Feature Article - December 2014
by Do-While Jones

Get Smart

Intelligence is in the mind of the intelligent.

This month’s essay was inspired by four totally unrelated articles in the last two issues of New Scientist, all of which deal with intelligence and purpose.

Clever Carvings

The story that first caught our attention is about an “extraordinary” scratch on a clam shell.

THE artist – if she or he can be called that – was right-handed and used a shark's tooth. They had a remarkably steady hand and a strong arm. Half a million years ago, on the banks of a calm river in central Java, they scored a deep zigzag into a clam shell.

… It was found etched into the shell of a fossilised freshwater clam, and is around half a million years old – making the line by far the oldest engraving ever found. The date also means it was made two to three hundred thousand years before our own species evolved, by a more ancient hominin, Homo erectus.

… it was made deliberately, and yet, unlike tools, the mark has no obvious function. It may have been a decoration, or a practice run for a decoration on another object.

… "Regardless of intent, the very process of rendering a geometric form would seem to indicate the workings of a mind no longer tethered solely to the here and now, but capable of a uniquely abstract form of conscious 'wandering'," Edelman says.

The etch also suggests H. erectus was integrating different domains of knowledge – thought to be a key stage in the evolution of our creative minds. 1

What struck us about this article is that the scientists recognized conscious intent in a simple scratch—there is no possibility that such a simple design could have happened by accident! Furthermore, the conscious intent indicated the presence of higher intelligence, specifically “the workings of a mind no longer tethered solely to the here and now, but capable of a uniquely abstract” thought.

This simple scratch was found on a complex object (a clam shell), but the clam shell itself is not evidence of design.

The clam shell has a purpose. It protects the animal inside from predators. Furthermore, it opens and closes at will. Not only that, it grows at the same rate as the animal inside. To an evolutionist, that isn’t evidence of conscious intent, and could not possibly indicate the presence of intelligence! But four meaningless straight lines unquestionably do indicate intelligent design!

“Intelligent” scientists see evidence of design in a simple, meaningless, purposeless scratch; but don’t see intelligence in a complex, useful, functional shell. Therefore, intelligence apparently exists only in the mind of certain intelligent beings.

Even though the scratch is just four straight lines in a simple pattern, which could very well have been caused by accident, the evolutionists may be right. The lines may have been carved intentionally in the shell. If the shell really was intentionally carved by humans, it proves the shell isn’t anywhere near as old as the evolutionists think it is—but that possibility isn’t even considered, even though it is the most likely conclusion. This is just another example of an “out-of-place artifact” being ignored (or misinterpreted) because it doesn’t fit the evolutionary timeline.

Intelligent Plants

The cover story of that same magazine said (in the printed version of the magazine),

The discovery that plants have their own kind of intelligence is both fascinating and challenging finds Anil Ananthaswamy. 2

The subheading of the on-line version of that article was changed to read,

Root intelligence: Plants can think, feel and learn 3

Not only did New Scientist recognize intelligence in a simple scratch on a clam shell, they recognized intelligence in plants!

They say this idea dates back to 1992.

It wasn't until 1992 that his idea of widespread electrical signalling in plants received strong support when researchers discovered that wounding a tomato plant results in a plant-wide production of certain proteins – and the speed of the response could only be due to electrical signals and not chemical signals travelling via the phloem as had been assumed. The door to the study of plant behaviour was opened. 4

This was surprising to me because my University of Nebraska Engineering Week display in 1970 was a circuit which detected the lack of a heartbeat. The student next to me (whose name I have long since forgotten) was demonstrating that plants generate an electrical signal in response to injury. He had sensors connecting the leaf of a plant to the input of an oscilloscope, which showed an electrical response when he cut one of the other leaves on the plant. To my amazement, I also saw the plant respond when he cut a leaf on a nearby plant. I didn’t believe what I saw. I thought it must have been a trick, but I could not figure out how he did it. Apparently, it really wasn’t a trick.

Plants produce ethylene to regulate everything from seed germination to fruit ripening. They also release it when stressed – when under attack by predators or being cut by humans, for example – and nearby plants can sense it. "Ethylene is the plant equivalent of a scream," says Murch.

