We no longer study individual life forms as though they existed independently of their surrounding environment. The ecological systems view understands all organisms as deeply embedded in a web of wonderfully pulsating life.
In recent years, we have come to see our own bodies as ecosystems themselves: home to a rich network of bacterial life. These tiny organisms living in our bodies aren’t the freeloaders we once thought they were. We now know just how much we rely on these little beings within us to help our bodies in numerous ways, but particularly in the
There is great intelligence in this type of cooperative living — what microbiologist Lynn Margulis called “symbiosis.” Why evolve our own internal biological systems from human cells to build some particular digestive enzyme when we can outsource that job to an existing friendly bacteria? In symbiosis, both sides win. We get to consume new food sources and the bacteria gets a large organism (us) to do the work needed to provide it with a steady stream of sugars. You scratch my gut, I’ll scratch yours.
Life is full of these kinds of cooperative arrangements. In fact, it is a fundamental attribute of biology on this planet.
Every once in a while, symbiosis makes possible a marvelous type of evolution: a coming together of parts into a kind of transcendent new whole. This is the notion of combinatorial evolution, or symbiogenesis, and it is an important factor in the rise of biological intelligence on the planet Earth. Through the coordination and combination of what were formerly disconnected parts, a greater intelligence emerges.
There are lots of examples of this kind of combinatorial evolution of earthly intelligence, but let’s focus on one of the most important biological breakthroughs in the history of the planet. Way back in its early days, life fell into two domains: the bacteria and the archaea. This microscopic duopoly lasted some 1.7 billion years and was then suddenly joined by a third domain called the eukaryotes. Eukaryotes are much bigger than archaea or bacteria, but their more important distinction is their greater complexity, which includes an external cellular membrane and internal equivalents to our organs and skeleton. Eukaryotic cells are what make up not just us, but all other animals and plants on Earth, so their emergence was pivotal in the history of planetary evolution.
One interesting, and well-accepted, theory explaining how this dramatic jump in organizational complexity came about is that eukaryotes are the result of an archaea absorbing a bacteria. The absorbed bacterium turned into an internalized compartment within the resulting merged cell, becoming its power source, or what we know today as its mitochondria. With this added power and size, the eukaryote was then able to absorb additional microbes, adding further to the functional diversity of cellular life.
According to this explanation, the partnership that is the eukaryotic cell is a union of two previously separate entities, a cooperative coupling that ended up proving mutually beneficial. As a result, something new, something emergent and, in a way, transcendent, came into being.
Life is full of examples of things that appear to exist as a whole in and of themselves, while at the same time being part of something bigger and more complex. Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon” to describe this idea of a part that is simultaneously a whole.
In the case of the eukaryotic cell, the mitochondria can be seen as a distinct organelle, just as it is also a part of the greater whole that is the eukaryotic cell. A more intuitive example of a holon is your lungs or your heart. These are easily understandable things, or wholes, in their own right. And yet, they are simultaneously also parts in the larger, more complex whole that is your cardiovascular system, which in turn, is a whole in itself, while simultaneously being a part of the bigger whole that is your body.
Holons exist as a fundamental reality. Once you know about them, you see them everywhere you look. That is because the universe is full of systems that contain parts that integrate with each other to create an emergent whole. A wolf is an individual, but also a member of a pack. This paragraph is made up of sentences that (hopefully) come together with enough synergy to create the meaningful and coherent whole we call a “paragraph.” That, in turn, is a part of a greater whole called an article, and then a website.
Intelligence as Coordination
The key to individual parts coming together to create an emergent whole is coordination, and that means a sharing of information between parts in the system. Cells coordinate with one another in forming tissues and organs by exchanging ions and molecules through the intelligence embedded in their cellular membranes. Organs coordinate with each other thanks in large part to the electrical impulses that flow through our nervous system. That exchange of neural signaling leads to some new form of emergent intelligence: a new container of collective intelligence call a mind.
This kind of synergy makes intuitive sense when we think about people coming together to solve a problem that none of them could tackle on their own. When the Boeing 777 took off on its maiden voyage outside of my hometown of Seattle back in 1994, it required tens of thousands of people working behind the scenes to pull it off. Not one of those people would have been able to hold in their head even one percent of the detailed knowledge required to put an airliner of that complexity into service. It was only through the coming together of all those people that the group, as a whole, was able to do it. There were, of course, lots of computers and other machines involved in this collaboration as well — but that is a story for another day.