Are Cells Intelligent?

I had a great exchange with a gentleman, Matthew Taylor, on the Unbelievable discussion board, following my debate with Stephen Meyer.

Matthew said:

I was intrigued by the suggestion by one of the guests that cells might have some form of intelligence.

I’d like to know what experiments and tests have been proposed so that evidence of this intelligence can be shown and measured. It’s all well and good coming up with far out ideas like that, but if they can’t be demonstrated there is little point is trying to build an idea based on the hypothesis. It would be far more honest to prove the claim before trying to build an idea on it.

I replied:

Bonnie Bassler’s TED talk “How Bacteria Talk” is a great start:

Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock had a lot to say:

“The ability of a cell to sense these broken ends, to direct them toward each other, and then to unite them so that the union of the two DNA strands is correctly oriented, is a particularly revealing example of the sensitivity of cells to all that is going on within them. They make wise decisions and act upon them.

Time does not allow even a modest listing of known responses of genomes to stress that could or should be included in a discussion aimed at the significance of responses of genomes to challenge.

In addition to modifying gene action, these elements can restructure the genome at various levels, from small changes involving a few nucleotides, to gross modifications involving large segments of chromosomes, such as duplications, deficiencies, inversions, and other more complex reorganizations.

The responses of genomes to unanticipated challenges are not so precisely programmed. Nevertheless, these are sensed, and the genome responds in a discernible but initially unforeseen manner.

A goal for the future would be to determine the extent of knowledge the cell has of itself, and how it utilizes this knowledge in a “thoughtful” manner when challenged.

Induction of such reprogrammings by insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms, which are not a required response of the plant genome at some stage in its life history, is quite astounding… It is becoming increasingly apparent that we know little of the potentials of a genome. Nevertheless, much evidence tells us that it must be vast.

The stimulus associated with placement of the insect egg into the leaf will initiate reprogramming of the plant’s genome, forcing it to make a unique structure adapted to the needs of the developing insect. The precise structural organization of a gall that gives it individuality must start with an initial stimulus, and each species provides its own specific stimulus. For each insect species the same distinctive reprogramming of the plant genome is seen to occur year-after-year.”

From Barbara McClintock’s 1984 Nobel Prize paper

“Life requires cognition at all scopes and scales. The critical factor in evolution was the moment of instantiation of the self-referential cell. How that occurred is unknown, but the fact that cells are self-aware problem-solving agencies cannot be reasonably disputed. I offer that it is best to consider it as a phase shift derivative of the thermodynamic scale as a state function. As a result, the cell acquires critical participant/observer status, by which physical data becomes information that can be used to solve problems through the attachment to the larger information space.

It proceeds then by differing means. This is best understood as engineering in the sense that Shapiro indicates with his concepts of natural genetic engineering. However, in this circumstance, it is natural cellular engineering (acknowledging the vital importance of all aspects of the crowded, active cellular environment including the cell membrane). It is clear then, that genes are tools and not a dominating agency. This process of cellular engineering is conceptually just like humans making a city though competition and collaboration wherein every individual (cell) is serving its own interests which are then reciprocally linked to all other participants. This is evolution as successive rounds of niche construction, emanating from the cell as the first niche construction, as John Torday has correctly identified. When we, as humans build we use the tools we have according to our abilities. Cells do the same, and their substrate are bioactive materials.”

-William Miller MD author of “The Microcosm Within”

“Cells are cognitive entities possessing great computational power. DNA serves as a multivalent information storage medium for these computations at various time scales. Information is stored in sequences, epigenetic modifications, and rapidly changing nucleoprotein complexes. Because DNA must operate through complexes formed with other molecules in the cell, genome functions are inherently interactive and involve two-way communication with various cellular compartments. Both coding sequences and repetitive sequences contribute to the hierarchical systemic organization of the genome. By virtue of nucleoprotein complexes, epigenetic modifications, and natural genetic engineering activities, the genome can serve as a read-write storage system.”

James A. Shapiro, Genome Informatics: The Role of DNA in Cellular Computations

Matthew said:

What I see in your reply are selected quotes which would appear to agree with your assessment. I am pretty sure if I spent some time googling and could find some quote that disagree. We could have a fun game of quote ping pong. Quotes don’t provide demonstrable proof.

I responded:

I don’t think you can “prove” this one way or the other. And I don’t think there’s a lot of value in watching the ping pong of opinions go back and forth.

What you can do is look at what cells, plants and animals actually do in real time and ask yourself, what is the most reasonable explanation?

I would simply suggest that you read with care and detail, Barbara McClintock’s paper “The Significance of Responses of the Genome to Challenge.”

See what her cells and plants did in real time in real experiments and decide for yourself. But in any case, look at the original data. It’s all out there for everyone to examine.

Matthew said:

I would agree that some incredible things happen in cells. My problem is drawing a conclusion that can’t be proven. I also don’t like the suggestion to ‘decide for yourself’.

You might look at it and say it shows evidence on innate intelligence and that means a god put it there. I might look at it and say it’s evolved function and it only looks intelligent because we can’t see all the evolutionary steps that brought the illusion of intelligence.

How does one tell from that evidence if either of us is close to the right answer when what we are doing is deciding for ourselves? Deciding for ourselves tends to bring in our own biases. I would contend that what we should be doing is asking what the evidence suggests and then seek ways to confirm those suggestions.

I don’t think there is enough to be certain that intelligence is the answer. And you still need to make the link from that apparent intelligence to your specific god, which is whole other challenge and discussion.

I responded:


For decades, “anthropomorphic language” has been forbidden in biology. (Except, of course, when talking about things like “selfish genes” – which really just shows you it’s impossible to avoid such language, even for people who are stark materialists.)

But the pendulum is swinging the other way now. So at the present time if you go searching all you’ll find is a lot of disagreement.

When I’ve tried to answer this question for myself, I go to two places: digital communication and genetic algorithms.

Genomes and cells are linguistic (see the paper “Linguistics of DNA” by Ji or Bonnie Bassler’s TED talk “How Bacteria Talk). And the genetic code is a proper code, and DNA transcription and translation are formal encoding and decoding systems. It’s digital communication.

The huge realization I had when I started this was the incredible parallels between DNA and Ethernet, because I had written an Ethernet book. The similarities were almost scary. Encoding, decoding, error detection, error correction, checksums, layers. On and on.

In digital data, information is always encoded top-down, and decoded bottom-up. When you send an email, your intent becomes words which are made of letters which are represented by bits. You press send, the bits go across, and it’s re-assembled in the opposite order.

The start of that process is your own conscious intent.

Even if a computer is automatically generating emails, they always originated from a conscious source.

I have never seen any exception to this.

So whenever I see communication taking place, I see a chain of intentionality that always leads me back to a conscious source.

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…. well, I vote for cells being intelligent. At least in some sense.

The other clue is genetic algorithms.

Darwinists tell you that random copying errors and natural selection can evolve anything.

Well if that’s true, where are all the software companies that should allegedly be writing their software that way?

How come there aren’t any? Can you name even one?

How come Genetic Algorithms are little more than a footnote in the software development industry?

Why doesn’t Apple or Google have any use for programs like Tierra or Avida?

How come it usually takes more work to create a fitness function and develop systematic mutation flows for a Genetic Algorithm, than it does to simply sit down and write the code by hand?

If you could write software that evolves the way Darwinists say life evolves, Bill Gates wouldn’t need payroll. He could just buy a million servers and let Genetic Algorithms churn out the next version of Windows.

I’ve started two software companies in my career. I had equity in a hardware company that we sold to a NASDAQ firm for $18 million. And I’ve never seen software that writes itself, let alone develops without significant input from intelligent agents.

Yet cells demonstrably DO program and re-program themselves and evolve in real time. If we knew how cells do this, we could write incredible software.

But the funny thing is, if you read books by old-school Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Bill Nye, for some reason they never tell you any of this stuff. Nary a word about transposition, symbiogenesis etc. Everything’s just natural selection, natural selection.

The last question I would ask myself is: “Which hypothesis is more likely to lead us to interesting discoveries, new hypotheses and interesting observations? A) the idea that cells are dumb machines created by a series of accidental mutations and selected for survival, or B) the idea that cells are intelligent agents that direct their own development?

Which premise would help you make better antibiotics? Which premise would help you fight cancer better? Under which premise would you be less likely to underestimate your opponent when combating disease?

