Universal cognition?

Jerry Coyne, who, without having read Purpose and Desire, voiced some strong opinions about the book and me on his website Why the Sky is Blue (OK, Why Evolution is True—as if there was really any doubt about that). Never mind, he has now read the book. Here is how he put it:

“[Since] Turner beefed about my criticisms, saying I hadn’t read the whole book, and because Kirkus gave it a star, I broke down and read, at great expense to my digestion, the whole damn thing, and finished it last night.” (emphasis mine).

Of course, I didn’t say he hadn’t read the book, he did, in his first review: I merely pointed it out. But never mind, at least his criticisms can now be said to be based somewhat on having read the “whole damn thing.” Even so, his newly informed review is still full of misunderstandings and in some instances, misrepresentations. There’s lots there to milk.

Here is one passage that stood out for me:

“Now you might be asking yourself, “How can a plant or a bacterium have any striving since they’re not conscious?” Turner gets around that with a word salad like this (p. 221):

‘The extended organism, defined as it is as a focus of homeostasis, is actually a cognitive organism, cognitive in the same sense that the coalition of sulfur-breathing bacteria and spirochetes from the previous chapter constituted a cognitive entity. Homeostasis involves coupling information about the state of the environment on one side of an adaptive boundary to the matter and energy flows across the adaptive boundary. Now the notion of what individuality is becomes clearer: the individual is a cognitive being that has a sense of itself as something distinct from the environment.'”

The whole issue of cognition and consciousness was a big part of Purpose and Desire. One point I tried to be very careful about was to distinguish between cognition and consciousness. While the two are undoubtedly related, they mean different things, and conflating the two leads to enormous confusion, and it has to be said, enormous room for sophistry.

The distinction is important because I am not arguing in Purpose and Desire that plants or bacteria are conscious. I am arguing that they are cognitive systems. The striving—the purpose and desire—that Jerry Coyne so casually dismisses follows directly from that: cognition, homeostasis and intentionality are all wrapped up together. This makes striving an inevitable attribute of life, and you cannot have a coherent theory of life without it. A strictly gene-selectionist approach to evolution—modern Darwinism—cannot apprehend such a thing, because it excludes a priori what is arguably life’s distinctive nature. Which is why modern Darwinism is facing a crisis.

The notion of a “universal cognition” is hardly a new or fringe idea. In 2001, Lynn Margulis broached the idea and her thinking was derived from a much older tradition of biological thought. I have to say, though, that she also fell into the trap of conflating consciousness and cognition, although it is pretty clear from her writing that she was focused on cognition. Indeed, you can’t explain much of bacterial and eukaryotic evolution without it. Why? It’s all there in the “word salad” but one has to be prepared to understand the message. Mind is essential.

Margulis was writing about bacteria, as was I. Yes, emphatically, they can be cognitive beings, and yes they can strive.

And plants? Well, I was delighted to see this land in my inbox this morning: The minds of plants, by Laura Ruggles, on the website Aeon. Read the whole thing (the “whole damn thing” if you prefer), which outlines recent thinking that plants are indeed cognitive beings, and that they strive, learn and anticipate.

Which leads me to ask: what manner of thinking is becoming mainstream, and which is being marginalized? Modern Darwinism which denies a role for mind, or a new biology that puts mind at the center?

I know my answer. It’s in my book.

Margulis, L. (2001). The conscious cell. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
929(1): 55-70.


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