University of Chicago biochemist and evolutionary biologist James Shapiro has a message that those who believe that consciousness is an illusion (as, for example, philosopher Daniel Dennett claims) should heed: If all living things are “cognitive” then, to what extent would life itself have to be an illusion? Something’s wrong there.
Let’s follow the thread of what Shapiro is saying. He takes a simple approach: If bacteria and archaea,thought to be the oldest, simplest life forms from at least 2 billion years ago, can be shown to have cognitive processes, then it stands to reason that most (if not all) of the more complex life forms have them too:
All living cells sense and respond to changes in external or internal conditions. Without that cognitive capacity, they could not obtain nutrition essential for growth, survive inevitable ecological changes, or correct accidents in the complex processes of reproduction. Wherever examined, even the smallest living cells (prokaryotes) display sophisticated regulatory networks establishing appropriate adaptations to stress conditions that maximize the probability of survival. Supposedly “simple” prokaryotic organisms also display remarkable capabilities for intercellular signalling and multicellular coordination. These observations indicate that all living cells are cognitive.JAMES A. SHAPIRO, ALL LIVING CELLS ARE COGNITIVE, BIOCHEMICAL AND BIOPHYSICAL RESEARCH COMMUNICATIONS, VOLUME 564, 2021, PAGES 134-149, ISSN 0006-291X, HTTPS://DOI.ORG/10.1016/J.BBRC.2020.08.120.
Quorum Sensing Among Bacteria
He shows that these simple cells show many types of behavior that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “cognition.” One of the most interesting examples he gives is quorum sensing among bacteria (how they decide to do things):
The best-known form of interbacterial communication has come to be labelled “quorum sensing” (QS) because it serves to inform a population if it has achieved a critical density for making a regulatory decision (i.e., a quorum). Quorum sensing occurs when the bacteria secrete a chemical “quorum signal” in an autoinduced positive feedback loop but only produce a coordinated multicellular response output when the signal’s concentration exceeds a critical threshold. Quorum sensing is similar to autocrine signalling in complex eukaryotes, and it activates many different processes. The quorum signals come in many chemical forms, and have potential for great specificity, but some signals are also common to multiple types of bacteria, allowing interspecific communication as well.JAMES A. SHAPIRO, ALL LIVING CELLS ARE COGNITIVE, BIOCHEMICAL AND BIOPHYSICAL RESEARCH COMMUNICATIONS, VOLUME 564, 2021, PAGES 134-149, ISSN 0006-291X, HTTPS://DOI.ORG/10.1016/J.BBRC.2020.08.120.
At one time, researchers had no idea bacteria were talking to each other. True, it’s only about the narrow range of topics that interest bacteria — but they are talking to each other nonetheless.
It’s awe-inspiring to realize that there is a complex intelligence in every living cell. Two questions arise: Is it the intelligence of the cell? That seems inconsistent with how we usually use the word “intelligence.” If we see that a one-celled life form functions with lot of intelligence, perhaps it is more like a book that contains great ideas. Paper doesn’t create ideas; neither, by itself, does protoplasm. Something else is at work.
Editor’s note: Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.