December 11, 2017

Intelligence is universal in life

The present paper is a synthesis of chapters 31, 32 and 33 of The Way: an ecological world view, by Edward Goldsmith (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998). It may also be viewed at

It was published in Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum Vol. 93 No. 3, 2000.

Abstract. Behaviorists assume that living things memorize random atoms of information (engrams), ‘reinforced’ by success, just as in the neo-Darwinian mutation-selection process. On the contrary we have to recognize the existence of organized and systematic responses in the learning process (Krechevsky). The animals seek desperately to ‘understand the meaning’ of the world around them, by widening its context. Intelligence is not an exclusive prerogative of human mind. The minds of insects operate in the same way as that of man. Even a cell has a sort of intelligence [Cuenot]. Consciousness is a state of awareness associated with enhanced mental activity. It occurs also in other ‘higher’ animals [Thorpe]. However human themselves are non conscious of their basic underlying motivations. Unconscious or ineffable knowledge plays a great role in shaping our world-view and in determining our influence on the Gaian hierarchy.

1. Understanding relationship with environment

“In animal and human behavior, trials are not chosen randomly.”

Keith Oatley

“Learning takes place not simply as the emission of a new response when an error occurs. Rather it involves understanding the particular structure of the mistake and deciding what to do next.”

Keith Oatley

A living thing apprehends its environment by detecting data that appear relevant to its behavior pattern and interpreting them in the light of its mental model of its relationship with it, within as wide context as is necessary for the purposes of determining the appropriate adaptive response. This means that it seeks to establish their meaning or to understand them.

This thesis is, of course, irreconcilable with current wisdom on the subject. Behavioral psychologists fall into a number of schools, but for a long time, the dominant one was that of ‘Behaviorism’. It is associated with the work of Edward Thorndyke and E. R. Guthrie, also with John Broadus Watson and particularly and more recently with B. F. Skinner.

Though many behavioral psychologists, such as the members of the Gestalt school, and more recently of the ‘Cognitive’ or ‘Mentalist’ school that we associate with the name of R. W. Sperry, did not accept Behaviorism, it remains true that it still underlies much of the thinking in this field. One reason is that it is the view that best fits in with the paradigm of science that rationalizes the methodology that experimental psychologists and ethologists must use if they are to be taken seriously by the scientific community. This highly reductionist theory of behavior is roughly as follows.

Living things apprehend their environment by acquiring sensations or ‘sense data’ – the atoms of perception – which provide them with measurable atoms of information or ‘bits’. It is accepted that living things have a memory but the memory too is atomized – the atoms of memory being referred to as ‘engrams’ or memory traces. The atom of behavior is the reflex, a mechanism whereby an environmental event referred to as a ‘stimulus’ triggers off a blind and automatic response.

As far back as 1906, Sherrington wrote that the “simple reflex is probably a purely abstract conception . . . if not a probable fiction”. Herrick [1961] describes it as a pure abstraction, a “mere manifestation of what is clearly a very coordinated pattern of behavior”. However such criticisms have not deterred others from presenting the process even more mechanistically in terms of inputs and outputs, the stimulus being the input and the response the output, like a machine that switches on when the button is pressed.

Learning has to be explained of course, and mainstream scientists have done so very ingeniously, making it appear random, atomistic and mechanistic as is required by the paradigm of science. The learning process is not seen by them as occurring in any necessary order; living things are seen as simply responding to their environment in a purely random way. A rat trying to find its way out of a maze, for instance, will try out in random order a whole series of trial and error moves corresponding to the Darwinist’s random variations and the random genetic mutations of the neo-Darwinists.

If one such move is crowned with success, it is said to be ‘reinforced’, the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian equivalent of being ‘selected’. In laboratory experiments, rats are given rewards for making what the experimenter judges to be the right moves, and are often also given penalties, such as being administered electric shocks for the wrong ones – rewards and penalties being seen in the Benthamite tradition as the only motivations of living things.

