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Can a Brainless Jellyfish Learn? How About Individual Cells? Do Molecules Communicate?

Photo: tk, by Jan Bielecki, Alexander K. Zaharoff, Nicole Y. Leung, Anders Garm, Todd H. Oakley(altered), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The science journal Nature has reported on an uproar in neuroscience while sidestepping the uproar’s underlying basis: the leading theory of human consciousness today, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), is panpsychist, not eliminationist. That is, instead of trying to show that even human consciousness is merely an evolved illusion, IIT is compatible with the idea that some form of consciousness might pervade all life forms.

The real difficulty with assessing any claim about human consciousness is that we can’t even define clearly what it is. However, suppose we have a more modest goal. We just want to understand why eliminative materialism seems to be failing and panpsychism, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, is becoming more attractive. The study of the ability of various life forms to feel, learn, compute, and communicate may help us understand that — besides being fascinating and instructive in itself.

Researchers: A Brain is Not Needed for Learning

Now, a news item in Nature shows that a brain is not necessary for Pavlovian associative learning. 

A tiny jellyfish has, for the first time, demonstrated a mighty cognitive capacity — the ability to learn by association. Although it has no central brain, the finger-tip-sized Caribbean box jellyfish (Tripedalia cystophora) can be trained to associate the sensation of bumping into something with a visual cue, and to use the information to avoid future collisions. 

The experiment shows a type of learning called associative learning — made famous by neurologist Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs in the late-nineteenth century — in which an animal learns to associate one stimulus with another through training. “Associative learning is now considered solid evidence of cognitive capacity,” says Ken Cheng, an animal behaviour researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. 

Many other animals — from humans to birds, octopuses and even insects — have the ability to learn by association.


The brainless jellyfish were found to be using their rhopalia, structures that hold six simple eyes and the nerve centres that control their swimming pulses, in order to store learned experience. One animal behavior researcher, Ken Cheng, told Nature that, to understand what is happening better, we should really be looking for life forms that actually can’t learn. He’s got a point. But if a brain is clearly not necessary, what is driving the process?

Developmental Biologist: Cells Really Are Intelligent

Michael Levin, a Tufts University developmental biologist, has a rather unusual idea: All intelligence is collective intelligence:

So you and I are collections of cells, and these cells, including neurons and various other cells in our body, have many competencies: this is because they were once separate individuals by themselves. They were unicellular organisms with all of the skills needed to survive in a complex world. And that journey that we all took, those progressive steps by which we construct ourselves — we construct our bodies, we construct our minds — that journey is maybe the most profound question in all of science.


Now Levin, along with eliminationist philosopher Daniel Dennett, with whom he has co-authored on this topic, hopes to detract from the significance of conscious human intelligence (“the quote, unquote ‘real’ intelligence, which is what we are supposed to have”) by showing that individual cells are truly intelligent:

Each one [cell] solves problems in their own space, so cells are simultaneously solving problems in physiological spaces and metabolic spaces and gene expression spaces, and tissues and organs are solving those problems. But, for example, during embryogenesis or regeneration, they’re also solving problems in anatomical space. They’re trying to navigate a path from the shape of an early embryo or a fertilized zygote all the way up to the complexity of a human body with all of the different types of organs and structures. 


Of course, it is true that individual cells are intelligent, in a way. But that fact is a much better argument for intelligent design than for the idea that the human intellect is insignificant. In fact, Levin undercuts his own case when he writes, about what the cells produce: “In the case of a human, it will be an individual with metacognitive capacities and the ability to reason.” 

Oh? Where did that intelligence come from? The ability to reason may have come from the ultimate Creator of the cells but it surely did not come from the cells themselves, individually or collectively.

Are the cells conscious? Levin’s dilemma here helps account for the attraction of panpsychism. A researcher need not be either a theist or an eliminationist if he simply sees all life forms as participating in some sort of consciousness. No, that won’t really explain away human consciousness — but then nothing else explains it away either so our researcher is really at no disadvantage there. If, unlike Levin, he is smart enough to just stay away from questions around human consciousness, he has a framework for understanding the amazing variety of the ways cells learn. About that, we are learning new things every day. And just think, he never needs to pretend that intelligence or consciousness is some kind of illusion.

Do Molecules Communicate?

Some scientists don’t stop there. They see communication in life forms down at the molecular level as well. For example, a group of bioengineers at the University of Montreal explained their work culminating in a paper, as follows:

Living organisms are made up of billions of nanomachines and nanostructures that communicate to create higher-order entities able to do many essential things, such as moving, thinking, surviving and reproducing.
“The key to life’s emergence relies on the development of molecular languages — also called signaling mechanisms — which ensure that all molecules in living organisms are working together to achieve specific tasks,” said the study’s principal investigator, UdeM bioengineering professor Alexis Vallée-Bélisle.

In yeasts, for example, upon detecting and binding a mating pheromone, billions of molecules will communicate and coordinate their activities to initiate union, said Vallée-Bélisle, holder of a Canada Research Chair in Bioengineering and Bionanotechnology.


Molecules are described as communicating as if they were cells. Is that just a figure of speech? Apparently not. The researchers go on to discuss molecular languages, explaining, “Although these two languages are observed in all molecular systems of all living organisms, it is only recently that scientists have started to understand their rules and principles — and so use these languages to design and program novel artificial nanotechnologies.” They want to use the molecules’ languages, essentially, to design new ones.

Are the molecules conscious? Here’s one way of looking at it: If their communication did entail some sort of consciousness, what sense would it make to say that that consciousness is an illusion, as Daniel Dennett would have to, if he is consistent? Whose illusion?

Panpsychism recognizes the reality of consciousness in the world of life. That is its strength. That is why it is slowly making inroads against materialism (physicalism, eliminationism, etc.). However, it avoids grappling with the reality of an Intelligence that is not and cannot be a part of nature. That is its weakness. How that weakness will play out will only become apparent if panpsychism begins to dominate. Stay tuned.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters.