Anthropologist Narby plays the innocent abroad here, querying scientists around the world about intelligence—and finding it in everything that’s alive.
Borrowing from his experience with shamanism (Shamans Through Time, 2001, etc.), Narby begins with an account of how several scientists experienced changed perceptions of nature after consuming the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, used by Peruvian shamans when they communicate with plants and animals. From there it’s on to labs in Europe and Asia to learn how smart other species are, from bacteria and slime molds to bees, butterflies, birds, and assorted plants and trees. Bacterial species cross-talk for mutual benefit in their complex colonies of “biofilm” (like the one that lines your teeth); slime molds can run mazes; bees can be conditioned; butterflies are superb visual perceivers; outsider birds can “cry wolf” to deceive a flock and capture prey. From the plant kingdom, there’s evidence that some species can essentially creep across the landscape to find the best sites to put down roots, as well as multiple ways to communicate within and among themselves. None of these accounts is exactly new to readers of Science or Nature, but they’re nicely summarized here, along with descriptions of nervous systems and extensive endnotes. What’s new, though, is Narby’s passion to rethink the meaning of intelligence as a human property and give up the reductionist/materialist view of Western science. In its place, he adopts the Japanese word “chi-sei,” roughly defined as a knowingness that allows for decision-making at all levels of life. Actually, such knowingness is perfectly in accord with concepts of adaptation and flexibility in evolution. There’s no need to mystify or invoke the wisdom of shamans. Indeed, Narby admits that science itself has changed, so that even cell-cell signaling and protein-protein interactions can be regarded as forms of decision-making.
Like the fruitless discussions about when life begins, discussions of the meaning of intelligence are best tabled. Let scientists get on with more of the interesting work reported here.