Behaviorists attribute remarkable powers to reinforcement, just as neo-Darwinists do to selection. Thus Skinner informs his readers that “a man talks to himself . . . because of the reinforcements he receives” [Skinner (1957); Koestler (1978)]; that thinking is in fact “behavior which automatically affects the behavior and is reinforcing because it does so” [Skinner (1957)]; that “just as the musician plays and composes what he is reinforced by hearing, or as the artist paints what reinforces him visually, so the speaker engaged in verbal fantasy says what he is reinforced by hearing, or writes what he is reinforced by reading”, while the creative artist is “controlled entirely by the contingencies of reinforcement”. [Skinner (1957)].

It is astonishing that serious people can really believe that the incredibly subtle and sophisticated behavior of living things can be explained in terms of so crude and rudimentary a mechanism. If we really believed it, as Michael Polanyi [1978] points out, we would also have to accept that “if a dog were consistently offered food whenever it was shown the radiogram of diseased lungs and no food when shown the radiogram of healthy lungs, it should learn to diagnose pulmonary diseases.”

Pure trial and error learning, however, except perhaps in the most rudimentary possible forms of life, is mere fantasy. This has been realized even within the ranks of experimental psychologists. Thus Karl Lashley has insisted strongly that normal animals do not behave in a random fashion. Oatley [1961] agrees. “In animal or human behavior”, he maintains, “trials are not chosen randomly”. On the contrary, as Herrick [1961] notes, “the learning process is ordinarily directive and it is an organized activity, never a mere random fumbling”.

I Krechevsky [1932] considers that “we must change our description of the learning process so as to recognize the existence of organized and systematic responses at all stages of the process”. Indeed, the rat,

“when placed in an unsolvable situation, does not respond in a helter skelter chance fashion, but makes all sorts of integrated, and informed attempts at solution. These systematic responses are, partly at least, initiated by the animal and are not altogether merely a resultant of the immediately presented external situation.”

This means that such animals are not just reacting blindly to various stimuli, but are seeking to interpret them correctly and thus understand their meaning; that, of course, involves establishing the role of the thing or event that attracts their attention within the context of the larger spatio-temporal system of which it is part.

When the Tahitians first saw a horse, introduced to the island by de Bougainville’s French sailors, they immediately classified it in terms of the mammal they knew most resembled it . . . the pig. It was obviously closer to the horse than the other two mammals of which they had any experience: the dog and the Polynesian rat. Very sensibly, they referred to the horse as a “man-carrying pig”. This was not a robot-like response; it was a sophisticated attempt to understand this strange beast in the light of their experience of similar beasts. There is no reason to suppose that rats do not do likewise.

Some of Lashley’s experiments cast considerable light on this question. He showed that rats with large cortical lesions could learn to solve a problem in about the same time as normal rats but their behavior was simplified. They did so less elegantly. They stumbled on the solutions rather than find them in a more systematic or logical way. In other words, they did not really understand the nature of the problems they had to solve.

This reminds one of the behavior of children brought up in isolation, whose model of the world remains stunted and rudimentary. Peter of Hanover, the celebrated 18th century isolate brought to London as a curiosity, ended up working as a farm laborer. He would perform his tasks well, but could never really understand their meaning. When asked to load a wheelbarrow with manure, he would do so very efficiently but, not understanding the point of what he was doing, would proceed to empty it and fill it up again repeatedly until made to stop.

To understand something is to determine its function within a larger spatio-temporal system. This means that widening the context in which we study it will increase our knowledge of its function. This is how a detective tries to understand a crime. Each clue is related to an increasingly wider set of events, gradually acquiring ever greater meaning. Other clues are treated in the same way, until eventually, the crime is reconstructed, and the detective can be said to have understood exactly what has occurred. There is no other way of proceeding. The clue in isolation from its context cannot be interpreted, for it has no meaning and constitutes data, not information.

Living things, except for the very simplest ones, do not behave like robots. They are intelligent beings and whether mainstream science likes it or not, they seek desperately to understand their relationship with the world about them.

