Tom Atlee: Bacteria–and Human Intelligence

Blog Wisdom, Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee

Bacteria — and the intelligence of individuals and collectives

Collective intelligence is not an abstraction.  It is a real-world emergent phenomenon — a phenomenon that ranges from collective stupidity to collective brilliance.  It arises from interactions among entities in shared situations.  Collective intelligence — of any quality — can just happen, or it can be consciously enhanced or undermined.  The diversity of the entities involved and the free flow (and absorption and consideration) of relevant information among them can facilitate higher levels of collective intelligence.  But regardless of what is happening, some level of collective intelligence is always present wherever interacting entities share fate in shared circumstances.

Many people think collective intelligence only applies to groups of people or, perhaps also, to groups of primates and social insects.  But we as individuals are actually intelligent collectives.  One aspect of this can be seen when a therapist helps a patients sort out different “voices” inside them — and then has those voices talk to each other — sometimes with the patient physically moving to different chairs assigned to each voice.  In therapy, these bickering “voices” are helped to come up with some coherent decisions or more conscious relationships among themselves that make the patient more functional and feel more whole.  As it gets its act together, this little internal community acting as one person usually seems to work quite well!

Bacteria offer another fascinating way in which we each appear to be a collective and our bodymind’s functioning seems to be an expression of that collective’s intelligence.  According to the articles below, bacteria have been exercising their collective intelligence for billions of years. We are only now beginning to glimpse the nuances and mechanics of that intelligence.  Since the cells that make up our bodies are the descendants of cooperating bacteria, this phenomenon suggests that we individual people can each be viewed as vast complex civilizations of bacteria.  Over the millennia our cells’ ancestors developed very sophisticated social, technological, economic and governance systems and such a thorough division of labor that they can no longer survive independently outside their multicellular “civilization”.  This fact is remarkably similar to the fact that most of us cannot live long outside the supports and guidance of our own civilizations. The whole arrangement starts to look like civilizations within civilizations…

I find myself both awed and challenged by the coherence with which bacteria have developed this powerfully complex human bodymind, with its own emergent intelligence that seems so much like a unique personal capacity.  It seems so different from the rest of biological creation, so deceptively individual, sovereign and un-collective in its character.  I am further amazed when I contemplate how thoroughly dependent our individual intelligence is on language… on the socialization and education of our childhood… on the knowledge resources of our libraries, of our journalism, of our internet… on the centuries and millions of people’s inquiry and research that generated (and continues to generate) all that collective knowledge… on the constant interactions we have with others like and unlike ourselves… on the support of socially-produced nourishment, medicines, and technological artifacts provided by our civilization…

The closer I examine the profound collective dynamics operating both within and around our seemingly “individual” intelligence, the more it looks to me like a product of all that collective stuff going on and interacting, rather than just the mere wiring in our individual brains or our private autonomous “thinking”.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the individual and the collective are not only intimately related.  They are manifestations of each other.

Recommended Reading:

A Model of Social Cooperation

The Evolution of Governance

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