by Robert Wolfe on October 13th, 2015
We might say that the rose exhibits a form of intelligence when it produces thorns in order to repel a predator, at the same time that it produces fragrant flowers to attract a pollinator (or even a propagator). Or when a dog (such as one in Arizona) carries his entrapped master’s hat to a neighbor to indicate the need for emergency help. And a snow monkey (in Japan) has been known to separate wheat grains from sand by dropping a handful of the mixture into water so that the sand would sink. Whales have laboriously dined on plankton, until they learned to eat the (larger) krill who more easily dine on the plankton. An octopus may make use of a jellyfish’s stinging tentacle in order to stun and capture edible shrimp—or even to ward off the attack of a predator. And a mouse was reportedly seen running up a tree, where a five-foot snake was absconding with a squeaking female mouse in its jaws; the mighty mouse bit the snake’s tail until his mate was released, then both mice fled. Goldfish have been taught (at Harvard) to operate a simple valve—with a push of the body—to stabilize their tank’s water temperature.
A hatchery-raised year-old salmon was deposited, miles away, in a stream via which he, and others, migrated eventually to the ocean. A year later, at spawning time, he returned up the stream, transited a highway culvert, entered the hatchery’s storm sewer, and wriggled up a four-inch drainpipe—negotiating 90 degree elbows—where he knocked off a wire cap and leaped a screen around the drain—to return to his home tank.
There is an account of a (one-celled) amoeba which surrounded and engulfed a smaller amoeba; but before the big one could digest the little one, the little one broke out of captivity. The big amoeba had to reverse its course of movement in order to pursue the escapee, but caught it and swallowed it again. But once again, the prospective meal broke out, and swiftly (about three minutes, for an amoeba) moved away—then the big amoeba declined pursuit.
When young, a flatfish swims upright, with an eye on each side of its head. But mature, the fish constantly rests on the ocean floor on one of its sides. The eye on the fish’s recumbent side (a report states) “begins a curious creeping migration up and around the ridge of the head (or—in some species—through it), until in a few weeks it arrives on the upper side—not only regaining, but actually improving on, its juvenile binocular conjunction.”
Garden-variety slugs have been kept in a laboratory where temperature, humidity and light were held constant—yet they knew when the period around August 1st had arrived, because that’s when each year they laid their eggs.
According to one book, “a leading geneticist has calculated that if we were to translate the coded messages of a single human cell into English, they would fill a thousand-volume library.”
In a laboratory, a lizard was decapitated, while another lizard was cut in half; the top half of the second lizard was grafted onto the headless body of the first lizard, forming a lizard with six legs—which soon learned to coordinate all limbs and to run like a six-legged insect.
Intelligence in the natural world is also reflected in how species interact with each other, such as the flowers which attract bees. Just weeks before the female bee of the Andrena genus matures, the Ophyra orchid flower mimics her entire appearance—easily attracting the active male Andrena bees.
The mimosa (of the pea family) sensitively protects its foliage from browsing cattle. Within a tenth of a second of being touched, the fern-like leaf stalk curls up and withdraws (which is faster than a snail can similarly respond).
As elusive in its own way is the butterfly, which folds its wings in precise alignment with the sun, so that no shadow is present. And the stripe-eyed butterfly fish has a stripe which camouflages its real eyes, while on each side, near its tail, is a simulated eye. Coupled with its practice of slowly swimming backward, it is actually watching any predator that might hope to sneak up on it.
A white-and-black Malaysian spider displays himself on a leaf, mimicking a bird dropping—complete with an ammonia-like scent. While birds pass him by, flies flock to him.
And there are moths which “not only dodge the bats but emit counter-sonar ultrasonic signals to confuse them when they get close,” effectively jamming the bats’ sonar (a measured eighty-five percent of the time).
Discovering a nectar source, a bee communicates the location to her colleagues by doing a figure-eight dance inside of the hive, one “step” of which indicates direction, another step indicating distance. Part of her choreographed message is audible, in the key of B (yes, “bee”), by revving her wings 250 times per second. If the destination is quite near, the dance is round. Italian bees have added a sickle shape to indicate middle distance (30’-120’), and their round dance always means less than 30 feet. To an Austrian bee, the round dance can mean up to 500 feet. To Indian bees, the figure eight means 10’-12’. Bees also similarly report on suggested new locations for a hive, stressing its suitability by the number of times they repeat the figure.
It has been estimated, as we consider a further aspect of intelligence, that every atom in the human body is replaced possibly once every five years; yet this is normally done in such a (natural) way that the body’s basic matrix or pattern remains undisturbed—including such patterns as one’s memory.