In the past decade, researchers have been making the case for taking plants more seriously. They are finding that plants have a sophisticated awareness of their environment and of each other, and can communicate what they sense. There is also evidence that plants have memory, can integrate massive amounts of information and maybe pay attention. Some botanists argue that they are intelligent beings, with a "neurobiology" all of their own. There's even tentative talk of plant consciousness. 5

Why do they think plants have memory?

There is even evidence that plants have long-term memories. Mimosa pudica, the touch-me-not plant, can close its leaflets when touched, but this defensive behaviour requires energy, therefore the plant doesn't indulge in it unnecessarily. When Mancuso and colleagues dropped potted mimosas on to foam from a height of 15 centimetres, the plants closed their leaves in response to the fall. But after just four to six drops they stopped doing this – as if they realised that the fall posed no danger. However, they continued to close their leaves in response to a physical touch, which would normally presage being damaged or eaten. "Even after one month, they were able to discriminate and be able to understand whether the stimulus was dangerous or not," says Mancuso. 6

Plants certainly do exhibit “environmental awareness.” When you plant a seed, it doesn’t matter which end is up because the root will naturally grow down, and the primary leaves will grow up, presumably because of some natural phenomenon which has something to do with gravity. Apparently, there is even more to it than that.

A root is a complex assemblage. There's the root cap, which protects the root as it navigates through soil, but also senses a wide range of physical properties, such as gravity, humidity, light, oxygen and nutrients. Behind this is the meristem, a region of rapidly dividing cells. Further back is the elongation zone, where cells grow in length, allowing the root to lengthen and bend. And between the meristem and the elongation zone is a curious region called the transition zone (see diagram). Traditionally, it was thought to have no purpose, but Baluska and Mancuso think it is actually the nerve centre of the plant. 7

Of course, you know that plants turn toward the light. Presumably this is because the side of the stem away from the light “naturally” grows faster than the side facing the light, causing the plant to bend toward the light. Apparently, there is more to it than that, too.

Nevertheless, Chamovitz and others don't dispute that plants are extremely aware of their environment, and are able to process and integrate information in sophisticated ways. In fact, a plant's awareness of its environment is often keener than an animal's precisely because plants cannot flee from danger and so must sense and adapt to it. For instance, while animals have a handful of photoreceptors to sense light, plants have about 15. "Plants are acutely aware of their environment," says Chamovitz. "They are aware of the direction of the light and quality of the light. They communicate with each other with chemicals, whether we want to call this taste, or smell, or pheromones. Plants 'know' when they are being touched, or when they are being shook by the wind. They integrate all of this information precisely. And they do all of this integration in the absence of a neural system." 8

Does this mean plants are intelligent?

This is all very clever, but it's not intelligence, says Chamovitz: "I don't like the term plant intelligence. We don't even know what intelligence is for humans. If you get five psychologists together you will get 20 different definitions." 9

So, we are back to our previous statement that “intelligence is in the mind of the intelligent,” and the paradoxical observation that a simple scratch on a clam shell is evidence of conscious intent, but perception, memory, and communication in plants is not.

Smoke Rings

The last page of the previous issue of New Scientist had this picture, question, and answer:

[Question:] This photograph was taken on 22 June this year in north Pembrokeshire, UK. There were aircraft trails in the sky – but all of them were absolutely straight. So what is this?

[Answer:] That is undoubtedly an aircraft condensation trail (contrail), made quite deliberately. The dense knot in the bottom left is where the aircraft was climbing (or descending) almost vertically, concentrating the contrail in one spot. The aircraft levelled off, then turned abruptly before starting the circle. Once it had arrived back at the knot, it closed the loop by descending (or climbing) steeply. 10

It’s just a smoke ring! Smokers can produce smoke rings by blowing a puff of air through a cloud of smoke. This ring could have been produced naturally by warm air rising through a cool cloud of smoke—but it probably wasn’t. It probably really is an aircraft contrail frivolously produced by a bored pilot. Despite that, we can’t help thinking that if such a ring implied the existence of some sort of supernatural intelligence, evolutionists would argue that smoke rings are perfectly natural phenomena that don’t depend upon conscious action to form. Intelligent design is often recognized, or ignored as a possibility, depending upon the ramifications of conscious origin.

