Intelligence in Nature

Jeremy Narby

Jeremy Narby’s thesis in The Cosmic Serpent, the idea that Amazonian shamans use ayahuasca to lower consciousness into the teeming micro-worlds of DNA, was compelling and seductive. My sense has always been that he was acutely aware of the dangers of such a convincing weaving-together of the worlds of animism and science – that if too successful, the book may engender a muddy confluence of the two rather than a fruitful new relationship where the distinct values of each complement rather than lose their power in some swirling half-way meeting point. He told me his spoken word ventures with The Young Gods found him occasionally disconcerted with the lack of caution among some of the new generation of young Western ayahuasca users, where the rigour inherent to both our culture’s scientific method and other cultures’ shamanistic method has often been dissolved in enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s a good thing that, as far as I’m aware, The Cosmic Serpent never really took off in the way it might have. Only recently have I heard it mentioned more and more often in conversation, giving me the impression that it’s quietly grown in impact, hopefully giving its deceptively simple ideas time to take proper root.

The Cosmic Serpent delved into the world of indigenous shamanism with the rather unscientific (but fertile) attitude that we should try taking the perspective of shamans at face value, to see where this led. Following this path armed with (but not beholden to) the discoveries of 20th century biochemistry led Narby to conclude that these shamans may well be keepers of a tradition that affords us a shockingly experiential method of communication with the biosphere’s genetic information storehouse. These codes that we’ve begun to document and decipher using our discipline of detachment are alive, and talking to us in the visionary worlds unlocked by plant psychedelics.

Intelligence in Nature, positioning itself as something of a follow-up, something of a counter-balance, finds Narby travelling into the heart of the Western scientific tradition – literally into its labs and offices – in order to discover where our tradition is leading us with regard to the capacity for non-human organisms, both plant and animal, to intelligently adapt to the varied conditions of life. Many readers here will have ambiently absorbed, or perhaps followed with interest, the ever-flowing tide of recent scientific news revealing more and more hitherto undocumented examples of animal intelligence, most famously the tool-using crow and the maze-solving slime mold. Narby’s book can be seen as a timely consolidation of this current, drawing together some of the most interesting contemporary research along these lines and, importantly, sketching the cultural landscape in which it is embedded – both in general, looking at the scientific tradition, and in specifics, quizzing the scientists themselves. Turning the eye of anthropology inwards towards Western science and academia always strikes me as a fascinating tactic, and Narby uses it here to good effect.

Much less satisfying is the general arc of the book, and how it deals with its central arguments. We’re so used to our "Western" lack of regard for nature, given the painfully obvious corollaries to this stance of distance and/or aggression unfolding now day by day. So it’s hard to remember that in theory, since Darwin at least, our scientific tradition regards humans as existing in a biological continuum with animals and plants. Exactly why these experiments demonstrating intelligence in nature should be so scientifically radical thus seems highly curious, casting grave doubt, at least, on science’s claims to objectivity.

Of course, Narby makes something of this precise point when, after being prompted by Western scientists, he pays a visit to the home of a disproportionate amount of research into non-human intelligence: Japan. Their native religion, the animist tradition of Shinto, makes for a much more embracing conception of intelligence than our abrasive, swollen Christian ego. Western science’s enactment of sharp divisions between human and non-human life, from Descartes’ philosophy to modern vivisection practices, stands as damning testimony to its infestation with religious dogma, something to be guarded against even (or especially) in scientists who proclaim no religious affiliation or belief. This inevitable tangle between ostensibly distinct socio-cultural institutions aren’t really mapped very deeply by Narby here, despite the obvious relevance to his work.

The definition of intelligence plays a key part in the discussion here, though again a certain depth seems to be lacking. In the end Narby ditches the term altogether in favour of the Japanese expression chi-sei. This means "capacity to know" or "knowingness" – though the lack of an adequate direct English translation is why Narby attempts to import the term itself to refer to the sense of intelligence running through nature that arose from his treks in the Amazon and interviews with scientists. But – given the very title of the book – my guess is that we will have to wrestle with the word intelligence for some time to come in discussing this issue.

The paper published in Nature that detailed the experiment showing how a slime mold solved a maze was written by two Japanese guys and a Hungarian.

[Toshiyuki] Nakagaki and his Japanese colleague did not hesitate to refer to "intelligence" in their conclusion. But the Hungarian co-author proposed to delete the term. The two Japanese scientists prevailed, and the journal Nature duly published their paper containing the word intelligence. Much media attention ensued, both in Japan and abroad.

Given his problems in speaking with Westerners on the topic, though, Nakagaki soon dropped this word (as a translation of chi-sei) in favour of "smart", with its more neutral connotations of flexibility and adaptability. "Intelligence" simply has too many connotations of subjective awareness to apply to organisms that, while their intricate feats of adaptive problem-solving can be demonstrated, cannot reveal to science’s satisfaction any traces of consciousness or self-reflection.

And yet, it is to this conception that our minds gravitate when we first get on board with animistic thinking. Isn’t it the contention of shamanism that yes, there are entities in the natural world with intelligence and awareness matching or surpassing our own? Isn’t animism about treating all organisms with the respect that you accord to anything possessing its own distinct agency?

Probably consciously pulling back from the giddy trajectory of The Cosmic Serpent, Narby refuses to open these cans of worms, and contents himself with documenting science’s slow, steady accumulation of evidence that undermines our inheritance of spiritual pride from Christianity. The linguistic questions are crucial, and adopting the term chi-sei doesn’t resolve them. Perhaps Narby is wise not to push the issue to breaking point. There isn’t some singular concept in animistic cultures that we just need to find a good word for to start bandying it about; there are worlds of subtlety at work there, and we need to reconfigure many interlocked prejudices of our own to begin to appreciate them.

At the other end of the debate about non-human intelligence, there’s a disappointing lack of discussion around artificial intelligence; one feels that there would be much to learn from there to apply to our emerging awareness of the modes of adaptive behaviour and awareness in nature.

Intelligence in Nature takes the same form as The Cosmic Serpent: a highly readable body text supplemented by in-depth notes at the back, the split between the two being roughly half-and-half. This worked well in the earlier book, I feel, because such a compelling core thesis ran through the text. However, flicking through the notes after finding the text here slightly underwhelming, it seems that perhaps this book has suffered slightly from this admirable attempt at accessibility. The experiments and observations about plants and animals are the meat here – the overarching theory doesn’t have the same clout. And perhaps too much of the meat has been trimmed off and left in the notes.

A fascinating summary of a fascinating story unfolding in contemporary science, valuable as a reference for deeper research – but perhaps too skinny to really change minds.


Postscript: For more in the same vein, check out this fascinating, encouraging report on the emerging discipline of “animal personality” in the New York Times.

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