Sublime Mold

Does Intelligence Always Reside in the Brain? Maybe Not!

Before wading into a controversial concept, intelligence without brains, let me briefly summarize Deprograms 21 through 23, on animal intelligence.

Salvo 21: There is no clearly demarcated tree of intelligence by which chimpanzees, as primates, are in all respects more intelligent than lower mammals, like dogs. (In some tests, chimps are no smarter than birds and less so than dogs.) Salvo 22: Nor is it true that all mammals are smarter than all birds and reptiles. (Clever birds use different brain areas than mammals for the same functions. And some reptiles display mammal-like intelligence.) Salvo 23: It isn't even true that invertebrates are necessarily less intelligent than vertebrates. (Some cephalopods are very clever.) Unfortunately, not much research has been done to discover how or why some species of an animal order or phylum develop much more intelligence than others.

A confounding factor is that humans are more intelligent by many orders of magnitude. Including us in the picture, on the theory that humans are simply evolved animals, leads to useless projects like suggesting that apes might have police1 or that elephants originate art.2 The theory requires that human qualities must exist in a less developed form in other species.

But even a naturalist atheist could question that assumption, if he chose. In a universe that itself has a beginning and a predicted end, and on an earth that now hosts life but once did not, some qualities can be genuinely new. So let us set humans aside and continue to look at signs of intelligence in other creatures on their own terms.

Slime Mold: The Brainless Wonder

Apparent intelligence can exist without a brain. Consider Dictyostelium discoides, one of the 900 species known as slime mold. Don't let the disgusting name deter you; the example is informative. Faced with a food shortage, thousands of brainless, one-celled amoebas living underground hurry to form a single blob. The blob lengthens to about 1/25 of an inch (or one millimeter) and resembles a tiny slug. Then the "slug" crawls toward light, like a worm, and thus arrives at the soil surface.

Different amoebas play different roles inside the blob/slug. Some enable it to move. One percent behave like police: they crawl around looking for infectious bacteria. If they find one, they ingest it and leave the blob. They die, but the slug survives.

Once above ground, the slug reorganizes itself into something more like a fungus. Some of the amoebas form a stiff stalk, while others make their way to the top and become a sticky ball. They then attach the whole slime mold to an animal's foot. Having secured a means of transportation, they drop off where a food source is found. Then they all disperse as one-celled creatures again.3

Humans have hardly organized themselves better during a food crisis than these agglomerates do. Some slime mold species duplicate the effects of sophisticated intelligence. Recently, a Canadian researcher, using a map of Canada and some cereal,

demonstrated that slime mold is fantastically efficient at finding the quickest route to food. When he placed rolled oats over the country's population centers [on the map] and a slime mold culture over Toronto, the organism grew its way across the Canadian map, sprouting tentacles that mimicked the Canadian highway system. It's an experiment that's been replicated globally several times now—in Japan, the UK, and the United States—all with a similar outcome.4

No Light from Darwinism

Does the brainless mold demonstrate intelligent design? Hard to say, because researchers must forget the Darwinian controversies in order to even think clearly about the subject. And there are career penalties for that.

Darwin's followers argue that natural selection acts on random mutations in an individual, resulting in the survival of the fittest. But the slime mold is not really an individual, and the members who sacrifice themselves for the blob gain nothing. Also, the "random" mutations would have to have occurred in huge numbers of amoebas at once, in order to generate such complex behavior. Today, Darwinism sheds no light on nature; it merely offers far-fetched interpretations consistent with its dogma.

Some wonder whether information theory sheds any light on intelligence. The Canadian slime mold researcher, computer scientist Selim Akl, argues, for example, that "nature computes."5 If so, there is an intelligence in nature that need not reside in individual life forms—whether or not we call it an intelligent designer. •

1. Claudia Rudolf von Rohr, et al., "Impartial Third-Party Interventions in Captive Chimpanzees: A Reflection of Community Concern," PLoS One (Mar. 7, 2012):
2. Denyse O'Leary, "Animal minds: Art produced by animals: Is it art?", Mindful Hack (Apr. 20, 2008):
3. Carl Zimmer, "Can Answers to Evolution Be Found in Slime?" New York Times (Oct. 3, 2011):
4. Rebecca Jacobson, "Slime Molds: No Brains, No Feet, No Problem," PBS Newshour (Apr. 5, 2012): A YouTube video is available here:
5. "Slime Mold Mimics Canadian Highway Network," ScienceDaily (Mar. 26, 2012):

From Salvo 24 (Spring 2013)
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is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #24, Spring 2013 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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