Intelligence without a brain

Intelligence without a brain

Is it possible to have “intelligence” without having a brain to account for it? Are bacteria intelligent? Better still, are plants intelligent?

What does define intelligence? If a bacteria is able to move slowly in the right direction and attach itself to the right foreign bodies to enhance its own chances of survival, is it intelligent? Or is it just following a set of very basic rules which any machine could be programmed to do, and is thus therefore, not intelligent?

A plant grows and orients itself correctly in the direction of sunlight. Even if that is just a result of some chemical imbalances caused by differences in light receptivity, can it be called intelligence?

What is intelligence after all? Is it just that trait which enables an organism to survive in its environment? Or is it actually the opposite; the capacity of an organism to do things which might endanger its survival? The second one might sound counter-intuitive. But humans are known to indulge in the most extreme forms of self-endangerment(even suicide), and if humans are the most intelligent species on the planet, then maybe there is something to it? 

Are animals just a higher and more complex form of intelligence found in plants(or single celled organisms etc), or is there some magic threshold of novel behavior above which everything can be called intelligent? What is that threshold?

What about things such as “collective” intelligence, where multiple simpler organisms collaborate to enhance the chances of survival of the entire group? This is very common all across the living spectrum, but it could be applied closer to us too..is an individual neuron cell within a brain intelligent? If not, is the brain itself intelligent, or is it the containing entity that is intelligent?

Lots of questions, but I believe until such as these are answered, or at least until we shed our inhibitions in attempting to find the answers, we won’t be closer to solving the mystery of intelligence.

Typically, there are two types of behavior exhibited by any organism. One is genetic, i.e what the species is programmed to do since birth. A bird finds a worm tasty, well so be it. Every living species has some kind of pre-programmed attitude towards its environment. This attitude is a result of evolution , but nevertheless, its whole purpose is to prolong the survival/reproductive chances of the organism.

The second behavior is more interesting. All the changes in attitude that happen to an organism, based upon the specifics of its own environment, is what it has “learned” in its lifetime. Therefore, multiple copies of the same organism would in general, behave differently over time if their environment is not absolutely identical.

If  someone builds a robot with a huge amount of pre-programmed behaviors for different situations( like answering questions), we might commonly call it intelligent. But enlightened folks would test if it actually learns to correctly answer new questions that it was not pre-programmed with. If it does, it would be deemed amazing and, truly intelligent.

In contemporary terms, thus far, this is the closest definition of intelligence I can think of: The capacity of an organism to learn new behavior in a given situation, which is more appropriate for its survival than it knew the last time around.

So a simple test for intelligence in an entity would be: Take a snapshot of the entity’s behavioral specifics at birth (or to be fair; only after the basic minimal physical development necessary for survival is complete), as a set of various stimulus/response pairs, and take another snashot after a sufficient age, but reasonably before the expected average life-span. Subtract the two, and if the difference shows a marked increase in chances of survival for many situations, then it is intelligent.

Does this seem like a fair test?

If it is, then it would mean that entities like collaborating bacterial colonies are actually intelligent. Every bacteria follows some basic chemical signalling rules, and the behavior of the group as a whole adapts to never before seen circumstances. What we call a brain in higher organisms, is also of course a collection of multiple single cells called neurons, communicating with each other using chemical neurotransmitters and actual physical pathways and junctions, all working in conjunction to enhance the survival of the containing body.

Where does this leave plants? Unless I see real evidence of a plant’s “behavior” changing over time to the same stimuli, I would probably classify plants as “not intelligent”. But, surprise… a forest, I would think quite the opposite. Who knows what kind of chemical signals nearby plants exchange with each other during their lifespans. If a bacterial colony can be intelligent, a forest of giant trees each living a thousand years has to be infinitely more intelligent.

In my next post, I’ll try to tackle a related topic, “intelligence without survival”.

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2 Comments on “Intelligence without a brain

  1. Raghav,
    When I wrote my novel (see webpage) it was intended as a fanciful creation, including the big part of bacterial intelligence.

    However science seems to be catching up with fiction quite quickly in this area. The problem with intelligence is that it is not falsifiable and therefore not as scientific as we would like.

    Having come from a very long line of ancestors who acted in their own best survival there should be no way we should be smoking tobacco or indulging in other forms of self harm. When confronted with this stupidity free will is the explanation.

    Moving on to obesity – why? One explanation is that in the stone age we were for most of the time on a poor diet with the occasional rich food feast. By being opportunistic gluttons we were able to build enough reserves to get us through the lean times.

    This explanation sounds reasonable enough but it is instinct overcomming free will whereas smoking is intelligence overcoming instinct.

    An alien species examining us would conclude that our behaviour is far too inconsistent for a falsifiable theory to be formed and therefore studying us ceases to be good science.

    Due to this there would be a ceiling to the level of intelligence that scientists can give to organisms where such an organism cannot be coached into performing familiar tasks eg walk through a maze.

    The big question is: are bacteria colonies at the ceiling or not.

  2. it would seem that the test of ‘survival’ on a specific timeline are the major criteria of the learning entity in regards to measuring intelligence.

    In this case, at first glance, plant life seems largely unintelligent.

    However, at the second look, plant life has utterly dominated our planet, (notice the similarity in the words we gave them).

    In the words of the Buddha, the noble horse rarely feels the whip.

    Plants are most-intelligent, if serving as Jesus’ example of the yeilding pacifist.

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