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2. Living systems are intelligent

“Of all the fictions with which mankind has allowed itself to be fooled, none is vainer than the belief that the ‘instinct’ of animals is absolutely different from the ‘reason’ of men, and that the lower races are a dumb and soulless automaton, separated from the human by a deep and impassable gulf.”

Henry S. Salt

“Existing scientific data indicate a greater degree of intellectual communality among primates and probably a greater communality among all other animals, than has been commonly recognized.”

H. F. Harlow

The notion that man’s mental processes are categorically distinct from those of other animals is a gratuitous assumption based on no valid knowledge of any kind. In particular it is gratuitous to insist, as mainstream science does today, that only humans are intelligent – especially since the term has never even been satisfactorily defined. Admittedly, we have intelligence tests, but as Herrick [1961] notes, “we do not know just what it is they measure”. Some authors, among them Ashis Nandy [personal communication], suggest that intelligence is little more than “that which is tested by intelligence tests”.

A. Binet and T. H. Simon, the pioneers of intelligence testing, consider that “to judge well, to comprehend well, to reason well, these are the essential activities of intelligence” [Binet and Simon (1916)]. For A. W. Heim [1970], “intelligent activity consists in grasping the essentials in a given situation and responding appropriately to them”.

Harlow [1964] defines intelligence as “all round intellectual ability, to learn, understand, improvise and create” – qualities that all living things – in varying degrees – tend to display. With regard to learning, for instance, Harlow [1964] considers that there is no scientific evidence of a break between primate and non-primate forms. Emergence from the oceans to the land produced no sudden expansion of learning ability. Indeed, there is no evidence that any sharp break ever appeared in the evolutionary development.

Major Hingston [1928] would have agreed with Harlow [1964]. For 17 years he observed the behavior of lowly insects in the tropical forests of India and he concluded that they solved their problems much the same way as we do. “The notion that insects are nothing but animated machines”, he wrote, and “that they lead purely reflex lives, these assertions I believe to be quite unfounded”. Regardless of what particular mental qualities we judge as important, Hingston showed that insects seem to display them. They are quite capable of ‘reasoning’ for instance.

Hingston noted how dung-rolling beetles, when their ball was pinned to a long stake, examined the ball, discovered the stake and freed the ball by cutting it in two and putting the separate bits together. They are also quite capable of adapting means to ends. Thus the wasp Mellinus arvensis, Hingston found, can capture flies on pads of dung. It normally does so by sneaking about, but on one occasion when the flies were particularly active, one of these wasps was seen to lie on the dung, simulating death and simply waited for the victims to walk into its grasp. “Is this not a plan perfectly adapted to meet a given end?” Hingston [1928] asks.

Insects are quite able to improvise strategies for dealing with environmental challenges. Hingston describes how Swynnerton’s ants dealt with a poisoned spine caterpillar. They ingeniously blocked the poisonous openings with crumbs of earth and then amputated the spine. They are also capable of displaying judgment. Hingston describes the wasp that dragged its large victim to the opening of its nest. Before trying to get its victim in, the wasp went backwards and forwards between its victim and the hole, until, having “decided” that the victim would not fit, set about methodically to enlarge the hole.

They are also able to foresee the effects of their acts. Hingston describes a mason wasp, that, in building its nest, did not just build one cell after another in a random way, but started off by laying the foundation plan for all the cells of the finished nest. They are well able too to remember past experiences. A particular ant, Hingston assures us, can remember the place where it has found food after a prolonged period of time. A hive-bee can do the same thing. Wasps, he assures us, can not only remember one spot but can “keep in their minds a geographical picture of the territory which they work”.

From all this evidence, Hingston [1928] claims that we are not justified in making barriers between insects and human mentality. I mean we have no right to regard their minds as being totally different in kind. In their main essential characteristics, the minds of these humble creatures operate in the same way as the mind of man, and this harmonizes well with those laws of continuity, which, as our knowledge of this world grows, become more and more firmly established.

