhere do we find non-intelligence in the organism. Far better to strive toward a recognition of intelligence as it plays through all levels of observation and brings them into a unity.

Such, then, is my third concern: explanations of intelligence fail to explain it. The point, however, seems largely lost in today’s scientific culture. Few are those who pause to question sentences like the following, drawn from descriptions of two educational courses — one by a neuroscientist and one by a philosopher:

[We will] use philosophical tools to examine the widely debated question of what the human mind is and how it is created by the brain.

How is intelligence produced by the brain?25

There may indeed be a “wide debate”, but there is little excuse for its largely unquestioned assumption that the mind, or intelligence, is created by the brain. When we consider the fact that undeniable and (for us) still barely penetrable intelligence is already at work in the zygote, evidencing itself in the very processes through which the future brain will be formed and begin to function, it begins to look rather quixotic to ask how the brain produces intelligence, without first inquiring about the intelligence that produces the brain.

The virtues of scientific
modesty — and four
immodest suggestions

It’s often difficult for the scientist to notice that the vast realm of the unknown presses from all sides against his paltry and often not-well-connected collection of facts, rather as the boundless darkness of night engulfs the flickering light thrown off by a struggling campfire26. Yet since the dawn of human self-awareness the wisest among us have recognized that limning the darkness — admitting, characterizing, and even celebrating the boundaries of our knowledge — is perhaps the most crucial step toward whatever new understanding we are currently in a position to gain.

How does the salmon get where it has to go? I have little idea, but it is a marvelous thing to contemplate.

How do infants seem to notice (or, at least, have a statistical tendency in the direction of seeming to notice) a difference between the number of persons passing out of a door and the number returning? I have little idea.

How does a Mimosa plant “attend” to being shaken after it has “learned” to ignore being dropped? I have little idea.

But, to begin with, we can at least dismiss the nonsensical comparisons to consciously exercised, adult human intelligence. Beyond that, surely extreme modesty — and great care with language — are demanded of us here. For all we know, the infant’s “understanding”, such as it is, may be carried by feeling rather than anything remotely like our usual adult cognition. For all we know, one of the instruments taken hold of by that understanding may be the child’s liver or heart or muscles.

Our ignorance knows no bounds. It is against this background that I offer four thoughts that may suggest future possibilities of understanding.

* Might Samuel Taylor Coleridge have glimpsed something profound when he wrote of the “productive energy” through which a thing — say, the body of a developing organism — comes into being? This energy is “not exhausted” in its product, he wrote, but shows up again “as the specific forces, properties, faculties, of the product. It reappears, in short, as the function of the body”. And, more succinctly:

After the Things are made, the same Powers re-appear in the Things.27

This can usefully remind us that while we must distinguish the wisdom that is expressing itself in making the child from the conscious wisdom he will some day exercise through his own activity, the distinction need not be absolute. That is, perhaps the infant’s cognitive abilities are less independent from the wisdom now shaping his body than will be the abilities he someday possesses as a reflective adult. Can we not recognize in the adult’s reflective intelligence a transformation toward self-awareness of some part of the intelligence that formed, and continues to inform, his physical body?

Some of the material I have presented in these three articles points in this direction.

* The stiff dogmas of our scientific tradition notwithstanding, there is nothing telling us that intelligence as such must be localizable to a particular physical organ or material substance. The question, “Where does intelligence reside?” might conceivably have as an answer, “in a quorum of bacteria”, or “in a species”, or “in the thinking activity of an individual human being”, or “in an ecological setting”, or in all these and much else. For that matter, where do physical laws reside — laws we can articulate only in the most subtle and intelligent language at our disposal? If these laws are expressions of the character of material substance, then we would have to recognize in this substance a kind of shrewdness or unobtrusive genius that is not part of our usual thinking about the physical world.

Such questions carry us to one of those places where acknowledging the extent of our ignorance and the range of possibilities is most necessary. And perhaps one healthy way to begin reckoning with the possibilities would be to reflect upon a fact no one in practice quarrels with: the world is, in its nature, comprehensible — conceptually graspable. It’s a fact that ought to occupy a prominent place of wonder in every scientist’s consciousness.

