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Intelligence in Nature

Intelligence in Nature

An Inquiry into Knowledge

by Jeremy Narby, PhD

  • Reviewed by Christian de Quincey, PhD on Sept. 1, 2005

    The question is simple and crucial: Does nature have a mind of its own? Do other animals, or even plants, tingle with experience and possess something akin to what we understand as “intelligence”?

    For many years, I have made a case for “intelligence in nature”—the title of a new book from anthropologist Jeremy Narby. In fact, I have gone further than most, declaring that “consciousness goes all the way down,” not only throughout the animal and plant kingdoms but beyond, even to single cells, molecules, and atoms. Otherwise, we have no way of explaining how on earth we are conscious beings. So, I say yes, nature teems with consciousness—with intelligence.

    But just what is intelligence? Or, for that matter, what is “nature”?

    We tend to think of nature as the world of animals and plants, along with the inorganic environment of minerals, water, air, and sunlight. If it’s untouched by “human hand,” we say it’s “natural.” Of course, this immediately raises the question of human nature. We, too, are part of the natural world, and so in a very real sense the distinction between “nature” and “humans” is arbitrary and artificial. Narby quotes the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of nature as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, and the landscape, as opposed to humans or human creations.” In other words, “nature” is defined in opposition to humans.

    This involves a curious paradox: Narby cites fellow anthropologist Tim Ingold, who points out that the very idea of “nature” arises only for beings who believe or feel they don’t belong there. Indigenous peoples don’t have a concept of nature as something distinct from humans. Nature, as an idea, implies a disengagement from the world—and the possibility of disengagement requires the capacity we call “intelligence.” This possibility is the hallmark of what it means to be “human,” and therefore, according to this logic, only humans possess intelligence. As Narby points out, quoting Ingold: “We are out of nature to the extent that we are persons with minds.”

    If you feel, as I do, that this kind of reasoning is circular and self-serving, I think you are responding to a deep intuition that there is something pathological about the notion of human “specialness”—when we lost our sense of being deeply related to the rest of the world.

    Note also that the dictionary definition of nature refers to the physical world—implying that anything nonphysical, such as consciousness or intelligence, is therefore not natural. Hence the pervasive assumption in modern Western culture that nature (without nervous systems and brains) lacks intrinsic intelligence. According to this view, Nature does not have a mind of its own. And so people like Narby, David Abram, and yours truly feel we need to make a case for juxtaposing the two ideas of “intelligence” and “nature.”

    Now what do we mean by intelligence? This is a major question for Narby, and his book is really a story of visits to scientists and shamans around the world, hunting for nonhuman intelligence in species as diverse as parrots, bees, butterflies, snails, Venus flytraps, parasitic dodder plants, and slime molds.

    Narby’s greatest challenge is deciding just what intelligence is. He explores different notions picked up from scientists he interviews. For example, intelligence is “adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual”; or it’s “unconscious information processing”; or an “ability to compute and make decisions.” He recognizes that all definitions of intelligence come up short, and in the end he opts for a term he picked up from a Japanese biologist: chi-sei. It means, loosely, something like “knowingness” or an ability to recognize; it’s what Japanese use to translate the English word “intelligence”—and it implies a property intrinsic to all nature.

    At the end of his travels, Narby is relieved to discover that the idea of some kind of native intelligence active throughout nature is gaining support within the scientific community—

    affirming an insight shared by shamans and indigenous peoples long before modern humans used our “intelligence” to disengage from the rest of the natural world. Perhaps modern “civilized” intelligence is not so “intelligent” after all?

    Review published in Shift magazine

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