Mainstream science is unimpressed by these arguments. Non-human living things are indeed capable of very remarkable achievements, but these, it is insisted, are the products of instinct not of intelligence.

Yet man’s behavior is as governed by his instincts as is that of other animals. Our intelligence does not lead us to substitute new goals for those set by our instincts. It merely enables us to satisfy them with greater discrimination and in a greater diversity of different conditions than can non-human animals. In normal conditions – those that fall within our tolerance range – there is no conflict between our instincts and our intelligence. Our instincts do not lure us, as MacLean and Koestler suggest, into “primitive types of behavior against the better judgment of our intelligence”.

If the term intelligence is to be used in a functional manner, there is no reason why it should be limited to the behavior of organisms; on the contrary, it should be applied to all life processes. Lucien Cuenot, the Belgian theoretical biologist, goes so far as to attribute to the cell “a sort of intelligence and indeed, an eminent power equivalent to the purposiveness that is apparent in human behavior” [Cuenot (1941)].

Piaget feels that Cuenot has gone too far, and accuses him of “psychomorphism” [Piaget (1967)]; but if the function is the same at both levels of organization, why not use the same term? Not to use it is to mislead people into supposing that the processes are different, helping to perpetuate the myth of the uniqueness of man on which the paradigm of science depends. Sherrington was filled with awe at what we could refer to as the intelligence of the ontogenetic process:

“The body is made up of cells, thousands of millions of them, in our own instance about 1000 million. The one cell [out of which it grows] the original fertilized cell, grows into two and those two each into two and so forth. When that has gone on in the aggregate some forty-five times, there are 26 million million magic bricks, all of a family. That is about the number (of cells) in a human child at birth. They have arranged themselves into a complex, which is a human child. Each has assumed its required form and size in the right place.” [Sherrington (1947)]

How do we explain this? “It is as if an immanent principle inspired each cell with the knowledge for the carrying out of a design.” Perhaps the most quoted miracle of nature is the eye. Even the eye of a relatively modest form of life such as an insect is of a degree of sophistication that defies the imagination. The Spanish neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, describes it thus:

“From the insect’s faceted eye, proceeds an inextricable criss-cross of excessively slender nerve-fibres. These then plunge into a cell-labyrinth which doubtless serves to integrate what forms from the retinal layers. Next follow a countless host of amacrine cells and with them again numberless centrifugal fibres. All these elements are moreover so small the highest powers of the modern microscope hardly avail for following them. The intricacy of the connections defies description. Before it, the mind halts, abased.” [cit. in Sherrington (1947)].

The complexity and precision of the eye, was an embarrassment to Darwin. As he wrote in The Origin of Species,

“. . . to suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” [Darwin (1859)]

However, he pointed out,

“when it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round it, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of vox populi, vox Dei as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.”

Reason, for him, was a better guide, and it told him that the eye, however sophisticated, could still only be the product of natural selection.

It is ironic that to explain what are the paltry, not to mention socially and ecologically destructive achievements of scientific and technological man, such as the invention of the internal combustion engine and the atom-bomb, we invoke his consciousness, his creativity and his intelligence, yet we categorically deny these qualities to all other living things, let alone to the miraculous processes of evolution and morphogenesis that brought them and him into being.

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3. Consciousness is not a prerogative of Man

“Only human beings guide their behavior by a knowledge of what happened before they were born and a preconception of what may happen after they are dead; thus only human beings find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on.”

Sir Peter Medawar.

“The evidence for some degree of consciousness certainly in the higher animals and perhaps far down the animal scale is overwhelming.”

W. H. Thorpe.

Even if it be admitted that all natural systems are intelligent, thus allowing the term to be used in a meaningful way, it will still be maintained by many that man remains unique as he alone displays consciousness. We are told that without consciousness there can be no reason and hence no real choice, no purposiveness and no morality.

