Thursday, September 24, 2020

Self-Aware Cells?

The September-October issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER reviewed a book called THE FIRST MINDS: CATERPILLARS, 'KARYOTES, AND CONSCIOUSNESS, by Arthur S. Reber. Although I haven't read the book, only the long, detailed review essay, it sounds intriguing. Reber addresses the "problem of consciousness"—how did it originate from non-sentient matter? how is this seemingly immaterial phenomenon related to the material body?—from the simplest organisms up. He proposes that even single-celled organisms have agency, subjectivity, and sentience. He maintains that from the beginning of evolution, even the most "primitive" life-form must have been "sensitive to its immediate surroundings and to its own internal states." The review paraphrases his view as asserting that "to understand consciousness we must look first at the single-celled organism rather than. . . the human brain."

But sentience is customarily distinguished from "perception and thought." Does Reber claim that a one-celled life-form is self-aware, our usual meaning of "conscious"? The reviewer asks, "Is Reber really asserting that a unicellular organism has a mind?" Apparently so. Reber also seems to assume that amoebae can feel pain. What about plants? Reber remains agnostic on this question, pointing out that sentience wouldn't bestow any clear evolutionary advantage on a creature that can't move. As time-lapse nature photography demonstrates, though, many plants do move, just too slowly for us to notice in real time. (Some of the "weed" bushes in our yard, I think, do grow almost fast enough to be observed by the naked eye.)

Going even further, he suggests that the individual cells in our bodies are not simply alive but sentient. The reviewer asks, "Do we harbor an entire universe of minds?" Reber would answer in the affirmative, again apparently defining "mind" and "consciousness" very broadly. This concept reminds me of Madeleine L'Engle's A WIND IN THE DOOR, in which the characters become infinitestimally small to enter the body of Meg's critically ill little brother, Charles Wallace. They meet a community of farandolae, sub-microscopic creatures dwelling inside the mitochondria within one of Charles Wallace's cells. To a farandola, cells are worlds, and Charles Wallace's body is a galaxy. Much more recently, an ongoing manga series currently in print, CELLS AT WORK, portrays the internal organs and processes of the human body from the viewpoints of blood cells and other cells, each an individual character. Presently, the protagonist red and white cells have been involuntarily moved, by transfusion, from their original body to a new one. They have to cope with new (and worse) working conditions and learn to cooperate with the body's veteran cells. This is a fun, fascinating series, conveying biological facts in an informative and entertaining way, as accurately as possible considering the premise of humanoid, intelligent cells, who seem to survive a lot longer than white and red blood cells actually live.

The reviewer in SKEPTICAL INQUIRER discusses the obvious problem with Reber's hypothesis, that a blood cell or an amoeba is obviously not a human brain, and the emergence of the more complex structures and functions can't be equated with or explained by their simpler predecessors. According to the article, Reber doesn't manage to solve the problem of mind, which has baffled philosophers and scientists for millennia, but the reviewer still recommends his book as "a worthwhile contribution to the literature on consciousness."

The notion of conscious or even sentient cells is intriguing to contemplate but, if accepted with full seriousness, would paralyze our ability to carry on with daily life. Could we kill disease germs or even surgically excise cancers? If a tumor were self-aware, would it consider its right to life preempted by ours? The mind boggles.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment