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Would Cognition in Bacteria “Dethrone” Humans?

A cognition researcher’s approach to the question helps account for the growing popularity of panpsychism — as an alternative

Adelaide University cognition researcher Pamela Lyon offered an interesting thesis at Aeon last month: “Cognition did not appear out of nowhere in ‘higher’ animals but goes back millions, perhaps billions, of years.” Given that several scientists have recently made claims for cognition in single-celled entities, her contention is not all that surprising. But her approach to the topic prompts some thought:

Lyon, who has little time for doubters, invokes Charles Darwin in calling for a “Copernican” shift in thinking on the subject:

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin draws a picture of the long sweep of evolution, from the beginning of life, playing out along two fundamental axes: physical and mental. Body and mind. All living beings, not just some, evolve by natural selection in both ‘corporeal and mental endowments’, he writes. When psychology has accepted this view of nature, Darwin predicts, the science of mind ‘will be based on a new foundation’, the necessarily gradual evolutionary development ‘of each mental power and capacity’.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, among the earliest cognitive philosophers to invoke evolution, dubbed natural selection ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ because it showed that the appearance of design in nature requires no designer, divine or otherwise. Like most of his colleagues, philosophical and scientific, Dennett didn’t buy the continuity of mental evolution. However, my view is that this neglected insight of Darwin’s was his most radical idea, one with the potential to induce a full-blown Copernican revolution in the cognitive sciences and to transform the way we see the world and our place in it.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

It would be odd if Lyon understood Darwin better on this point than his modern philosophical champion Dennett does. There’s no clear evidence that Darwin even put much thought into the cognition of simple life forms. Little was known in his day. But it soon becomes clear that Lyon’s target is the idea that humans are in any way special:

Similarly, Darwin’s radical idea dethrones human and other brains from their ‘intuitively obvious’ position at the centre of the (Western) cognitive universe. In their place, Darwin sets an evolving, cognising being struggling to survive, thrive and reproduce in predictably and unpredictably changing conditions. This single shift of perspective – from a brain-centred focus, where Homo sapiens is the benchmark, to the facts of biology and ecology – has profound implications. The payoff is a more accurate and productive account of an inescapable natural phenomenon critical to understanding how we became – and what it means to be – human.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

In recent years, many researchers have gone to great trouble to wish away the exceptional nature of being human. It’s not clear that determining that one-celled/simple life forms have some level of cognition, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits, will help with that project.

hydra/Coveredinsevindust at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

For one thing, to retool philosopher Thomas Nagel’s iconic question about bats, is there something that it is like to be a pond hydra? It’s quite possible that there is. But, if so, it is very simple and does nothing that “dethrones human and other brains from their ‘intuitively obvious’ position at the centre of the (Western) cognitive universe.”

Lyon admits that the term cognition has “no consensus definition” and has not had one for nearly a century and a half. As a PhD student in Asian studies, she offers her own definition from a Buddhist viewpoint: “Cognition comprises the means by which organisms become familiar with, value, exploit and evade features of their surroundings in order to survive, thrive and reproduce.” And she is not happy with what she sees in the “Western” research on the topic: “Biology and evolution, which I assumed must be of utmost importance, were largely absent; so were physiology, emotion and motivation.” She turned to the study of bacteria and to less well known scientists such as the zoologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) and Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana (1928–2021) for answers:

In Maturana’s view (and he was a neuroscientist), the cognitive domain of interactions arose with single-celled life. Neural structures added complexity, in both cognitive organism and exploitable environment, but didn’t generate cognition as such. Evidence for Maturana’s view grows daily.

Basal cognition – the study of cognitive capacities in non-neural and simple neural organisms (to which my PhD research led) – is in its infancy as a field. However, evidence already shows that evolution had laid a solid foundation of capacities typically considered cognitive well before nervous systems appeared: about 500-650 million years ago. Perception, memory, valence, learning, decision-making, anticipation, communication – all once thought the preserve of humankind – are found in a wide variety of living things, including bacteria, unicellular eukaryotes, plants, fungi, non-neuronal animals, and animals with simple nervous systems and brains.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

Wait. We’ve jumped the shark. Was there ever a time when “perception, memory, valence, learning, decision-making, anticipation, communication” were “all once thought the preserve of humankind”? To suppose any such thing would require that everyone have complete unfamiliarity with the behavior of the animals that surround us in everyday life. Lyon is not helping the cause of studying sentience and cognition in simpler life forms with an open mind by simply misrepresenting conventional views, past and present.