Also, because man is conscious, his evolution (as opposed to that of all other creatures) is seen as freed from all the biological, social and ecological laws that govern the rest of the natural world, which means that man can in effect determine his own evolution. Eric Jantsch [1980] puts this idea into religious language: “it is because man possesses consciousness”. He tells us that “mankind is not redeemed by God, but redeems itself”.

Evolution, he tells us, is usually seen as the history of the organization of matter and energy. However, it can also be viewed as “the organization of information into complexity of knowledge”. This “may be understood as the evolution of consciousness”, the highest state of evolution, corresponding to Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘noosphere’. “Once this state is achieved,” he writes, “the whole universe can be identified with consciousness and it is this consciousness that determines the course of further evolution” (Jantsch [1980]).

In this way, by identifying the universe with human consciousness, Jantsch has reconciled – to his satisfaction at least – the idea that conscious man can determine his own evolution with his principal thesis that the universe is a self-organizing entity. The Promethean enterprise to which modern man is religiously committed is thereby effectively justified.

Along with Herrick [1961], I think we can best regard consciousness as a state of awareness, associated with enhanced mental activity, which may be required when it is necessary to identify and interpret very carefully an important environmental challenge to which an immediate and often innovative response is required – the unconscious mind only being capable of dealing with routine matters.

Thorpe is perfectly willing to accept that man is not the only living thing to possess this faculty. He sees the same degree of consciousness in the higher animals (chimpanzees, like other ‘higher’ animals, denoting specific states of mind by different facial expressions) and the possibility of its presence far down the animal scale. Conscious awareness, he feels sure, provides some adaptive advantage over the purely unconscious apprehension of the environment [Thorpe (1965)]. Julian Huxley [cit. in Thorpe (1965)] talks of the “mind intensifying” organization of animals’ brains. He sees this as providing a fuller awareness of both outer and inner situations and as enabling living things to deal with chaotic and complex situations.

For some authors, all natural systems are endowed with consciousness, or ‘bio-conscience’. Teilhard de Chardin goes so far as to attribute a primary consciousness to the atom. This may be going too far. It is probably more realistic to see consciousness as a feature of organisms – embryonic among the simpler organisms, and more highly developed with the evolution of the brain and in particular the neo-cortex.

It is also important not to overrate the importance of consciousness as a factor in determining our behavior pattern. As motivation research has revealed, humans themselves are not conscious of their basic underlying motivations; the reasons they give to explain their actions being largely those that best serve to rationalize them. It is indeed one of the principal failings of modern epistemology that it is only concerned with conscious knowledge, completely ignoring the unconscious or ineffable knowledge that plays an incomparably greater role in shaping our world-view and in determining our behavior pattern and hence our influence on the Gaian hierarchy.

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Binet, A. and T. H. Simon (1916). cit. in Chaitanya (1976) The Psychology of Freedom. Somaiya Publ., Bombay.
Cuenot, L. (1941). Invention et Finalité en Biologie. Flammarion, Paris.
Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Murray, London.
Harlow H. F. (1964). “The Evolution of Learning”, in Evolution and Behaviour, A. Roe and G. G. Simpson (eds.)
Herrick, C. J. (1961). The Evolution of Human Nature. Harper & Brothers, New York.
Heim A. W. (1970). The Appraisal of Intelligence. National Foundation for Education Research, London.
Hingston, R. W. G. (1928). Problems of Instinct and Intelligence among Tropical Insects. Edward Arnold, London.
Jantsch, E. (1980). The Self-Organizing Universe. Pergamon Press, Oxford.
Krechevski, I. (1932). “Hypothesis versus Chance in the Pre-Solution Period”, in Sensory Discrimination in Learning a New Language, C. C. Crawford and F. H Leitzell. (eds.).
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Piaget, J. (1967). Biologie et Connaissance. Gallimard, Paris.
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Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behaviour. New York.
Thorpe, W. .H (1965). Science, Man and Morals. Methuen & Co., London.
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