Organic Wisdom

By Simon G. Powell

If one opens up a modern computer, the tangle of wires, chips and circuits inside are incontrovertible evidence that the system was brought into being by the action of intelligence. Indeed, the exact configuration of parts, their systematic organisation and embodied functionality reflect human ingenuity in its most advanced form. There can be little doubt of this especially with the advent of smaller and faster computers as well as their networking into powerful parallel architectures. Its seems nothing can stop this creative outpouring of intelligent design.

All this technological wile and engineering finesse is made possible by the human brain/mind complex. The reason for the term ‘brain/mind complex’ is because the human mind – the domain in which human intelligence arises – is intimately linked to the human brain. In particular the most recently evolved outer layer of the brain called the neo-cortex is thought to be bound up with our conscious intelligence. Although a naked human brain may look pretty dull in comparison to the inner parts of a computer system, a brain is in actuality far more complex in design. Instead of wires, microchips and silicon circuits, the human brain consists of many billions of living metabolising brain cells, each cell an exquisite manifestation of co-ordinated and well executed biological engineering that makes use of electricity (in this case electrochemically derived) just as machines use electricity. En masse, huge arrays of electrochemical neurons compose ‘wet’ polyneuronal circuitry which endows the brain with prodigious powers of computation (thinking, sensing and feeling) which leave silicon computer systems in the dark.
In short, the human brain is in an altogether different design league than are computers. It is far more advanced. And yet modern science denies that the brain has been intelligently designed. So whereas science accords computers and other machines with intelligent design, natural biological creations like organisms and organs (such as brains) are deemed to have arisen according to a non-intelligent process. We call this process evolution. The perplexing mystery is why we do not divine intelligence in the evolutionary process. Why does contemporary science insist that evolution is dumb and mindless when evolution has forged the most advanced ‘machines’ – i.e. brains and organisms – in the known Universe?

Artificial Intelligence and Natural Intelligence

To argue that the evolutionary process is an intelligent process is not to call into question Darwin’s original insights so lucidly spelled out in his Origin of Species but to reinterpret what the process of evolution represents.
In order to commence this reinterpretation we first need to understand exactly what intelligence is. How are we to define intelligence? Whilst there are many ways of defining intelligence, all involve learning in some form or another. For instance, scientists from a discipline like Artificial Intelligence will readily attest that intelligence involves learning, that the more a system – like a computer-controlled robot for example – can learn, then the more intelligent it is. Facilitate learning and you facilitate the development of intelligence and intelligent behaviour. Increase a robot’s learning capacity and you concurrently increase its (artificial) intelligence and its capacity to behave intelligently. If, for example, we compare the robots of 40 years ago with the robots of today, then we shall see that the principle reasons why today’s Artificial Intelligence robots are considered smarter than their predecessors is because of their improved capacity to learn. Take the Mars Rover vehicle that was employed by NASA during their 1997 Pathfinder Mission to Mars. This Rover was an advanced expression of Artificial Intelligence because it could learn about the Martian landscape in its vicinity so as to afford it effective locomotion. In other words, the Rover’s computational circuitry was able to learn and make sense of the Martian world thereby allowing the Rover to act in a sensible manner in a wholly novel terrain. The more sense a robot can make and the more it can learn, the smarter or more intelligent it is deemed to be. In short, learning and intelligence are indubitably bound together.
Now, if we concede that learning and making sense are the key hallmarks of intelligence then we must also concede that evolution is a form of intelligence since evolution is precisely a learning process. Over some 3 and half billion years, evolution has learned all the tricks of life – from metabolism, to visual perception, to photosynthesis. Every single feature of an organism is a manifest expression, or enduring record, of (natural) intelligence, written down in replicating DNA and expressed via bio-logic. So rich is the store of intelligence infusing the tree of life that we have copied numerous instances of it for our own benefit. We build aircraft whose airfoils were originally derived from bird wings. We make epoxy glues copied from the glues made by barnacles. We make photon sensitive solar panels in an attempt to mimic photosynthesis. And so on. In short, life is replete with wisdom accrued over millions of years and written down in enduring DNA, DNA and genes representing the established records of this organic wisdom much like Darwin’s notebooks contain the records of his intelligence as it unfolded over time.

