Comprehending Non-human Intelligence

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

We are guilty of measuring intelligence in non-human living entities against ‘human-like’ traits and abilities, as we fail to acknowledge and recognise different ‘types’ of intelligence and cognitions, other than our own.

Illustration credit: Lisa Gonsalves

Albert Einstein is believed to have quoted this, but it could well be a common misattribution. While this saying is essentially interpreted as why not to pigeon-hole human skills and abilities and hold everyone to certain rigid and conventional standards of intelligence, it, unintentionally, is also a commentary on our habit of anthropomorphising non-human intelligence across nature’s living spectrum.

We are guilty of measuring intelligence in non-human living entities against ‘human-like’ traits and abilities, as we fail to acknowledge and recognise different ‘types’ of intelligence and cognitions, other than our own. How many times have you heard or read of vain claims on the lines of ‘humans are the smartest animals’ or ‘Homo sapiens is the most intelligent species on Earth’? You, yourself, may possibly be among those who are inclined towards believing this biased dogma.

Recently, a group of researchers in the field of Comparative Psychology published a paper in the Journal of Intelligence in which they argue the problem of the traditional anthropocentric approach for studying cognition in different species. The paper bats for a more bio-centric approach.

This [human-centric] approach, whether implicit or explicit, can only produce a restrictive, anthropocentric view of cognitive evolution that ignores the incredible diversity of cognitive skills present in the world,” Juliane Bräuer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told ScienceDaily.

Also, we tend to focus only on those traits and skills in which humans almost always come out on top. Language, tool-use, culture and social-reasoning, for example. What about the multitude of other abilities such as navigation, communication, pattern recognition, olfactory capabilities, etc. in which many different species of non-human creatures far exceed us?

Context is crucial here. Evolutionary trajectory of every species is unique. The selection pressures, genetics, environmental conditions and stimuli that test the survival of any species ultimately determine the development or loss of traits, even cognitive ones. Maybe, at various intervals in the evolutionary history, there might have been different primate individuals such as, say a chimpanzee, that may have been born with a genetic mutation that bestows upon it a relatively exceptional, human-scale verbal skills. But, maybe, because the environmental and societal pressures did not find this to be an attractive prospect of use, the said trait wasn’t rewarded.

Interestingly, there is no set and complete definition of ‘intelligence’ in the scientific dictionary even today. Also, most of the research on cognitive studies to gauge non-human intelligence have been performed on animals. especially, primates such as apes, monkeys, and rats and birds. Essentially, intelligence has come to be associated with the brain.

But, what about the brainless organisms amongst us?

Brainless Intelligence

In some sense, the word ‘brain’ is a distraction… ‘Brain’ is a trigger word, burdened with concepts that spend most of their time in the animal world… Are network-based life-forms like fungi or slime moulds capable of a form of cognition? Can we think of their behaviour as intelligent? If other organisms’ intelligence didn’t look like ours then how might it appear? Would we even notice it?” contemplates Merlin Sheldrake in his highly acclaimed book Entangled Life that focuses on the mind-bogglingly complex and entangled world of fungi.

Brainless organisms like fungi, plants, and slime moulds show unbelievable ingenuity and flexibility while responding to their environment. They can process complex information to solve problems, communicate, and make decisions. Clearly cognition is not the exclusive domain of the brain!

We are guilty of measuring intelligence in non-human living entities against ‘human-like’ traits and abilities, as we fail to acknowledge and recognise different ‘types’ of intelligence and cognitions, other than our own.

Illustration credit: Lisa Gonsalves

Plants quite possibly possess intelligence on par with animals with brains. But, because plants differ so much from us and mostly because they lack a neural system, the subject of plant intelligence has been evaded by the science community for long. But, several studies in the recent past have time and again firmly evidenced clear signs of learning and memory in plants, and even their sophisticated ability to communicate with each other underground through an elegant collaboration with fungi called mycorrhizal network.

Some scientists claim that the basis of a plant’s cognitive system lies in the dynamic root tips. Even Charles Darwin, in his book The Power of Movement in Plants that he co-authored with his son Francis Darwin, attributed brain-like cognitive powers in plants mainly to the root tips in what is now regarded as the ‘root-brain’ hypothesis. Electrical signals emanating from root tips akin to the signals given off by neurons in vertebrates have been recorded. And because each plant has thousands of root tips, there is this whole, complex network of tiny computing centres at work. This decentralised nature of the plant’s cognitive system, actually gives plants a big edge over animals possessing a brain. How? A plant can incredibly tolerate loss of or damage to more than 90 percent of its body mass, and still not lose its functionality. Plants are actually better off not having a centrally controlling organ like the brain, as that would have made every predatory attack potentially fatal.

Fungi too exhibit striking cognitive abilities. And like plants, their centres for processing of sensory information are conjectured to be the tips of their hyphae (branching filaments which come together to form mycelium network structures of fungi). Certain fungi like the Phycomyces are known to show sensitivity to light, and even adapt to bright or low light just like we humans do. Contrary to fungi’s popular reputation as decomposers, there is a league of fungi that excels at hunting live worms, when there isn’t enough material to decompose and consume! These fungi hunt worms called nematodes with a stealth of a seasoned predator – sensing prey, stalking, laying traps and everything! Some fungi like the Ophiocordyceps or the zombie fungus manipulates insect minds by infecting them!

But how a mycelial network of a fungus functions, processes information, responds to environmental stimuli and exhibits cognition is a mystery. Some fungi specimens are so large, their mycelial networks stretch and spread across several kilometres. Take the giant specimen of honey fungus (Armillaria) which was discovered in Oregon, U.S.A, in 1998, for example. This honey fungus is spread across 10 sq. km., weighs over 100 tonnes, and is believed to be anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000 years old. It is unquestionably the world’s largest organism! Here is another interesting fact to stress just how complex fungal structures are – upon unravelling and laying the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, end to end, it could stretch for several meters and even kilometres! Then how do different parts of a fungal body communicate with each other? Some experts think electrical signals could be the answer, just like in animals and plants, that bestow cognition in fungi helping them to gauge environmental conditions, trace food sources, sense the presence of other fungi, etc.

Not enough is said about the problem-solving abilities of network-based organisms like fungi and slime moulds. We, humans, are now using them to solve our transport, mathematical and computational problems! Their incredible spatial and geometrical awareness, and ability to navigate complex maze-like routes most logically is helping to optimise transport networks such as the train network in Tokyo and other urban transport networks. Slime mould intelligence has long caught the attention of engineers, biologists, and computer scientists to further the exciting and emerging field of technology called ‘biocomputing’. Slime mould and fungi networks could be the building blocks of future computers and communication network systems!

In all these views, intelligent behaviours can arise without brains. A dynamic and responsive network is all that is needed,” writes author Merlin Sheldrake in his book.

Enough said.


About the author: Purva Variyar is a conservationist, science communicator and conservation writer. She works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust and has previously worked with Sanctuary Nature Foundation and The Gerry Martin Project.

Disclaimer: The author is associated with Wildlife Conservation Trust. The views and opinions expressed in the article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Illustrations by Lisa Gonsalves


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