On Microbial Intelligence: A Tribute to Eshel Ben Jacob - Episode 2

אשל בן-יעקב Born April 13, 1952 (Haifa, Israel )– Died June 5, 2015 (aged 63)
On Microbial Intelligence: A Tribute to Eshel Ben Jacob - Episode 2

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Episode 2

If you have missed the first Episode you can find it here: Episode 1

 Lincoln, UK

What constitutes intelligence?

A few days after returning from Israel, I found myself on the couch with a scotch in hand and a lit Cohiba, in honor of Eshel ben Jacob. As the smoke and buzz enveloped my mind, my thoughts shifted from personal reminiscences to a broader contemplation on the nature of intelligence. I found it fascinating how we intuitively assess someone’s intelligence yet struggle to agree on a formal definition. We often declare someone smart, simply through a seemingly instinctive evaluation, sometimes based on just a brief interaction with a person. But how can we tell? Typically, achievements and success are major benchmarks. For instance, everyone would agree that Einstein was a genius, whereas Mr. Bean is considered a simpleton or an idiot, though not the man behind the character, Rowan Atkinson. Eshel himself was regarded as very smart, having served as a Major in Navy Intelligence before transitioning to academia at Tel Aviv University.

As you may have noticed, here I interchangeably used the word smart, as intelligent (if you haven’t, then read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). In English, we have numerous words to describe cognitive abilities - clever, bright, astute, gifted, sharp, quick-witted, among others. Each term encapsulates specific facets of intelligence, suggesting that it is not a singular concept but a spectrum of capabilities. This linguistic diversity reflects the nuanced nature of human intellect, which includes not just problem-solving and reasoning but also emotional and social intelligence.

The ongoing debate about whether Neanderthals could use modern speech like humans underscores the significance of language as a medium and expression of cognitive complexity. Until recently, it was posited that Neanderthals supposed inferior language skills contributed to their extinction, a theory now viewed as unlikely but still emphasizing the critical role of communication and language in evolution. I will specifically develop this point of communication in the next episode and how it relates to Bacterial Social Intelligence as presented by Eshel Ben Jacob.

Vitruvian Man - Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci  (Wikipedia)

What we call “Intelligence” encompasses cognitive abilities such as self-awareness, problem-solving, reasoning, abstraction, comprehension, learning, planning, creativity, and emotional intelligence, etc. More generally, it could be defined as the perception, processing, and inference of information, which should be retained through learning and applied adaptively.

As we consider intelligence across different species, it becomes clear that this trait is not exclusive to humans. Scientists and animal lovers alike recognize the intelligence of various species, from dogs and dolphins to less beloved creatures like rats, which despite their reputation in cities like New York or Paris, display formidable problem-solving abilities. This observation pushes us to consider intelligence as a continuum, rather than a human specific trait, that even microbes might inhabit.

I think what really makes it for us difficult to acknowledge intelligence in other animals is consciousness. In a recent interview, Yuval Noah Harari, differentiated intelligence and consciousness. These two concepts are deeply interrelated, at the same time we can clearly separate them. The easy way to think about it is the example of Artificial Intelligence (AI). There is no question indeed about whether a modern AI prompt using Large Language Models (LLMs) for instance is intelligent or not. We accept that these models are intelligent because we created them, and we created them in our own image to mimic our cognitive capacities, like complex problem solving, calculus, use of complex and structed language, etc. Capacities that we struggle to see in non-humans. While animals cannot write essays, they can effectively communicate with each other, solve complex problems like ravens or crows and do much more. Therefore, if we can separate consciousness from intelligence, there should be no question that intelligence is not a quality that is specific to humans.

Curiously, when evaluating dolphin or primate intelligence for instance, the criteria include tests of self-awareness, akin to assessing a chimpanzee's intelligence against that of a three-year-old child—an analogy I find inappropriate and somehow arrogant towards both children and animals. Observing chimpanzee or bonobo societies reveals complex, hierarchical structures involving life and death decision making. We view the world through a lens that prioritizes our species' survival and interests. While understandable, this anthropocentric method of assessing intelligence underscores our self-centered perspective and the long way to go before we recognize the full extent of animals’ intelligence. Perhaps, we will destroy everything before that can happen.

Humans have made significant strides in understanding intelligence. The term "intelligence" is often linked to the controversial Intellectual Quotient (IQ), introduced in the early 20th century. The term "IQ" was coined by German psychologist William Stern in 1912. He developed a method to score intelligence test results by dividing a person's mental age, obtained through the test, by their chronological age and then multiplying this number by 100 to derive the IQ score. The idea of human IQ, however, dates back to French psychologist Alfred Binet and his colleague Théodore Simon, who initially developed the Binet-Simon Scale to identify schoolchildren in need of special education services.

The IQ was then introduced to the United States largely through the adaptation of the Binet-Simon intelligence test by Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University. Terman modified the original Binet-Simon Scale to better suit American school children, and the revised version was published in 1916 as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. Terman's version extended the age range of the original test and adjusted the scoring method to include adults as well. It was extensively used for various purposes, including educational placement, assessment of intellectual disabilities, and military personnel selection, especially during World War I. The widespread adoption of the Stanford-Binet test helped cement the use of IQ as a key measure of intelligence in the United States.

Sadly, the introduction and adoption of IQ testing in the United States was closely tied to the eugenics movement. Eugenics aimed to improve the genetic quality of human populations through selective breeding and other interventions, often based on flawed and ethically problematic ideas about heredity, racial and class superiority.

Lewis Terman, who adapted the Binet-Simon test into the Stanford-Binet IQ test, was among those who believed that intelligence was largely hereditary and that it could be used to judge the worth of different individuals and groups. Terman and other like-minded psychologists and scientists used IQ tests to promote eugenics policies, advocating for measures such as immigration restrictions, marriage restrictions, and sterilization of individuals deemed genetically "unfit". Those were the ideas of that time, that mingled with biology, natural selection, race superiority, ideology etc. and culminated in the horrors of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany during World War II.

Returning from my contemplative state and the horrors of the war, and as I took another sip of scotch and relit my cigar, I felt a rush from connecting these diverse ideas. My journey through the concept of intelligence had expanded, yet I realized there was more to explore, particularly regarding the intelligence of entities we seldom consider, like plants and microbes, yet one must be cautious when dealing with these types of controversial concepts like the IQ.

But If intelligence can be distinct from consciousness, what does that suggest about microbial life? Join me in the next episode where I'll explore this intriguing question further in homage to Eshel Ben Jacob.

To be continued in the next episode.

P.S. While writing this down, I realized that readers might have hoped I could have developed some aspects more or that there are some I completely omitted, and I feel the same. I frequently found myself delving into multiple directions and had to step back, delete stuff, or take notes for another project that will likely join the pile of the To Do list. Thus, share your thoughts on this subject with friends or write them in the comment section below.

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Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Microbiology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Cognitive Psychology > Intelligence
Physical Sciences > Physics and Astronomy > Biophysics