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Cognitive Cells? A Newer Challenge to Neo-Darwinism

Photo: Amoeba proteus, by SmallRex, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In September 1957, Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist Francis Crick (1916–2004) announced the “Central Dogma” in biology, at a symposium at Oxford University. The dogma is currently given in the Biology Dictionary thus: “genetic information flows primarily from nucleic acids in the form of DNA and RNA to functional proteins during the process of gene expression.” This view that genes rule underpins mainstream assumptions about how traits are inherited; from there, it governs accepted assumptions about evolution. So the ground on which Darwin’s modern defenders stand, propounding the only true history of life, is narrow but it is firm.

Sir Francis Crick is perhaps better known to laypeople for his 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for Soul, which he opened by announcing:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

And the pack of mindless neurons that you think is you was created by those genes.

An Interesting New Paper

But what about the evidence that neurons self-organize? An interesting new paper in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology calls for a different Central Dogma, recognizing forces other than genes:

Accumulating scientific discoveries support the need for a revised Central Dogma to buttress evolutionary biology’s still-fledgling migration from a Neodarwinian canon. A reformulated Central Dogma to meet contemporary biology is proposed: all biology is cognitive information processing.

The word “cognitive” is worth examining. According to Merriam–Webster, it means

of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering)


based on or capable of being reduced to empirical factual knowledge.

Which definition do the authors, William B. Miller Jr. (UCLA), František Baluška (University of Bonn), and Arthur S. Reber (University of British Columbia), mean when they tell us that “As the internal measurement by cells of information is self-referential by definition, self-reference is biological self-organization, underpinning 21st century Cognition-Based Biology.” Do they mean that cells, in some sense, think?

Thoughtful Cells

They don’t quite say but the hints are intriguing. Darwin-shaped biology lags behind the times, they say, despite the accumulating contrary evidence that “non-random genetic mutations are common, linked to structural factors, epigenetic impacts, and biased DNA repair mechanisms,” among other things.

More directly, they write: “The crux of that difference separating Crick’s Central Dogma from a modern idiom is the contemporary recognition that cellular cognition governs the flow of biological information.”

So cells are smarter than we thought… ? They offer a brief look at the many bewilderingly complex feedback loops in typical cells. In their view, how should biology change? Here are some snippets from their Conclusion:

When biology is framed as an informational interactome, all forms of biological expression interact productively in a continuous, seamless feedback loop. In that reciprocating living cycle, there is no privileged level of causation since all aspects of the cell as an organized whole participate in cellular problem-solving…

So the cell acts on itself (self-organization) instead of merely being acted upon by the neo-Darwinian genes. But also, they write,

The origin of self-referential cognition is unknown. Indeed, it can now be declared biology’s most profound enigma. Yet, that instantiation can be properly accredited as equating with the origin of life.

“Self-Referential Cognition”

In short, we have no idea how cells, which have been around for billions of years, could become so complex that they can be compared to intelligent beings (“self-referential cognition”) without any design in nature at all. Well, maybe they couldn’t have. Maybe the main thing to take away here, whether the authors intend it or not, is this: If biologists don’t want intelligent design, they will surely need to come up with something more convincing than Crick’s materialism.

Two other things are worth noting: Dogmas in science often do not age well because challenges are mounted by brilliant investigators but the dogma is defended by tenured mediocrities and — in the case of any type of Darwinism — pop science writers and education pressure groups. Even when the dogma is mouldy and rotten, it can be hard to overturn once it is embedded in the institutional culture on which their careers all depend.

Second, conundrums like this help us understand why panpsychism (all life forms/cells are conscious) is beginning to replace materialism in science.

Here’s the Problem

In a nutshell: The only really satisfactory form of materialism is eliminative materialism, meaning that minds are merely what brains do and human consciousness is simply an evolved illusion. You are indeed nothing but a pack of neurons. But if so, that very theory is an illusion like all the others.

In a world of awe-inspiringly complex life forms, it probably makes more sense for the materialist to adopt panpsychism. Thus words like “cognitive” and “self-referential” can be attached to cells without risk. I am not claiming that the authors are panpsychists, of course. My point is that their approach should be welcome to panpsychists.

Anyway, there is a definite nudge in that direction. University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro titled a 2021 journal paper “All living cells are cognitive.” The same year, prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, said in a book excerpt at The Scientist, that we cannot deny viruses “some fraction” of intelligence, based on the way their strategies resemble those of insects. Scientific American has run a number of pieces sympathetic to panpsychism over the years. New Scientist also offered a sympathetic long form discussion last year.

From a panpsychist perspective, human consciousness is not a mere illusion generated by a pack of neurons. It is the most highly developed known form of consciousness among life forms, all of which are conscious to some extent. That is, it is real in the same way that cell cognition and self-organization are real. So humans can learn about cells and propound theories about them that are not necessarily illusions but rather a meta level of consciousness.

Of course, panpsychism doesn’t do much to resolve the “profound enigma” of how such a world of life could come to exist without any intelligent intention or design. But that’s not what the materialist most needs right now anyway. He most needs to believe that his own findings are not just a user illusion. He can admit the profound enigma and leave the matter there.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.