Genetic Algorithms

It might be argued that this intelligence evinced by biological evolution over billions of years only seems like intelligence and that if we look more closely then evolution more closely corresponds to a form of ‘brute learning’ and not the kind of intelligent learning with which we are familiar. After all, since evolution depends, in part, on random changes in DNA then it seems to be rather ‘hit and miss’ since most changes in DNA will be harmful. How could such a hit and miss affair really be intelligent? Surely this is a brute force approach to learning and thus not indicative of intelligence at all?
To answer this criticism consider genetic algorithms. These are computer programs which simulate evolution inside a computer. They are used to quite literally breed solutions to complex problems. For instance, if you wanted to create an effective face recognition program that could differentiate between male and female faces, you could evolve it via an appropriate genetic algorithm. You take an initial population of candidate programs (which can recognise faces to a very primitive degree), measure how well each one does at differentiating between male and female faces, and then breed from the most successful one. This ‘breeding’ involves taking the more successful programs and replicating their underlying code – but with random changes. You then test the offspring population and then once again take the most successful one and breed from it. Repeat millions of times on a fast computer. What is the result? Well, the result is inevitable – namely that you eventually evolve a program with a maximised ability to differentiate between male and female faces.
Now, the question to ask is: do such genetic algorithms evince intelligence? Or are they simply demonstrating the action of brute non-intelligent learning? The answer which emerges when we look with ‘wide angle lenses’ is that such genetic algorithms are most definitely infused with intelligence. Firstly a genetic algorithm must be precisely configured in advance. This is done by shrewd software authors who have learned how to write the actual algorithms (an algorithm is basically a software program). Secondly, the computer hardware which runs the software algorithm must also be precisely configured in advance (i.e. designed and built). Viewed as a systemised totality including hardware, software and designers, a genetic algorithm running on a computer has (human) intelligence written all over it, in every circuit, chip and line of computer code. It might be a kind of exhaustive search approach to learning but it is a sure-fire way of being successful for impressive results are guaranteed. Indeed, this is why genetic algorithms are now used worldwide in industry and it also explains why the tree of life is so amazing. Once you have a configured system – i.e. Nature with its plastically linguistic DNA embedded in an environment infused with sensible law-abiding properties – and you ‘run it’ over time then, eventually, fantastic creations are wrought. If we focus on but one part of the system – like a random change in DNA or, in the case of a genetic algorithm, a random change in computer code – then we will not really see the intelligence involved. But if we expand our focus and view Nature as a total system then, like a computer system running a genetic algorithm, it is rife with the attributes of intelligence. In Nature, this intelligence comes to be overtly reflected through the evolutionary process in the same way that human intelligence is overtly reflected in the activity and final outcome of a genetic algorithm.
Consider the following which illustrates the intelligent learning process that typically constitutes evolution. It concerns the evolution of flight:
«It is usually thought that animals attained flight step by step from some primitive semblance of flying. Flying squirrels come to mind. Utilising taught wing-like flaps of membrane, a flying squirrel with outstretched legs can effectively glide from tree to tree. Moving our attention to the evolution of flight by birds, if we imagine that a linear evolutionary sequence of, say, 50 ancestral bird-type species (i.e. reptiles, or even dinosaurs) were involved in the evolution of proper full-blown flight, each successive species will obviously be more physically adept at flight. Each of the 50 successive species therefore embodies one closer step towards the realisation of refined flight. The entire sequential process can be seen as a learning process. Species quite literally learn to fly over time. Bio-logic learns the mathematical and engineering wisdom necessary to implement the precise muscle structure, muscle co-ordination and wing design required to achieve heavier-than-air flight. In more dramatic terms, one can say that avian wing structure and musculature clearly embody an acute ‘understanding’ of aerodynamics. If, however, you only concentrate your attention on but one species in this sequence of 50, you will not divine the learning. But if you focus on the entire process, the sequential progression, a natural but nonetheless intelligent learning process becomes apparent. To be sure, all evolutionary innovations can be viewed in the same way, whether we think of locomotion, sight, metabolism or any other biologically determined behaviour. In every case, a natural process of learning (and ‘understanding’) is synonymous with evolution.»

The Implications

So what does all this mean? Well, for starters it means that evolution can indeed be seen as an intelligent process, with so-called random variations of DNA being but individual events within a greater system which, in its totality, is patently not random but the very epitome of intelligent design. Which is to say that Nature, considered as a vast organised system, is precisely configured so as to foster creative processes – in the same way that a computer system running a genetic algorithm is precisely configured so as to foster creative processes. Whereas a genetic algorithm running on a computer system is replete with human intelligence, Nature is replete with natural intelligence, the evolution of the tree of life being an on-going manifest expression of this intelligence. Darwin’s groundbreaking legacy therefore resides in his discovery of the methodology of Nature’s creative intelligence.
According to this new paradigm, modern scientific teachings pertaining to evolution are totally misguided. Evolution is not some dumb mindless phenomenon but rather an on-going process of creative intelligence. Thus human intelligence is not the ‘highest’ form of intelligence that we know of for human intelligence stems from the human brain which itself stems from evolution – an eminently intelligent process that weaves more miracles than any human engineer. No-one can deny this. That many seemingly intelligent people do deny the intelligence of evolution reveals how alienated we have become from the natural intelligence which birthed us. It is high time we rediscovered the true glory of the natural world in which we live. Until we do this, until we reconnect with the immense wisdom within Nature, until we concede that we are not as smart as the system which created us, then we shall remain estranged from our roots and continue to suffer the consequences.

Simon G. Powell, author and musician, lives and works in London. His article is an extract from his unpublished manuscript «Natural Intelligence: Lessons from the Jesus Lizard.» His recent production is «Sacred Ground • Psilocybin Mushrooms and the Rebirth of Nature,» a 48 page booklet packaged with a 55 minute documentary film and music on CD-ROM, exploring the history and eco-psychological importance of psilocybin.

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