She’s thought of that already and has a snippy response:

No amount of positive evidence for basal cognition will persuade a diehard neurocentric, however. (What do you mean by memory, valence, decision-making? Isn’t it a matter of definition?) Darwin’s radical idea must solve problems that cognitivism cannot.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

Well, first, it’s simply a fact that even cognition has “no consensus definition.” Lyon admitted that herself a few paragraphs earlier. Definitions of “memory, valence, decision-making” are likewise tested and contested and for the same reasons (expanding bases of information is one of them).

That aside, some respected neuroscientists don’t doubt that bacteria, etc., can manage cognition. Damasio even puts in a claim for viruses. But we are not anywhere near the human mind.

earthworm/Aruna at ml.wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0

Lyon thinks she might have located cognition in spontaneous oscillations in the brain. They are “detected in Hydra but also in a wide variety of organisms, including plants, single-celled eukaryotes and bacteria, as well as in diverse animals.” They need not be generated by neurons.

Hers is another hypothesis on the table, one that would require much research. But she is impatient with research:

Given the massive investment of public and private funds, to say nothing of human ingenuity, time and effort over the past 70 years, we should by now know so much more about what cognition is, what it’s for, and how it works – theories of these things, not simply data derived from brain activity. Think of how society has transformed since the 1950s. How many dogmas have crashed and burned? How much has been learned in so many fields?

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

But how would adopting her view — or what she takes to be Darwin’s view — solve the problem? There has been no lack of reverence for, let alone acceptance of, Darwin’s theories during those 70 years. But it’s not obvious that he had clear insights that simply solve the conundrums before us — or that he even could have had them.

Classically, Lyon tells us,

There is grandeur in this view of life,’ Darwin writes, and he is correct. We can now see ourselves – with scientific justification and with no need for mystical overlay or anthropomorphism – in a daffodil, an earthworm, perhaps even a bacterium, as well as a chimpanzee.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

Please. We can see ourselves as a river, a quarter after four, or the embodiment of liberty if we want. But the daffodil, the earthworm, the bacterium can’t see themselves as us — or as anything other than what they are. The chimpanzee may imagine life as a human but that wouldn’t include thinking like a human, which is just what he doesn’t do. To the extent that all these life forms are sentient, they are sentient within their bounds.

The frequent references to Darwin begin to sound like sloganeering. For one thing Darwin’s famous “grandeur” quote, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved,” makes no claims about daffodil or bacterial cognition. His concern was, as the title of his seminal book shows, the origin of species.

And finally,

Just as we have come to think of our bodies as evolved from simpler forms of body, it is time to embrace Darwin’s radical idea that our minds, too, are evolved from much simpler minds. Body and mind evolved together and will continue to do so.

Pamela Lyon, “On the Origin of Minds” at Aeon (October 21, 2020)

But, assuming that’s all true — and there are legitimate reasons for doubt — it really doesn’t get us anywhere. We still have, in human consciousness, an abrupt break with the daffodil, the earthworm, the bacterium, and the chimpanzee. A break no one has accounted for though (riffing Darwin here) endless theories most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. All the time in fact.

Lyon’s approach to the topic could well become a book. For now, it helps account for the growing popularity of panpsychism as an alternative. A panpsychist does not need to denigrate humanity and evade critical differences, as Lyon does, in order to account for cognition in the bacterium because consciousness (or cognition, if you like) is thought to underlie all nature. It could simply be more present in the human than in the bacterium. That could be one reason why more scientists are gravitating to panpsychism.

You may also wish to read: Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.

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.

Would Cognition in Bacteria “Dethrone” Humans?