Ganymedean slime molds and the future of the human race

In Clans of the Alphane Moon Philip K. Dick presents us a self-aware, intelligent, telepathic alien that happens to be a slime mold from the Jovian moon Ganymede. It’s one of the many things to love about PKD books. But it’s not so far-fetched that what we think of as simple organisms could display intelligence. Bacterial colonies cooperate and adapt to environmental changes. This study looks at—you guessed it, slime molds among other things—and concludes that microbial populations exhibit many of the facets of intelligence like anticipation, learning, and problem-solving. This is the part I like:

Vis à vis memory, intelligence is an emergent property of a complex system; a feature that is not reducible to the parts of the system in isolation.

“Emergent properties” always sounded a little woo-woo to me, a vague and ephemeral notion. But if mind or consciousness or intelligence is NOT an emergent feature of a sufficiently inter-connected network, then the alternative is even more woo-woo. It must be a transcendent property, like a soul, that exists separately from the physiology of the life form and inhabits it. That is, an organism gets imbued with mind, and that mind exists in a metaphysical plane. The interaction of the mental plane and the biochemical one produces consciousness. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin envisioned a noosphere, the sphere of thought, just like the biosphere and geosphere, only composed of mental processes rather than physical.

Like I said, that’s way too New Age-y for me. So I’m more accustomed to thinking of intelligence as an emergent property rather than a transcendent one. Here’s some more from the study:

Intelligence emerges when the system components interact. For example, the intelligence (or intelligent-like behavior) we observe inside a single cell emerges from interactions among thousands of non-intelligent macromolecules.

So the component parts don’t have to be intelligent. They create intelligence by connecting together, by making a network. Continuing:

Similarly, the intelligent behavior of a microbial society is not simply the sum of the behavior of intelligent cells; rather it is a property that emerges from the interactions amongst many of them.

Does this have any relevance for humans? Here’s the last bit:

In the human brain, intelligence emerges from interactions of nearly 90 billion neurons.

I’d say it does. We live in the age of global interconnected-ness. Last year we bought over two billion cell phones and there are about five billion cell phones in use throughout the world. When I was born there were only about three billion people on the planet. If you imagine that people are the nodes and that phones are the connectors then we’ve got a big complex network. Include Facebook and all the rest of the internet and it becomes quite a huge one.

Does that mean intelligence will soon emerge? A hive-mind for the human race? TV and Twitter give us plenty of examples of group-mind, or certainly at least group-think, and in fact we don’t need technology for that. People on sports teams or in musical groups often talk about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and anyone experiencing crowd dynamics at a riot, ballgame, or concert would concur.

We build neural networks out of interconnected electronic parts. They are programmed to learn. We are building a similar neural network out of human individuals, interconnected by electronic parts (phones, computers, wearable tech, smart devices, etc.). The difference in the first case is that neural network builders and programmers have a goal in mind. They have a plan. Their gizmo is going to do some task, like beat a human at poker or pilot a rocket or something. This emerging human cluster-fuck (er, network) is unplanned. We aren’t consciously making all the connections. Many are just happening. Each day the network is more complex as many more interactions occur.

If a slime mold can have an emergent intelligence I think seven billion humans can, too. Now just because I say “intelligence” doesn’t mean it has to be an intelligent intelligence, if you know what I mean. Our emergent mental construction might be a real dumbass. Or vicious and sociopathic. Or utterly pointless and trivial. But I suspect it will be SOMETHING.

That’s what I’m intrigued about. That something. Because it is coming, if it doesn’t already exist. How do we know that the emergent intelligence of thousands of millions of people isn’t already manifest? It could explain a lot. I mean we humans do some wacky-ass shit and we always try to give someone credit for it. Or blame someone for it. Maybe it has nothing to do with us individually, but it has everything to do with us collectively.

In the States, we worship individuality. Autonomy. Personal liberty. These are things we are supposedly ready to die for. We already know that half of the cells in our body are not ours. They have DNA that is different from 23-and-me. That is, they don’t have our Homo sapiens forty-six. How do we know that the free will we believe we exhibit isn’t simply an artifact of biochemical processes initiated and controlled by the other 50%?

I’m not trying to get into some solipsistic mess. We are talking about organisms that are made of all that gooey organic stuff like lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins, the same gooey organic stuff that we are made out of. These days we live in a world where we are reaching out, via our technology, to all the other human individuals in the world and making connections, creating a global neural network of intelligences. If those guys I’ve quoted above are describing something that one could reasonably accept as plausible then we should expect something new to emerge.

Perhaps we are the final group of larval humans. Those who come after us will be adults. Perhaps it was necessary, on a biological level, for the population to become large enough and the collective brainpower great enough to build the inter-connections so that a sufficient majority of all the individuals on the planet could communicate. I wonder what we’ll come up with.

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