* The intelligence of an organic context is not some thing, and neither is it a particular sort of structure or pattern. It is a forming or shaping activity that is logically prior to material appearance — an activity through which the context is constituted as the kind of context it is. This shaping activity becomes, for us in our more static style of cognition, the intelligibility (form) of the organism or other organic context.

The effort to explain intelligence testifies to a profound confusion within biology. The world makes sense by becoming intelligible to us. To try to explain this intelligibility is as fruitless as trying to prove the validity of logic — that is, to prove the principles of proof. We understand something when it becomes fully intelligible to us — when the intelligence expressed in the thing becomes an intelligence we can follow, or express as a conscious act of our own28.

If this is true, then virtually all those neuroscientists and evolutionary theorists attempting to explain “how intelligence arises” are (to borrow an image from Owen Barfield) seated firmly in the saddle of scientific progress — facing to the rear. Surely there is a great deal for us to struggle with regarding both our own understanding and the various sorts of intelligence observable in organisms. But we can’t get intelligibility by starting with material we consider to be altogether lacking in intelligent activity. We cannot explain intelligent activity, but only trace the activity itself — which is explanation, or understanding29.

Where there is no intelligence, there is no intelligibility, and where there is no intelligibility, there is nothing we can know.

* Finally, the biggest obstacle to a proper reckoning with intelligence in living things is, I believe, the widespread tendency to think of organisms as collections of mechanisms. The idea of “intelligent machines”, so commonplace in society today, is then easily transferred to our conception of the organism, together with the assumption that nature somehow has the ability to contrive the same sorts of devices that human engineers do. For whatever reason, many biologists find it easy to ignore the fact that nature’s “contrivances” are living beings, unlike the machines with which we so lightly compare them.

Of the many things that can be said (and I have said) about this hopelessly implausible line of thought, the following must suffice.

We can immediately recognize that the intelligence ascribed to a machine is written in the arrangement of its parts by the human designer. It is not intrinsic to the parts themselves, which have no tendency of their own to come together and maintain themselves in just such a way. The parts of an organism, by contrast, grow into being, and are expressions of an intelligence already inherent in the single-celled zygote before the differentiated parts materially exist. Steadily transformed throughout the life of the organism, these parts bear within themselves the impulse — something of the character and directive power — of the organism as a whole. They are part of the whole, not additions to it. Their changes of substance and form are bound up, through a kind of intrinsic mutualism, or shared inwardness, with corresponding accommodations throughout the rest of the organism.

In sum, the parts of an organism grow, metamorphose, and maintain themselves due to an intelligence of the whole that “breathes” through them and enlists their physically law-abiding nature in the service of the larger unity in which they participate.


To speak of intelligence in general is to speak abstractly. What we actually observe in organisms is intelligent activity, and this means, among other things, “activity expressing characteristic sorts of intention” — intention diversely recognizable in the individual organism, in the species, in cells, and at every other level of observation.

It should hardly need pointing out that if such activity (and the intention it embodies) is the source of the physical structures we find in the organism, then tracing this activity in development and evolution must be more fundamental to our understanding than cataloging the structures (molecular and larger) that result from the activity under particular conditions. This thought may sound unfamiliar, if not revolutionary or even outrageous, to many ears. But, then, hasn’t the willingness to ignore the organism as an intelligent activity — or (which is the same thing) to mechanize our understanding of it — proven too egregious a philosophical bias and too destructive of the truth to allow our overlooking it any longer?

Read Part 1: The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology.
Read Part 2: Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture.


1. Fijn et al. 2013*.

2. Putman et al. 2014*. “The map is based on the combination of magnetic intensity and inclination angle”.

3. Also, some butterflies today follow routes down the eastern coast to overwintering sites in Florida, and others end up along the Gulf Coast. In the west, there are populations that migrate between the Rocky Mountains and the coast of California.

