BOOKS: Intelligence in Nature
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2005:
Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge by Jeremy Narby
Tarcher/Penguin (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2005. 256
pages, hardback. $35.00.
Having been enthralled by Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent
(1998), I was pleased when Narby’s second book Intelligence in
Nature came in the mail. It was not a disappointment.
Intelligence in Nature is more-or-less a sequel to The Cosmic
Serpent, continuing to illustrate the parallels between “primitive”
shamanic cultures and modern biology that Narby discovered in his
study of botany. But whereas The Cosmic Serpent dealt mainly with
molecular biology, particularly the structure of DNA, Intelligence
in Nature covers a much broader spectrum, dealing not only with
genetics but also with animal behavior and adaptation.
The ability of individuals to adapt to their environment,
found in even the most primitive of life-forms, is described by the
Japanese term Chi-Sei, meaning “to know.” Throughout the book Narby
uses Chi-Sei to describe the apparent intelligence of everything from
birds to slime molds.
Slime molds actually provide a perfect example of Chi-Sei.
Lacking even a rudimentary nervous system, slime molds are capable
of fusing with others to form what are essentially enormous single
cells with thousands or even millions of nuclei. If chopped up and
spread through a maze, these massive cells will rebuild themselves
along the shortest route through the maze.
Other examples of Chi-Sei include orangutans recognizing
themselves in mirrors; honeybees memorizing the location of food and
then describing it to the other members of the hive; dodder plants,
which can scrutinize potential hosts and “decide” whether or not to
parasitize them; and even some advanced proteins, whose ability
to react to other proteins and adapt to them forms the basis of life.
Narby also delves into the ability of some organisms to feel
pain, and makes a very good case for the presence of this ability
in even the simplest animals.
Narby outlines in detail the nervous systems of insects,
particularly bees and butterflies. Apparently their outer
exoskeletons are devoid of nerve endings, so that they may endure
great external force without being hurt. However, when exposed to
heat or electric shock, insects will demonstrate the classic signs
Narby goes even farther by describing the ability of plants
to feel pain.
Why would an organism feel pain if, like a plant, it
cannot move? Pain is generally believed to have evolved to enable
mobile organisms avoid harm.
Narby challenges this idea by offering examples of plants
responding to their environment in minutely sensitive ways, citing
the ability of stilt palms to “walk” by changing the distribution of
their prop roots, the elevation of calcium levels in tobacco plants
when touched, and the behavior of dodder plants.
Narby then describes plant defenses. Lima beans, for
example, will respond to an infestation of spider mites by
releasing a chemical that attracts a larger mite to kill the
attackers. The same lima beans will simultaneously “warn”
neighboring plants to produce the defensive chemical, thus reducing
the spread of the spider mites.
Although Narby generally refrains from passing moral judgment
on the basis of his findings, readers will develop a greater
understanding and appreciation of all life.