The roots of intelligence?
|By Billy Cox|
With two-thirds of its neurons distributed not in the brain but throughout its tentacles, the physiology of the extremely savvy octopus isn't the only Earthly life form that forces us to reassess the nature of perception and intelligence. There’s also the “swarm intelligence” of superorganisms, like ants, in which the individual and competing hierarchies are sacrificed for the efficiency of the horde. There’s a reason ants have been around for more than a hundred million years, and every reason to believe their relentless colonization will continue long after we’re gone.
Renowned myrmecologist Mark Moffett compares the phenomenon to “a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits,” whose perpetuation appears secure because “neither ant colonies nor supercomputers need consciousness to make smart choices.” Adds the research associate for the National Museum of Natural History, “It doesn't pay to consolidate power; better to have redundant operations with few or no established commands, as ants do."
If, as it appears, some form of intelligence, fused with high technology, lies at the heart of the UFO puzzle, why must all forms of intelligence mirror our own? Ants always come to mind when De Void hears the question: “If UFOs are real, why don’t they land on the White House lawn?” If leaderless superorganisms are part of the mix, a take-me-to-your-leader scenario simply doesn't compute. And the inter-species communication conundrum got even more puzzling recently after spending a little time with a provocative New Yorker magazine article, “The Intelligent Plant.” This one makes our as-yet-unsuccessful two-way conversations with dolphins look like a walk in the park.
Botanists are bitterly divided over the term “plant neurobiology,” which at least one source describes as “sophisticated behaviors observed in plants [that] cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms.” In that vacuum, one might confer intelligence onto the mystery. But given how plants show no evidence of neurons, brains or central nervous systems, the bias against the concept of intelligent flora is ostensibly well founded.
However, a small but growing community of botanists is making the case for plant intelligence resembling swarm behavior in (gulp) ant colonies. Employing electrical and chemical signaling, equipped with between 15 and 20 senses, exhibiting stress behaviors and inviting suggestions of echolocation without a central command center, plants — sedentary and nonambulatory though they are — may also be alerting researchers to the limitations of “cerebrocentric” intelligence. In fact, the data is already inspiring theoretical computer modeling based on “the distributed computing performed by thousands of roots processing a vast number of environmental variables.” One of these project collaborators is Italian plant physiologist Stefano Mancuso, who has worked with the European Space Agency on plant behavior in extreme environments and managed to get some experiments aboard a space shuttle mission in 2011.
Mancuso told the New Yorker that a fuller comprehension of plants “would be like being in contact with an alien culture. But we could have all the advantages of that contact without any of the problems — because it doesn’t want to destroy us.”
Maybe not. But forget domination and conquest; a simpler question is, how does one even begin to interpret torrents of information from a superorganism whose interactions with its environment in no way reflects our own? Plants may work off a completely different time dimension from ours, they may appear static, but as this time-lapse video indicates, they are plenty capable of active, intentional behaviors. Plants may be glacially slow, but as writer Michael Pollan points out, they dominate our planet with 99 percent of Earth’s biomass. There’s a reason for that - and perhaps, as well, a cautionary note about attempting to extrapolate the motives of UFOs from our own limited experiences.
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