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8 Responses

  1. Paul Richmond says:

    There are reflexes inbuilt and there are conditioned reflexes. Has any cell ever shown an ability to have a conditioned reflex, and not just an inbuilt reflex?

    • Evelyn Witkin and others found that if they pre-warned bacteria with small doses of radiation, they would switch on their DNA repair mechanisms and become braced for a large dose of radiation that came later.

  2. Dave S says:

    The ability of cancer cells to adapt, develop resistance, communicate with one another, and metastisize seems to demonstrate a form of intelligence.

  3. Bill McClymonds says:

    Perry, thanks for the link to the interesting discussion between you and Stephen Meyer.

    I don’t think you are just talking about intelligence in cells, I think you are talking about a built in brilliance when it comes to the adaptive capabilities of the cell. The question then becomes, why are cells so brilliant? I don’t think many people think cells have a self contained brain that allows them to make intelligent decisions. During your discussion with Steven Meyer it was mentioned that James Shapiro discussed the built in algorithms that are contained within cells. Steve said that he felt higher intelligence was necessary to provide those algorithm’s. Do you agree with him on that point? You wrote about the idea that “cells are intelligent agents that direct their own development”. Does that mean you think there is an independent intelligence within the cell?

    I have commented elsewhere on this site that James Tour PhD, a prominent synthetic organic chemist, cannot even imagine a realistic natural chemical pathway from early Earth chemicals to the first life form. Getting from the zero intelligence of the early Earth chemicals, rocks and gasses to the brilliance of the DNA code is even more difficult. That is not a problem of chemical assembly, it is a problem of infused intelligence. Without any external intelligence, how do intellectually bankrupt rocks, chemicals and gasses assemble an organism containing the brilliance of the DNA code?

    If someone wants to say that God was responsible for the first life form, and there was a progression of life forms from that point, I would say that is a possibility that could be considered. If someone wants to say rocks, chemicals and gasses with zero intelligence self assembled into a complex life form containing DNA, I think that is an unreasonable position based on the information provided by Dr. Tour.

    The choices for life emerging seem to be either from the zero intelligence of rocks and chemicals or from the brilliance of God. To propose an unknown naturalistic source of intelligence outside of those two options seems like a “naturalistic intelligence” of the gaps argument to me. I understand that non tenured university researchers don’t want to discuss the possibility of God being involved in the creative process, but it would be nice to see some naturalistic explanation that didn’t begin with a total lack of intelligence. Unfortunately for the naturalist, that can’t happen without inferring some sort of intelligent design argument.

    I am not an ID proponent. I believe God is responsible for all the life forms we see. I am not certain how He created all these thing, but it makes far more sense to me to believe in a creator God than to believe in some unspecified process of naturalistic intelligence that begins with absolutely no intelligence on the early Earth. Starting with things like rocks and chemicals completely void of any intelligence, then rapidly (from a naturalistic perspective) progressing from that point to brilliant life forms containing DNA just doesn’t make any sense to me. Going from zero intelligence to brilliance is totally illogical and completely unscientific.

    Naturalistic scientists don’t have to believe in God, but they do need to propose some system that involves intelligence of some sort if they want to stay in the origin of life game. Unless you believe cells are autonomous agents with an independent ability to think and reason, there must be some higher intelligence that drives, controls or created the system. Yes, cells can react to stimuli within the environment but, in my opinion, the complexity of that built in mechanism of response demands an explanation that requires some form of higher intelligence.

  4. Thomas Quine says:

    There used to be a summary on the site of various books, one of which was specifically about the intelligence of single cells, but I can’t seem to find the reference any more. Which book was that?

    • Shapiro’s Evolution 2011 book? Anything by Shapiro or Lynn Margulis would be a really good start. There’s a lengthy bibliography of recommended books in Appendix 3 of Evolution 2.0 as well.

      • Thomas Quine says:

        Thank you, Perry. I had the Wetware book in mind, but those are also good recommendations, I’m sure. I have Acquiring Genomes which seems to me more like a series of arguments for information sharing between dissimilar taxa than any kind of direct argumentation for cellular intelligence (although I believe a lot of preprogramming of cells is a prerequisite for most of the scenarios she invokes).

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