4. Gerullis and Schuster 2014*.

5. Ball 2004*.

6. Peak et al. 2004*.

7. Gagliano et al. 2014*.

8. Pollan 2014*.

9. Nakagaki et al. 2000*.

10. Jabr 2012*.

11. Cornforth et al. 2014*.

12. Popat et al. 2015*.

13. Sifri 2008*,

14. Cornforth et al. 2014*.

15. Brugger 2015*.

16. I owe this example to John Alexandra (1996, p. 156*).

17. On comparisons of organic processes to computation, see Talbott 2012a* and 2014b*.

18. McCormick and Baillie 2014*.

19. For a fuller discussion of the language of molecular biologists and its implications, see my article, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” (Talbott 2010a*) and its sequel, “From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning” (Talbott 2011a*).

20. Actually, the idea that there are discrete “steps” in molecular activities, as if there were a prescribed, computer-like algorithm governing everything and a computer-like clock to keep everyone marching in proper order, is ludicrously false to the organism. I employ the idea of numbered steps here only to remind the reader of the extraordinary complexity of the activities these molecules carry out — molecules whose supposedly machine-like coordination under the conditions of the cell we can only imagine as roughly equivalent to “herding” a thousand cats.

21. On the fact of a coordination that disciplines the degrees of freedom at the micro-scale of the cell in order to achieve stability and directionality at the macro-scale, see the section What Does “More Than the Sum of Its Parts” Mean? in Talbott 2010a*. This is a discussion of the work of the twentieth-century cell biologist and Medal of Freedom recipient, Paul Weiss.

22. Biologists seem to find it amazingly easy to call the organism a “machine” and thereby to dismiss all the problems of intelligence. Apart from being a ludicrously anthropocentric strategy, it is also ludicrously false.

I have written about this in many places, most recently and perhaps most succinctly in “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism” (Talbott 2014b*).

23. Putman et al. 2014*.

24. Talbott 2012a*.

25. Both quotes come from course descriptions in a Great Courses catalog recently received at my home. The first course is by Richard J. Haier, Professor Emeritus, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, and the second is by Patrick Grim, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy, State University of New York, Stony Brook.

26. Many might object to the phrase, “paltry and often not-well-connected collection of facts”. Doesn’t physics, for example, give us a beautifully coherent, overall picture of the world’s physical lawfulness, tying it all together with theory so well-integrated and complete that some dream of a “final theory of everything”?

But the truth, I believe, is nearly opposite to this. To the degree we have a theory of everything, we have a theory of nothing. Theoretical physicists who think they are trying to explain everything — especially quantum physicists and cosmologists — end up working with esoteric mathematical relationships and theoretical constructs very difficult to relate to the material (phenomenal) world they are supposedly trying to understand. Or, I could say: very difficult to relate to the perceptual content that supposedly undergirds all proper science. Nothing in any of these theoretical constructs tells me what it is to perceive a red flower, and yet without such perception — and its correct construal — we have no scientific truth.

Their remoteness from the true foundations of science is why theories are spun that are ever more difficult to justify or disprove from observational data. String theory, the many-worlds concept of the quantum physicist, and the Big Bang concept of the cosmologist don’t strike me as differing much from the wildest intellectual speculations of the medieval doctors — speculations that, while perhaps displaying profound ingenuity and real logical force, the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution were determined to set aside in favor of an observation-based search for truth. Highly mathematized theory can begin to seem integral and complete (as pure mathematics naturally demands) only by becoming more like pure mathematics — that is, only by being abstracted away from all the observational richness and complexity of the natural world.

The real bounty of physics — and it is a bounty of fabulous scope — lies in all the different disciplines so far as they are well-grounded in phenomena: materials science, fluid dynamics, acoustics, geology, the science of color, atmospheric science, and so on. But surveying these disciplines, no one will begin to imagine that he is looking at a nascent “Theory of Everything”. And that is because these disciplines have so much real content.

27. Quoted in Barfield 1971, pp. 34, 245n22*.

Do not be put off by an unfamiliar or alien language. By “productive energy” or “Powers” Coleridge was not referring to what we today might think of as physical energies or vital forces. It is, rather, as if we were to speak of the law of gravity as a productive energy or power. His reference, you might say, is to a governing idea — an idea with the power to govern. And, in fact, when we consider that the ideal, mathematical relationships constituting what we think of as the law of gravity manage to realize themselves in every gravitational interaction, we have good reason to think that these ideal relationships are laws with teeth — which is, of course, how we routinely speak and think of them.