Chance-free Adaptations

This brings us to the final New Scientist article, also from the 29 November, 2014, issue. It is Bob Holmes’ book review of Arrival of the Fittest: Solving evolution's greatest puzzle by Andreas Wagner.

It begins with the usual admission of the inadequacy of Darwin’s theory to explain the diversity of life.

EVOLUTION, we have always been told, results from natural selection sifting through countless random variations over millions of years.

That's not good enough, says Andreas Wagner, a systems biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Natural selection can explain which adaptations survive over time, he argues, but it falls far short of explaining where those adaptations originate.

For over a decade, Wagner has been looking for an answer that would satisfy him. 11

Wagner finally came upon this analogy:

Imagine a vast library, one so big that it contains every possible sequence of letters. Most of the books are gibberish, filled with words like "erwtvaiwq" or "avbqse", but you can also find Hamlet and On the Origin of Species. This is the book's core metaphor, used, for example, to describe how most strings of amino acids make non-functional proteins – Wagner's gibberish – but some make working enzymes and a few make brilliant ones.

The problem is that the library is so vast (there are more than 10130 different proteins made from just 100 amino acids) that the odds of evolution stumbling across the specific "book" it needs – an enzyme that can disarm a synthetic toxin, for example – are practically zero. Something else must guide evolution through the library. 12

This analogy ignores the problem of where the books came from in the first place (that is, “where those adaptations originate"). It just tries to deal with the problem of finding the right book without using Google.

Wagner tells us … instead of looking for a single meaningful book in the entire library, evolution is looking for any one of many functionally equivalent ones. 13

OK, but how and why is evolution “looking?” Doesn’t searching imply conscious intent?

That's not all: the structure of the library makes it easy for evolution to move from one meaningful book to another. When Wagner and his colleagues tried browsing adjacent "books" – proteins that differ by a single amino acid – they found that most worked just as well as the original. The same was true when they changed another amino acid, and another. In fact, you could move, step by step, from one end of the library to the other without changing the meaning.

This allows populations to accumulate a lot of genetic variation while still remaining viable. In Wagner's metaphor, readers spread into many different rooms of the library. And that's where the big pay-off comes. By wandering far afield, you come to rooms with very different sorts of books nearby. In real terms, you end up in places where changing just a few more amino acids gives you a protein with a radically different function – an evolutionary breakthrough, close at hand.

And the more hidden variation the population accumulates, the more likely that this will happen. As Wagner puts it, "while you walk along one of these trails, the innovation you are searching for will appear at some point in a small neighborhood near you". 14

Remember, the theme of this essay is recognizing intelligence. We weren’t able to recognize any intelligence in that explanation!

Apparently, Wagner’s idea is that if you are looking for a needle in a haystack, the bigger the haystack, the more likely you will be to find a needle, because there are probably more needles in a bigger haystack. Again, it comes back to the questions of how the needles got in the haystack to begin with, and how to realize that a needle is needed for sewing, and how to realize that there just might be a needle in the haystack.

Recognizing Intelligence

Evolutionists recognize intelligence in a design scratched on a clam shell, but not in the design of the clam shell itself. They recognize intelligence in plants, which they believe evolved independently of any intelligent design. They recognize intelligence in the formation of a smoke ring because they assume a creator with a sense of humor (or boredom). And, at least one evolutionist believes unguided evolution intelligently looks through a library of proteins to find the one it needs.

How smart does one have to be to recognize intelligent design?

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1 Catherine Brahic, New Scientist, 03 December 2014, “Etched in time”, page 8, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429983.200-shell-art-made-300000-years-before-humans-evolved.html#.VIiAqivF8fU
2 Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist, 03 December 2014, “Roots of consciousness”, pp. 34-37, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429980.400-root-intelligence-plants-can-think-feel-and-learn.html
3 ibid.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 ibid.
8 ibid.
9 ibid.
10 New Scientist, 29 November 2014, “The Last Word – Ring of confusion”, page 57, https://www.newscientist.com/lastword/mg22429971-000-ring-of-confusion/
11 Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 29 November 2014, “Random no more”, page 48, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429970.600-random-no-more-evolution-isnt-down-to-chance-alone.html#.VIh51yvF8fU
12 ibid.
13 ibid.
14 ibid.