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University of Chicago Biochemist: All Living Cells Are Cognitive

James Shapiro’s recent paper points out, with examples, that bacteria meet the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “cognitive”

University of Chicago biochemist and evolutionary biologist James Shapiro has a message that those who believe that consciousness is an illusion (as, for example, philosopher Daniel Dennett claims) should heed: If all living things are “cognitive” then, to what extent would life itself have to be an illusion? Something’s wrong there.

James Shapiro

Let’s follow the thread of what Shapiro is saying. He takes a simple approach: If bacteria and archaea, thought to be the oldest, simplest life forms from at least 2 billion years ago, can be shown to have cognitive processes, then it stands to reason that most (if not all) of the more complex life forms have them too:

All living cells sense and respond to changes in external or internal conditions. Without that cognitive capacity, they could not obtain nutrition essential for growth, survive inevitable ecological changes, or correct accidents in the complex processes of reproduction. Wherever examined, even the smallest living cells (prokaryotes) display sophisticated regulatory networks establishing appropriate adaptations to stress conditions that maximize the probability of survival. Supposedly “simple” prokaryotic organisms also display remarkable capabilities for intercellular signalling and multicellular coordination. These observations indicate that all living cells are cognitive.

James A. Shapiro, All living cells are cognitive, Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, Volume 564, 2021, Pages 134-149, ISSN 0006-291X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbrc.2020.08.120.

He shows that these simple cells show many types of behavior that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “cognition.” One of the most interesting examples he gives is quorum sensing among bacteria (how they decide to do things):

The best-known form of interbacterial communication has come to be labelled “quorum sensing” (QS) because it serves to inform a population if it has achieved a critical density for making a regulatory decision (i.e., a quorum). Quorum sensing occurs when the bacteria secrete a chemical “quorum signal” in an autoinduced positive feedback loop but only produce a coordinated multicellular response output when the signal’s concentration exceeds a critical threshold. Quorum sensing is similar to autocrine signalling in complex eukaryotes, and it activates many different processes. The quorum signals come in many chemical forms, and have potential for great specificity, but some signals are also common to multiple types of bacteria, allowing interspecific communication as well.

James A. Shapiro, All living cells are cognitive, Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, Volume 564, 2021, Pages 134-149, ISSN 0006-291X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbrc.2020.08.120.

At one time, researchers had no idea bacteria were talking to each other. True, it’s only about the narrow range of topics that interest bacteria — but they are talking to each other nonetheless.

It’s awe-inspiring to realize that there is a complex intelligence in every living cell. Two questions arise: Is it the intelligence of the cell? That seems inconsistent with how we usually use the word “intelligence.” If we see that a one-celled life form functions with lot of intelligence, perhaps it is more like a book that contains great ideas. Paper doesn’t create ideas; neither, by itself, does protoplasm. Something else is at work.

If the cell itself does not create the intelligence it embodies, what does? Panpsychists argue that all of nature participates in some way in consciousness and humans are the most highly developed example. Theists argue that only a mind outside the universe could create something like human consciousness.

As we learn more and more about the intricate complexities of nature, perhaps debates over the origin of life, intelligence, consciousness, and similar topics will increasingly be between panpsychists and theists rather than materialists and theists. A whole new environment.

Shapiro is also the author of Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (2013).

See also: Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

You may also wish to read more on the growth of panpsychism as a movement in science:

Scientific American explores panpsychism… respectfully. This is a major change. At one time, a science mag would merely ridicule the idea of a conscious universe. Make no mistake, panpsychism—as Goff elucidates it—is a purely naturalist view (“nothing supernatural or spiritual”). But, unlike the village atheist, he goes on to ask, but then what IS nature? Matter is all there is? But what IS matter? It turns out, no one really knows.

Why would a neuroscientist choose panpsychism over materialism? It seems to have come down to a choice between “nothing is conscious” and “everything is conscious.”

How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.

Theoretical physicist slams panpsychism Electrons cannot be conscious Sabine Hossenfelder’s view because they cannot change their behavior. Hossenfelder’s impatience is understandable but she underestimates the seriousness of the problem serious thinkers about consciousness confront. There is a reason that some scientists believe that the universe is conscious: It would be more logically coherent to say that you think the universe is conscious than to say that your own consciousness is an illusion. With the first idea, you may be wrong. With the second idea, you are not anything.

Philosopher: Panpsychism is not in conflict with physics at all. Responding to criticism from physicists Sabine Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll, Philip Goff points out that panpsychism is not a dualist perspective. Philip Goff sees panpsychism (consciousness pervades all nature) as offering a simpler view of physics than dualism, with fewer gaps than materialism.

Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems. A recent article at New Scientist treats panpsychism as a serious idea in science. That’s thanks to the growing popularity of neuroscientist Giulio Tonioni’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which offers the opportunity for mathematical modeling, along with the implication that inanimate matter and/or the universe may be conscious. If IIT continues to gain a sympathetic hearing, panpsychism could become, over time, a part of normal science.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

University of Chicago Biochemist: All Living Cells Are Cognitive