Biologists, too, are always dealing with governing ideas. They allude to these when speaking of the “abilities” and “orchestrating” powers so obviously at work in cells. Unfortunately, however — and in the spirit of animism — they tend to ascribe these powers to particular things (molecules), and they also take their words a lot less seriously than Coleridge took his. With his own terminology Coleridge is, I think, getting at the same thing the philosopher Ronald Brady was getting at when he showed that we must think of biological form — an immaterial and ideal reality — as causal. (Brady’s view is summarized in Talbott 2014a*.)

In presenting Coleridge’s view, Owen Barfield cites Newton’s declaration, “I frame no hypotheses”, and goes on to say:

Newton refused to seek “behind” the law of gravitation for causes or explanations acceptable to a human understanding boggling at the impossible contradiction of “action at a distance.” He left that to inferior scientists; and the law of gravitation is one of Coleridge’s favourite illustrations of a “law of nature” as distinct from theory or hypothesis. Law differs from hypothesis, as idea differs from abstraction; just as an idea is not a notion “of” or “about” something other than itself, so a true law of nature is not a rule generalized from particular observations of natural behaviour; it is nature behaving. An idea is neither an abstraction nor a thing, but a physical idea [that is, an idea informing the physical world] is at the same time a law of nature. We must still therefore distinguish the idea or law itself from any uncontemplative notion of it. It is the notion of a law of gravity which degenerates into fancied invisible string. The very law itself is also the power. Science went astray in its dealings with both matter and space when, instead of accepting gravitation as at once a law of nature and an idea of reason, it began to devise hypotheses which would render it acceptable to the understanding. [NB: Coleridge distinguishes the understanding, with its necessary but inferior powers, from reason.] Where Newton was content to think of, and to quantify, the link that holds the earth to the sun as a vector, the lesser fry in an age of the understanding and the senses must fancy their piece of invisible string or something like it. They could never accept, because they could never understand, that the ultimate explanation of phenomena cannot itself be phenomenal. (Barfield 1971, p. 126*)

28. This is obvious enough in the case of human artifacts, where we understand the artifact by grasping the designing idea stamped upon its arrangement of parts by its inventor and manufacturer. But it is equally true with organisms, whose intelligent agency, task-oriented wisdom, and functional ideas work from within their own materiality, rather than being impressed upon them from the outside. We still understand by grasping the relevant thought content. And so also in physics, when we explain phenomena by citing coherent patterns and logical or mathematical relations.

29. Talbott 2014a*.

Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness


Alexandra, John (1996). “Mephistopheles’ Anvil: Forging a More Human Future”. Spring Valley NY: Rose Harmony Publications.

Ball, Philip (2004). “Do Plants Act Like Computers?”, Nature (online publication: Jan. 21). doi:10.1038/news040119-5

Barfield, Owen (1967). Speaker’s Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1971). What Coleridge Thought. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Brugger, Peter (2015). “Chicks with a Number Sense”, Science vol. 347, no. 6221 (Jan. 30), pp. 477-8. doi:10.1126/science.aaa4854

Cornforth, Daniel M., Roman Popat, Luke McNally et al. (2014). “Combinatorial Quorum Sensing Allows Bacteria to Resolve Their Social and Physical Environment”, PNAS vool. 111, no. 11 (Mar. 18), pp. 4280-4. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319175111

Fijn, Ruben C., Derick Hiemstra, Richard A. Phillips and Jan van der Winden (2013). “Arctic Terns Sterna paradisaea from the Netherlands Migrate Record Distances Across Three Oceans to Wilkes Land, East Antarctica”, Ardea vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 3-12. doi:10.5253/078.101.0102

Gagliano, Monica, Michael Renton, Martial Depczynski and Stefano Mancuso (2014). “Experience Teaches Plants to Learn Faster and Forget Slower in Environments Where It Matters”, Oecologia (published online Jan. 5). doi:10.1007/s00442-013-2873-7

