The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


We have not found any evidence of multiple beings integrating in one being, but there is plenty of evidence that individual single-cell organisms sometimes join in creating "collective beings" which are better equipped to survive.

Single-celled bacteria form large colonies in countless ecosystems, particularly visible in seaside locations.

Soil amoebae join together in one huge organism that can react quickly to light and temperature to find food supplies.

Sponges are actually collections of single-celled organisms held together by skeletons of minerals.

These are all examples of how cells are capable of forming communities that live together and live at the same biological "pace". Whereas in a human community we all are independent and interact only occasionally. In such agglomerates of cells every unit is synchronized towards the common goal.

In 1999 the Danish biologist Sune Dano engineered a community of yeast cells that live together as a single organism, driven by collective chemical oscillations.

Among multi-cellular organisms, ants and bees exhibit such a behavior, although the individuals are physically disconnected and communication occurs at a distance through the senses (rather than through chemical contact).  Karl Von Frisch, the man who discovered the symbolic dances of the bees, pointed out that the individual is an oxymoron: a bee cannot exist without the rest of the colony. The colony, on the other hand, constitutes a complex and precise self-regulating system that relies on peer-to-peer communication rather than on a dictator imposing order on its subjects. The hive exhibits a personality, the individual is totally anonymous. The way they migrate is even more stunning, as Cecil Johnson described.

The US biologist Deborah Gordon studied ants as a superorganism (the colony as a body, the individuals as cells) and found that the way such a superorganism organizes itself is not too different from the way a brain or an immune system is organized. An ant colony or a beehive seems to have a mind of its own. It has motives and goals, and even exhibits the ability to learn.

After all, what is a body? We tend to think of a body as a set of organs "glued" together, but that is not the case: is blood part of my body? My body cannot exist without blood, but blood is not glued to the other organs. If I make a hole in an artery, blood will pour out. The definition of body is actually quite open. We all believe that ants are quite "intelligent", but we would be reluctant to admit that a single ant shows any intelligence in its random paths of food search and transport. What is intelligent is the colony as a whole. The colony as a whole exhibits stunning coordination and purposeful behavior. The single ant does not compare too well with a human being, but the colony as a whole does. It may be more appropriate to compare our body to the entire ant colony, in which case one notices all the relevant similarities in purposeful behavior: the movement of those ants, taken together, do mimic cognitive, sentient behavior.

A multi-cellular organism is a collection of cells that are synchronized through electrochemical activity. Sponges and amoebae may show how multi-cellular organisms were created from single-cellular organisms. Ants and bees may show that the difference between a multi-cellular organism and a society of organisms resides only in the type of internal communication: they both rely on constituents that are synchronized and the only difference is how those constituents communicate (the dances of the bees as opposed to the chemical reactions of the amoebas).

If this phenomenon cannot help explain evolution as a whole, it can at least shed some light on the transition from mono-cellular to multi-cellular organisms, one of the crucial steps in the evolution of life on this planet.

After all, more than 90% of the cells that make up the human body are not human: they are bacteria (although they weigh a lot less than human cells); and they are vitally important for our survival. There are more than 1000 species of bacteria in the human digestive system alone (and many more in the respiratory system, in the urogenital tract, on the skin, etc). We are a superorganism, or, at least, a walking and thinking ecosystem. All humans share the same genome (99.9% of all genes) but every human is fairly unique when it comes to her or his “microbiome” (even identical twins have wildly different microbiomes). Therefore not only are you a superorganism but, whatever you are, it may be due more to the bacteria that parasite on you than to your own human genes.


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