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Intelligence beyond the human

Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence,The Mountain in The Sea
ECOLOGY / A tangle of interconnected life. Developments in ecology and technology herald a new Copernican revolution: Language, the bastion of supposed human superiority, also belongs to nature and machines. Can an expanded definition of intelligence improve our relationship with other beings?


Octopuses are now having their moment in the spotlight, as are slime molds and honey bees. Mushrooms are in fashion. After 250 years with man confidently at the top of the pyramid, we in the West are becoming more aware that we might – possibly – have company. Nature's cleverness and ingenuity, its complexity and cooperation are becoming increasingly difficult to deny. Some even call it intelligence.

Over the past five years, a bunch of books have brought such ideas to light. In 2016, Peter Godfrey-Smith published Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, where the squid's invertebrate intelligence can shed light on what it means for us to have consciousness.

I 2019 vant Richard Powers’ roman The overstory Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is about the lives of eight people who intertwine through their relationship with trees. In 2020, Robin Wall ended up in Kimmerers Braiding Sweetgrass on the New York Times bestseller list, for its vision of mutual care and the connection between people and plants. In the same year, Merlin published Sheldrake Interwoven lives, where he explored fungi and the "Wood Wide Web" of their mycorrhizal cooperation with plants.

'Technological ecology'

Two extraordinary books weave these threads one step further: Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence by British artist, technologist and writer James Bridle, and The Mountain in The Sea, the debut novel of American Ray Nayler. The books deal with the same topics: intelligence beyond the human, not just plant and animal varieties, but also artificial and technological.

Bridle explores the "many forms of being and doing, of living and thriving, structured across and interwoven between the many branches of the tree, or thicket, of life". The texts argue for a 'technological ecology' where our latest creations may not distance us from nature, but can help us better understand its complexity.

Ha Nguyen has spent his entire career researching octopus intelligence.

I The Mountain in the Sea a rumor is spread of an unusual accumulation of squidis living on a shipwreck in an archipelago. They cooperate, they signal – perhaps they even (maybe?) use language. Dr. Ha Nguyen, a marine biologist who has spent his entire career researching octopus intelligence, is intrigued – so is the technology company Dianima, which has bought and sealed off the archipelago and flown the marine biologist there with the world's first android robot to find out what's going on.

Nayler's debut is both an exciting thriller set in the near future and a deep exploration of language, communication and difference. Both books are based on rich traditions from geography, anthropology, ecology and systems science in the West – thinking combined with inherited folklore and indigenous people's experience with observation and presence in nature. But this is not a typical text where 'nature' is the opposite of 'technology'. On the contrary. For both authors, artificial intelligences are simply 'second brains', a new man-made branch on the tree of life.

From octopuses to machine learning

I have spoken with both authors to understand the books' kinship in personal as well as intellectual terms. How have the authors opened the mind to other consciousnesses, and to something beyond human worlds?

For Nayler it seems that The Mountain in the Sea was a life project. "I wrote a report in fourth or fifth grade on octopuses," he told me. "Then I've been in Vietnam as the environment, science, technology and health officer at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, especially at Con Dao, working on various projects."

During his career in the US Peace Corps, Nayler worked and lived all over the world. But he found something exceptional in the remote Con Dao Islands: “I love the place. It is a national park with many problems with poaching, overfishing and other environmental degradation from the population. It stuck as a place I wanted to add a story to.”

But why exactly squid? "I wanted to write a story about 'man's first contact' that was not with an alien, but with a species here on Earth. It wasn't about finding intelligent liv – which is such a misnomer, as I think wildlife is incredibly intelligent in different ways – the point was to connect with an animal that had a token level of communication, like we have.”

"Lichen species farm algae, we grow bacteria, everyone feeds other species, the trees talk and everyone sings."

Where Nayler looks at communication between people and animal through science fiction, Bridle relies on a variety of scientific research: "Humans have communicated with animals for as long as we have lived with them," writes Bridle. An example is the Yao people of Mozambique, who search for wild honey in cooperation with 'honey guides' – small, brown birds that make distinctive chirps to attract the Yao people's attention, while the Yao use a tongue-rolling 'brrrrr-hm' sound to call the birds in again. The foragers triple the chances of finding a hive in the forest, while the birds benefit from the yao's sharp axes cutting open the hives – making the nutritious beeswax inside available.

But it is not only gatherers and hunters who make an effort: Ways of Being covering recent research from Google, MIT and the University of Arizona.

For example the use of sensors and machine learning to classify patterns in whale songs and prairie dog calls, hoping to discover the principles of the animals' communication. Bridle believes we should not limit our ambitions: "Our goal should not be to master the language of animals, but rather to better understand the lives of animals, and thereby be able to change our relationship with them in ways that are mutually beneficial."

Cells signal

Nayler's interest in language "came from my exploration of biosemiotics", he says. And mentions that Jesper Hoffmeyer's books Biosemiotics og Signs of Meaning in the Universe gave inspiration. "Biosemiotics is the study of signs at the cellular level, right up to complex human symbolic communication. It's physical, of course," says Nayler, "all sign exchange is physical and happens in the world", from the electrical pulses that move through a nerve cell, to the pigment sacs that expand and contract in the squid's skin.

'Even a cell can process information', is essentially the argument. It does not mean that a cell has a brain, but it does mean that a cell can receive input, interpret it and react. It's an ontological shock: What if the human ability to speak, what we thought made us special, turns out not to be unique to us, but actually something that exists across many different forms of life?

