What is Smart Biology?

Imagine a world where organisms are intelligent. Clever like a smartphone rather than human genius, which is in short supply. We are all becoming familiar with artificial intelligence, its power and its limitations. When organisms have these properties, the fashionable and much-idolised genes become a low-level memory needed to generate proteins. By contrast, cells are intelligent robots whose information processing determines behaviour and thus evolution. Look around you; life cooperates, competes, and exploits the environment. When organisms are intelligent, natural selection becomes mere bookkeeping rather than the central theory of life. Smart organisms make biology fun.

A New Approach

Some biologists ask us to believe that animals, plants, and microorganisms are dumb. Humans are the only intelligent animal. Suggesting otherwise means you are being anthropomorphic or worse. So a phone can be smart, but a crow is dumb. If you believe this peculiar philosophical stuff, try building a robot gull that can navigate oceans, hunt, fly, build a nest, and so on. It’s OK. They tell us the answer is in the genes.

The estimated size of the human genome varies with what part you are assessing. However, estimates are from around 200 to 725 megabytes (example). That amount of data easily would fit onto a CD or five genomes or more on a standard DVD. Of course, the human genome is supposed to encode the human brain. However, we have many more brain cells (neurons) than there are bytes in the genome. Each neuron makes 1,000-10,000 connections to others and has 10-50 supporting glia cells. Therefore, the genome does not have the information content to encode a complete organism. However, this idea of genetic determinism beliefs is widely accepted, but it is little more explanatory than those provided by the old religions the selfish-gene supporters deride.

Next time you hear someone saying it’s all in the genes, ask them where the software is for creating an organism. We need biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, and molecular mechanisms. The mechanisms are unknown, but they ask us to make a leap of faith that the genes which contain so little information provide a solution. So again, the problem is fundamental – a lack of information content. What we know is genes encode proteins and functional RNAs. The rest is extrapolation.

One approach assumes the information develops from a kernel and expands in a fractal or weaves its way through a dynamical system. This approach moves biology toward the 21st century and provides a plausible hypothesis. Alan Turing gave an early example. Turing famous as a mathematician and codebreaker was also a mathematical biologist. He worked out from first principles how leopards might get their spots and tigers their stripes. Chemical or electrical fields can form biological patterns and structures. When describing such patterns, Turing stated that “if a comparison of organisms is not in question, the genes themselves may be eliminated from the discussion”. Few biologists realise the implications.

Natural shell on left Turing pattern on right

Let’s begin again with the hypothesis that cells are wetware. Self-programming life consists of squishy robot Turing machines with the task of survival and reproduction. The result is holistic but entirely consistent with evolution and reductionist approaches. We now have understandable mechanisms, and we don’t need to deny other organisms can have purpose, aims, and emotions. Humans claim to have these qualities, and their biology is nothing special. We are just a bipedal ape species. With organisms as wetware, humans lose their unique Neodarwinian position as something akin to gods of the animal kingdom.

Life Is Wetware

Look carefully, and even the simplest microorganisms are smart. Moreover, their complex behaviours require more advanced computing than realised. Microorganisms engage in the same life challenges as animals on the Serengeti, grazing, hunting, and avoiding predators. So, it’s time biology recognised wetware makes living things unusual.

Wetware is everywhere. We can redefine evolution as the history of intelligent organisms. When we do this, we need to consider Alan Turing as much as Charles Darwin. Turing had more to say about biology than people realised.

Forget about the dead end of selfish genes. Some of the most incredible biological developments came from symbiosis rather than genetics. The idea of selfish genes driving evolution is a political concept imposed on biology. Neodarwinians set old-fashioned and discredited game theory ideas on biology to achieve this philosophy. In reality, cooperation, competition, and cognition are all necessary for successful evolution. The popular Neo-Darwinian narrative is not even wrong so let’s start again.

Archimedes

We accept that humans can think. Consider a well-known example: Archimedes. People often acknowledge Archimedes as one of the ten greatest ever mathematicians. These top ten lists also include him as one of history’s leading physicists. Interestingly, the Roman empire fell foul of his engineering abilities, keeping their forces from entering Syracuse for some time.

Most people know Archimedes from the famous eureka story told in schools. The King asked him to find out if the new crown was made entirely of gold or contained other less valuable metals. Getting into a bath, he noticed the water rise and famously ran naked through the streets shouting eureka! His volume had displaced the water, and he realised he could find the density of the crown.

Watch this video to see a bird-brained approach to the same problem:

Stoffel

So a bird-brained crow can be remarkably smart. There are many other examples of crows showing apparent intelligence. We ask the crows to think like us when we test for this. They have different evolutionary priorities. For instance, they might ask if we could control flight if they reversed the test to find out if humans are clever. Even Topgun pilots would struggle to compete. We also know that chimps and other primates can be impressive, but perhaps they are other examples. Biologists may have underestimated animal capabilities.

Stoffel, a Honey Badger:

Le Blob

Stoffel might be exceptional, a genius amongst honey badgers. So, to make the point, consider a simple brainless slime mould. It may not have a brain, but it can solve problems. However, the BBC claim in the video that the slime mould, Le Blob, has no way of calculating the answer. But of course, it is not magic, and the blob computes the solutions. We are familiar with digital computers, but wetware works differently.

Le Blob solves a maze:

Single Cells

As Le Blob shows, you don’t need a brain to be intelligent. We can take this further and look at the white blood cells that patrol your body. These blood cells have many properties of single-cell organisms like the amoeba. They protect you by identifying potentially harmful foreign bodies and dealing with them. Billions of these autonomous wetware robots roam around your tissues, making independent decisions. Their task is challenging and would defeat our most advanced robots.

A David Rogers Vanderbilt University 1950s video with the Benny Hill theme

Start thinking about the life and evolution of intelligent organisms. With smart organisms, the history of life is quite different from the accepted paradigm. Selfish genes are a red herring.

Smart Biology is available from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

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