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Tumor cell under attack of white blood cells
Tumor cell under attack of white blood cells

Why Do Many Scientists See Cells as Intelligent?

Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

Recently, we talked about the ways in which bacteria are intelligent. Researchers into antibiotic resistance must deal with the surprisingly complex ways bacteria “think” in order to counter them. For example, some bacteria may warn others while dying from antibiotics. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

A skeptic might say that bacteria are, after all, individual entities like dogs or cats. There is evidence that individual life forms can show intelligence even with no brain. But dependent cells?

Surprisingly, cells that are not independent at all but part of a body can also show something that looks like intelligence, as Michael Denton discusses in Miracle of the Cell (2020):

No one who has observed a leucocyte (a white blood cell) purposefully—one might even say single-mindedly—chasing after a bacterium in a blood smear would disagree.

Michael Denton, Miracle of the Cell, p. 15

He references this classic video by David Rogers, from the University of New South Wales, called “Neutrophil Chasing Bacteria”:

Denton goes on to say,

What one witnesses there seems to transcend all our intuitions: A tiny speck of matter, invisible to the naked eye, so small that one hundred of them could be lined up across the top of a pin, is seemingly endowed with intention and agency. It’s like watching a house cat chasing a mouse, or a cheetah chasing a gazelle on the African savanna, or indeed a man chasing down a kudu in the Kalahari.

Michael Denton, Miracle of the Cell, p. 15

Denton goes on to say,

It’s not just their hunting strategies… that resemble the behaviors of higher organisms. Another striking example is the courtship rituals of ciliates, rituals that include pre-conjugal mating dances, reciprocal learning, repeated touching of prospective mates, and even deceit and cheating when communicating reproductive fitness to potential mates.

Michael Denton, Miracle of the Cell, pp. 18–19

To be clear, most researchers do not think that white blood cells or bacteria are conscious, like dogs or cats. They are, however, often thought to be sentient (capable of feeling).

At the very least, like complex machines, they are full of critical, interacting information. And sometimes, also like complex machines, they spookily manage to behave as if they were conscious.

Except for one thing: Cells are vastly more complex than any machine we have built. So if we have seen a high level of artificial intelligence in action, perhaps we should not be surprised by cells, which are so much more complex, to the point where a cell can be viewed as a third infinity, the first two being the universe and the atom. But this third infinity is mainly one of information, not matter.

Electrical engineer Perry Marshall looked into the question of cell sentience and intelligence and commented,

The huge realization I had when I started this was the incredible parallels between DNA and Ethernet, because I had written an Ethernet book. The similarities were almost scary. Encoding, decoding, error detection, error correction, checksums, layers. On and on.

Perry Marshall, “Are Cells Intelligent?” at Evolution 2.0 (March 2, 2017)

In Marshall’s view, there is an intelligence behind the cell that is not the intelligence of the cell itself. He uses another computer analogy: “Even if a computer is automatically generating emails, they always originated from a conscious source.”

One thing’s for sure; in the age of artificial intelligence, biology is about to get even more interesting.

Note: In the image featured above the title, white blood cells have identified and are attacking a tumor cell.

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Even bacteria are purpose-driven. The recent finding that bacteria can make individual decisions may help design better antibiotics.

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Why Do Many Scientists See Cells as Intelligent?