I am thinking today of the wonders that exist all around us and that usually either don’t get our attention, or are not available until someone points them out. The fact that we even exist is, of course, the first one. How does it happen that in a universe unimaginably large and cold, and with objects—whatever they are—so far apart that most cannot even be perceived without special equipment (not to mention the wholly imperceptible ‘dark matter’ that makes up most of the universe), how on an undistinguished rock 93 million miles from its parent star, does matter suddenly take on attributes that allow it to reproduce itself, and eventually, move where it wishes, direct its intelligence to solving problems, and produce theories about what it is, why it is here, and where it comes from? For that matter, how does it happen that there is matter in the first place? No one knows. And yet we are here, we are alive, we have minds that can ask such questions, and we take most of it for granted. We shouldn’t.
At the other extreme, we humans tend to have an exaggerated opinion of ourselves compared to other life forms. We shouldn’t do that either. We shouldn’t imagine, that is, that we’re somehow so exalted that we have no contact or common investment with other life forms, or anything in common with them either. Because even the humblest of the manifestations of what we call life, especially animal life, exhibit commonalities with us that are wonders both in themselves and in the intelligence they display. Consider slime molds. Molds and slime are normally things we consider with revulsion. In fact, the colloquial name of one species is “dog vomit slime mold,” because that’s exactly what it looks like. But these little buggers are truly amazing, both in their ability to “think,” and in their causal transformations. According to Robert Burton in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (2013), the individual cells in a slime mold communicate through release of a chemical called adenosine monophosphate (AMP). These cells live conventional lives when there’s enough food around. But when food gets scarce, the individuals (I’m not sure we can think of them as ‘individuals’ in our sense, but that’s what Burton calls them) gather together with their relatives and form giant amoeba-like aggregations that conform to our usual image of slime molds. More important, they become incredibly efficient at finding food. This ability has been tested in the laboratory and the tests show that slime molds can find their way through complex mazes to reach food. They do it by sending out networks of tube-like legs, each of which explores alternate routes until it finds the best path to the favored food. Then all consolidates into a single blob, which takes the shortest route to the food. The experimenters used oat flakes (one of this slime mold’s favorites) placed on a map of England to attract the slime molds, with the starting oat flake placed where London would be. What the experimenters found, to their astonishment, was that the solution to finding other oat flakes (placed where different cities would be) exactly duplicated the British intercity network of highways. In other words, this “mindless” creature, using pseudopodia (the tube-like legs acting as scouts) to feel its way towards food, duplicated the same routes that had required trained highway engineers long years to figure out. Japanese researchers found the same thing, this time with the slime molds exactly duplicating intercity rail routes from Tokyo. Now, I know what you’re thinking: given the stupidities evinced by highway engineers in recent years, especially in setting up the San Francisco Bay Area’s highway routes after the 1989 earthquake, it’s no wonder slime molds can do as well or better. But the wonder still stands: nature has somehow equipped one of its humblest and apparently simplest creatures with the kind of intelligence that we might have thought was limited only to us, or at least to mammals more or less like us in having a brain. Nothing of the kind. Intelligence seems to be a feature of nature at its simplest levels.
Here’s another example Burton provides. Locusts are familiar to most of us from the bible stories about “plagues of locusts” that overwhelmed ancient communities when they swarmed and ate everything in sight. But the precursors to locust swarming remind us of that same intelligence seen in slime molds. Like slime molds, individual locusts are normally solitary creatures—when the supply of food is sufficient for them. But when droughts occur, locusts begin to crowd together, usually in areas that still have some vegetation. It is this close contact from crowding that triggers remarkable changes in locusts. They begin marching together, seeking always to increase their numbers, and soon they are eating everything in sight, including each other. How does this happen? Australian researchers found what appears to be the tipping point. At densities of around thirty individuals, amazing physiological changes take place: the locusts change color, from brown to yellow-and-black. More “Hulk-like,” their leg muscles enlarge and seem to automatically begin marching movements. Their brains increase in size by some thirty percent, and reorganize, with areas normally devoted to visual processing for solitary food-finding minimized, and areas providing higher-level visual processing for group foraging growing larger. All these changes, in turn, were found by the researchers to be the product of rubbing each other’s hind-leg leg hairs (itself the product of the greater density of individuals). This rubbing of leg hairs triggers an outpouring of the neurochemical serotonin, which is known to regulate moods such as anger, aggression, and appetite. And voila, nature’s solution to drought for locusts is an aggregation impulse that leads them to become the fearsome consumers of everything in sight needed for their survival.
One other wonder, though this one’s from the dark side. As noted in the recent Frontline Documentary, Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, some 2 million people get antibiotic resistant infections each year, many from the very hospitals where they go to get treated. Some are particularly hair-raising, such as the one that infected a pre-teen girl with something that started with strange sores and would not respond to any treatment. The infection finally got to her lungs, and, with no antibiotics to treat it, she had to have a lung replacement to save her life. The infection is still not gone, and her chances are only so-so, her life by now having been turned upside down. A young man got a similar resistant infection on his leg, and finally had to have the leg amputated. Again, the infection is still there. What is happening is that bacteria, one of the oldest and most ubiquitous life forms on this planet, are evolving resistance faster than we can create new antibiotics to fight them. Part of the problem, of course, is overuse of the antibiotics we have had, not just in fighting human infections, but also in our farm animals: their keepers does them with large quantities of antibiotics to keep them alive in the horrific conditions they’re raised in. Some researchers say that we are entering a new age—rapidly reverting to the time when we had no antibiotics at all. And the worst part is that drug companies have pretty much given up on costly research to find new antibiotics because these drugs get used only once for a few days; what they like to develop are drugs for heart disease—that have to be used for a lifetime. More profit, you know. But aside from the ignorance in entrusting our health to profit-making corporations, what we have to take note of is the amazing intelligence at work in our sometime adversaries, the bacteria. They have not only evolved new genes to protect them against our antibiotics, but have even learned how to pass the resistant genes on to other bacteria! The result is that more and more infectious bacterial species are becoming resistant to our increasingly vain efforts to control them.
I don’t know about you, but thinking about the subtle mechanisms at work in our fellow creatures—all without primate brains, or writing, or labs or computers—simply leaves me wonder-struck. It makes me want to bow before the inconceivable wonder we’re all engaged in, but also to wonder how anyone could, as billions of us now do, dismiss with such arrogance all other wonders besides our own. And it reminds me that though we may, through our arrogance and ignorance, finally do ourselves in via global warming or chemical poisoning or nuclear armaggedon, we won’t do in nature or our planet. It will go on, merrily giving birth to new and better adaptations that in some future eon may come up with a little wiser, humbler, and even happier organism than Homo sapiens sapiens.