Gerullis, Peggy and Stefan Schuster (2014a). “Archerfish Actively Control the Hydrodynamics of Their Jets”, Current Biology vol. 24 (Sep. 22), pp. 2156-60. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.07.059

Holdrege, Craig (2001). “What Forms an Animal”, In Context #6 (fall), pp. 12-14. Available at https://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic6/lionskulls.pdf

Jabr, Ferris (2012). “How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence”, Scientific American (Nov. 7). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/brainless-slime-molds/

McCormick, Kristie and George S. Baillie (2014). “Compartmentalisation of Second Messenger Signalling Pathways”, Current Opinion in Genetics and Development vol. 27 (Aug.), pp. 20-5. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2014.02.001

Nakagaki, Toshiyuki, Hiroyasu Yamada and Ágota Tóth (2000). “Maze-Solving by an Amoeboid Organism”, Nature vol. 407 (Sep. 28), p. 470. doi:10.1038/35035159

Peak, David, Jevin D. West, Susanna M. Messinger, and Keith A. Mott (2004a). “Evidence for Complex, Collective Dynamics and Emergent, Distributed Computation in Plants”, PNAS vol. 101, no. 4 (Jan. 27), pp. 918-922. doi:10.1073/pnas.0307811100

Pollan, Michael (2013a). “The Intelligent Plant”, The New Yorker (Dec. 23). Available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant

Popat, R., D. M. Cornforth, L. McNally and S. P. Brown (2015). “Collective Sensing and Collective Responses in Quorum-Sensing Bacteria”, Journal of the Royal Society Interface vol. 12. doi:10.1098/rsif.2014.0882

Putman, Nathan F., Michelle M. Scanlan, Eric J. Billman et al. (2014). “An Inherited Magnetic Map Guides Ocean Navigation in Juvenile Pacific Salmon”, Current Biology vol. 24, no. 4 (Feb. 17), pp. 446-50. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.017

Rosslenbroich, Bernd (2009). “The Theory of Increasing Autonomy in Evolution: A Proposal for Understanding Macroevolutionary Innovations”, Biology and Philosophy vol. 24, pp. 623-44. doi:10.1007/s10539-009-9167-9

Rosslenbroich, Bernd (2011). “Outline of a Concept for Organismic Systems Biology”, Seminars in Cancer Biology vol. 21, pp. 156-64. doi:10.1016/j.semcancer.2011.06.001

Rosslenbroich, Bernd (2014). On the Origin of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution. Heidelberg: Springer.

Sifri, Costi D. (2008). “Quorum Sensing: Bacteria Talk Sense”, Clinical Infectious Diseases vol. 47, pp. 1070–6. doi:10.1086/592072

Talbott, Stephen L. (2010a). “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings”, The New Atlantis no. 29 (fall), pp. 27-51. Original version published in NetFuture #181 (Dec. 9, 2010). Available at BiologyWorthyofLife.org/mqual/genome_5.htm.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2010b). “Reframing the Mind-Body Problem: An Exercise in Letting Go of Dualist Assumptions”. Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/mqual/epist.htm.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2011a). “From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning”, published as “What Do Organisms Mean?” in The New Atlantis no. 30 (winter), pp. 24-49. Original version published in NetFuture #182 (Feb. 22). Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/mqual/genome_6.htm.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2012a). “The Poverty of the Instructed Organism: Are You and Your Cells Programmed?”. Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/mqual/genome_9.htm.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2014a). “How Does the Organism Get Its Shape: The Causal Role of Organic Form”. Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/org/comm/ar/2014/brady_24.htm

Talbott, Stephen L. (2014b). “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism”. Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/org/comm/ar/2014/machines_18.htm

Talbott, Stephen L. (2014c). “Let’s Loosen Up Biological Thinking!”. Available at http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/org/comm/ar/2014/mental_cell_23.htm

This document: https://bwo.life/org/comm/ar/2015/bodily-wisdom3_28.htm

Steve Talbott :: Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?