“Not only are we the product of multiple entangled ancestors, spanning vast areas of the evolutionary field; we are not even individuals,” writes Bridle. IN Ways of Beings chapter 3, "The thicket of life", he searches for the origin of life by unraveling the 'internal fossil record' of DNA, RNA and proteins found in our cells.

Cells don't just signal to each other, Bridle explains, they are deeply entangled endosymbionts (See here ). Deep in evolutionary history – researchers theorize – one bacterium devoured another bacteria, and their hybridity became cellular structures of mitochondria and chloroplasts that produced the energy that made complex, multicellular life possible. When Bridle writes about this, the lyrics are joyous, almost delirious: “We stumble down it genetice line, all together (…) lichen species farm algae, we grow bacteria, everyone feeds other species, the trees talk and everyone sings.”

How the forest works

Both authors have the forest as a particularly inspiring environment. Nayler stated: “I have a short story entitled 'Eyes of the Forest'; in it there is a character who says: 'It matters how you see the forest, but what matters most is how the forest sees you.' His years in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan taught him that communication exists in the space between self and other, not only in the intention of the speaker, but also in the recipient's perception and interpretation of the message.

Later he came across anthropologist-writers in whom he recognized himself. The 'perspectivism' of the Amazonian indigenous people is the notion that 'the world consists of different types of subjects or persons, human and non-human, who perceive reality from different points of view'. Nayler celebrates this tradition in his novel, through Dr. Ha Nguyen's forthcoming monograph How Oceans Think – a reference to anthropologist Eduardo Kohns How Forests Think (2013)

For Bridle, too, the forest was the origin of a burgeoning moment: "The first direct meeting was with Suzanne Simard and her work in the forests of Western Canada. I was impressed by what she explained about how the forest works, how they live, and the way they communicate and share resources."

Simard's research looks at how roots and fungi form a network of communication and resource sharing between trees. The research inspired Richard Powers' to write the novel The overstory (2018), which was also a catalyst for Bridle, who says: “As I read it, I felt something change within me, a sense of having been blind to events and processes all my life, blind to complete lives that surround us all the time.”

Ecosystemic thinking

The two authors have been influenced by their surroundings, especially when they moved from big cities to rural residences. "Living in different cultures has a huge effect because it makes you question everything you know," says Bridle. "Examining the hypotheses in one's own culture is a necessary prerequisite for any form of new critical thinking." In particular, moving to a small Greek island gave "a far more intense and personal relationship with nature than I had earlier in my life".

For Nayler revealed the time in Turkmenistan how his American culture was strange and 'alienating', in contrast to the slower, highly social Turkmen existence. Ways of Being refers a lot to indigenous thinking, from Tyson Forest Gate of thinking with stones, to the voting methods of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.

Some writers may react against the Western capitalist worldview by choosing the traditional lifestyle of indigenous people or life in the countryside. Instead, Bridle and Nayler do something more interesting: a study of Western science that shows there has been room for ecosystemic thinking and community with something other than people all the time. Remember Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is both a registered member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (North American indigenous people) and a professor of environmental and forest biology at The State University of New York (SUNY). In a 2017 interview stated Kimmerer: "I wanted the readers to understand that both indigenous knowledge and Western science are important knowledge, and that by using them at the same time we can imagine a more just and joyful relationship with the earth."

"Systems thinking has been fighting its way into public and academic consciousness for a very long time," Nayler tells us, "starting perhaps as early as the late 1800s." As Nayler points out, it is a theme that appears in Charles Darwin's Origin of species (1859), where he emphasizes that the point is not the struggle for the survival of a species, but a tangle of interconnected life: It is interesting to look at a tangled plain landscape, covered with many plants of various kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flying about, and with earthworms crawling through the damp earth – and to think that these elaborate forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in such a complex way, have all been created by 'laws' which affects us.

Bridle looks Darwin as an ally in thinking beyond the human species. In 1838, the naturalist visited an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo and brought her a harmonica. "Let man visit a domesticated orangutan ... see its intelligence ... and then let him boast of his proud superiority," wrote Darwin in his notebook.

Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field, based on the principle of studying systems as a whole rather than as separate parts. In 1948 came Norbert Wiener's fundamental work Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, who developed the idea of ​​self-organizing systems.

In 1838, the naturalist visited an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo and brought her a harmonica.

Nayler pointed out, "I think the reason systems theory is 'everywhere' right now is that it's finally bubbling to the surface in public discourse, after being debated in science for generations."

So why now? “We are all desperately looking for a way to find opinion on, in a world that has obviously gone in a terribly crazy direction, and continues to continue in the same direction,” replied Bridle. "It requires reflection, it requires us to create new models and metaphors for how the world works."

The rise of artificial intelligence-based image generation tools has raised questions about what we thought were human skills: creativity and art. In Nayler's novel, Dr. Ha Nguyen#: “Communication is community. When we communicate with others, we take something from them into ourselves, and give them something of ours. Perhaps it is this thought that makes us so nervous about the idea of ​​meeting cultures other than the human one. The idea that what it means to be human will change – and we will lose our footing. Or that we must finally take responsibility for our actions in this world.”

Bridle agrees, writing in his book: “Our survival depends on our ability to enter into a new contract with that which exists beyond the human, one that sees the intelligence and being of all things—animals, vegetables, and machines…as an urgent cry for humility and care.”

Because that is the job that needs to be done. The ultimate gift of this 'thinking-beyond-the-human' can be to make us more humane.

Posted by New Humanist 4/2022, Jay Owens/Eurozine on February 3, 2023.

Translated into Norwegian by Iril Kolle.

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