Intelligence is Intelligence is Intelligence, Redux — the Lesson of the Ctenophore


Conor and Ritche, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, August 2017

I haven’t written for a while — there are a couple of big posts I’m working on that are significant contributions, like how information gets passed between different actors in different v-Meme states.  Hint: once you understand v-Memes as accentuated, or attenuated low-pass filters, kinda like a funky graphic equalizer, you already know what I’m going to write.

This piece on ctenophores in Aeon Magazine, though, was too good to pass up for a shorty piece.  A ctenophore is a comb jellyfish (which really isn’t a jellyfish!), and has the interesting property of possessing a neural net that runs on a totally different biochemistry than every other animal on the planet.  Instead of working with dopamine, serotonin, or nitric acid, a researcher at the University of Florida, Leonid Moroz, discovered a completely different set of chemical interactions that created the same type of sensory capacity seen in other species.

Here’s a pull quote from the piece — one that shouldn’t surprise followers of this blog:

‘There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain,’ says Moroz. In each of these evolutionary branches, a different subset of genes, proteins and molecules was blindly chosen, through random gene duplication and mutation, to take part in building a nervous system.

What’s fascinating is how these different pathways of evolution arrived at nervous systems that look so similar across the animal tree of life. Take for example the work of Nicholas Strausfeld, a neuro-anatomist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He and others have found that the neural circuits underlying smell, episodic memory, spatial navigation, behaviour choice and vision in insects are nearly identical to those performing the same functions in mammals – despite the fact that different, though overlapping, sets of genes were harnessed to build each one.

This result maps well to the notions we’ve discussed here about empathy — particularly in this link.  Sentience isn’t dependent on chemistry.  It’s dependent on need, function, and capability, and that underlayment leads support to one of my likely more controversial hypotheses — that there is no ‘alien’ intelligence, in a dog, a horse, a cockroach, or E.T.  There is only intelligence, and social organization.  And that rests firmly back on principles of thermodynamics.  For those that are interested exactly in how THAT occurs, check out my buddy Jake’s blog — he’s making great progress on his book on Social Thermodynamics.

There’s also insight into how scientific communities also track on previous results.  And when that happens on the surface-level, Mario Kart rules supreme.  Another great pull quote:

“In short, the ctenophore’s nerves seemed to look and act just like those of any other animal. So biologists assumed that they were the same.”

Understanding larger function is a lifelong challenge in all fields — from sociology to invertebrate biology.  And just because we don’t see it now doesn’t mean it’s not there, waiting to inform us as we develop deeper insights into connections and synergisms — essentially waiting for our own enlightenment to progress.  And just surface-level description isn’t worth much without some comprehension of dynamic underneath it.  Why things (and people) do what they do matters. That’s one more lesson to walk away from with the ctenophore.

One thing also to note — while it’s true I like to occasionally whoop on academics, Moroz’s research, which may lead to extremely profound results some 50 years from now, shows the value of some small sub-section of society arbitrarily following their scholarly passions.  It may turn out that understanding how ctenophores use different neurotransmitters may lead to an entire, synthetic class of nerve cells that we previously had never thought of.  Something to ponder when you hear a TV pundit condemn what appears as ‘pointless science.’

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