Response to “Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes”

I especially enjoyed this reading, because it comes from a vastly different perspective than the majority of the other readings we have done for this course. In particular, it encourages an expanded view of what intelligence and awareness can mean, opposing the common SETI pitfall of an overly-anthropocentric perspective. This paper is not specifically explicitly related to SETI, but contributes a valuable scientific perspective to the broad question of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The authors discuss the collective behavior of individual cell organisms and present a variety of examples where the cells work together in a group (biofilm) in intelligent ways. The cells within a biofilm often differentiate to perform a variety of functions that serve to benefit the collective group. For example, the cells in some biofilms organize themselves in elegant structures so as to maximize oxygen intake and waste release. Other biofilms expand out in spiral or filamentary patterns to explore the surrounding environment for nutrients. These explorations sometimes leave behind a slimey residue, effectively “marking” the path and building a collective memory of areas that are rich in nutrients or areas that should be to avoided.

While this concept of life is very different from what likely first comes to mind as intelligent or aware, there are a number of reasons why such a form of intelligence may flourish. The authors suggest that the betterment of the whole may outweigh the sacrifices of its individual members. Additionally, the differentiation of tasks could allow for individual benefits to go along with the sacrifices. For example, cells on the outer part of a biofilm may have to divide frequently for growth, but may have the best access to oxygen, while cells on the inner part may have to release spores to seed new biofilms, but may enjoy longer lifetimes than their counterparts on the outer reaches.

It is important to keep an open mind about what extraterrestrial intelligence may be like as we conduct our search for its evidence. Making overly strong assumptions about the nature of a supposed extraterrestrial intelligence (in particular, its similarity to us) may lead us to overlook signatures that we are not receptive to finding.