The extent to which molecular matter retains potential information is not entirely known. North of the equator, standing water whirls down a tub drain counterclockwise, but clockwise south of the equator. But if a tub faucet is angled so that water filling a tub has even the slightest rotary circulation (and the water is then undisturbed) as long as four days afterward the standing water will whirl down the drain in that same pre-established direction.
A planarian is a flat, half-inch worm which can be severed into a half dozen pieces, yet each piece will re-grow its original form—including a central nervous system. Given this dispersion of information in its bodily cells, here was the experiment: a bunch of these worms were trained to a simple but distinctive stimulus–response, until they had apparently remembered it; they were then cut up into hundreds of small segments, and fed to untrained worms. Yet the untrained worms reacted to the stimulus as if they remembered (re-membered?) the conditioned response.
In a different experiment, eggs of species of night-flying, migratory birds were individually hatched in isolated boxes, and the chicks were raised to maturity without even seeing the sky or another bird. At migration time, each was put into a planetarium where it was exposed to the star positions of the current night sky. Each species aligned its body and attempted to fly away in the correct compass direction for their traditional destination. When the sky map was rearranged to look as it would stand above, say, Siberia, Germany or America, the birds made the appropriate correction in their flight direction, in order still to arrive at that same destination.
The human body contains possibly a hundred billion neurons (nerve cells), such as those in the brain, which emit electrochemical pulses: “each of them is a sophisticated living computer capable of evaluating not only thousands of competing signals per second, but—in the same interval—making decisions in response to them all….each cell can send and receive messages from hundreds of other cells at once.
“…animal experiments at the University of California have revealed nerve cells that can actually count, doing so by holding back the discharge of their electrochemical signals until an exact number of clicks has been sounded.”
The sponge is a sea animal which happens to remain in one place, somewhat like a plant. It may begin its life as a single, free-moving cell, or as an agglomeration of countless such cells. If you were to take two sponges of different species and colors (as has been done) and press each through a fine mesh—breaking up its perhaps millions of cells—and then mix the two masses together in a container, these cells will in a few days regroup themselves again into two separate, but whole, sponges of their species and color.
Reportedly, brain tissue grown in a test tube will spontaneously generate its usual bioelectric current. Brain cells, from an unborn mouse, that have been isolated will, when reintroduced, reassemble themselves so as to be indistinguishable from the original brain.
The nature of intelligence is not always benign. Millions of representatives of millions earthly species, as Guy Murchie has said, are contesting their particular expression of intelligence “no holds barred, no trick untried, without any mention of rules, bounds, ages, sexes, morals or time limits whatever.” Some species will, given the chance, feed on other species until, first, the prey and then, second, the predator will become extinct. Most species, though, do not take more than is needed to sustain life for the moment. Near the turn of the century, moose appeared on an island in Lake Superior, followed about forty years later by wolves who were able to cross the ice. The moose were like fish in a barrel, for the wolves; but to this day there is a steadily-maintained balance of approximately thirty moose per wolf.
One species (man) has apparently brought another species (the European bison) back from extinction, by carefully crossbreeding existent wild cattle that have similar, dormant traits.
The (color-banded) male parent of a nest of newly-hatched sparrows acquired a new mate, when the chicks’ mother had suddenly died; and she adopted the motherly role. Within a week, the male sparrow too was killed, and the step-mother located another male to replace the second natural parent. The chicks were raised to maturity by this surrogate pair. Nonetheless, birds have been known to leave their late-hatched brood behind to starve, when the appointed time arrives to migrate south. And the marsupial cat has only six nipples, but may give birth to four times as many sucklings that would like to be fed.
Nature has imparted a ravenous appetite to the tiny, mouse-like shrew. Isolated without food for several hours, one has been observed to avoid starvation so insistently that he began with his tail and ate progressively into his body until death finally subdued his instinct.
On the other (even?) hand of nature, there is fusion. A normal, functioning amoeba (it would have been able to propagate in the usual way) was created in the laboratory by splicing together—each from three donor amoebas—the membrane, the cytoplasm and the nucleus.
Cultured in a medium (at NYU Medical School), cells of a mouse were hybridized with those of a human, and for six months “colonies of man-mouse cells grew successfully through more than one hundred generations” of cell proliferation.
It was not until 1665 that cells (in cork) were first distinguished, and 1839 that cells were understood to be the basic unit of life; in 1859, it was learned that cells reproduce by division. Now we estimate that there are 50 trillion cells in the human body, and if all of the DNA in one human were connected together like thread, there could be enough to stretch to the moon and back possibly 100,000 times!
Now we have this poem:
Darkly the peaceful trees crashed
In the serene sun
While the heart heard
The swift moon stopped silently.
—Written by IBM 709, a computer
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