Nature’s Intelligence or The Nature of Intelligence


75-mile-juniper-2.jpgThe juniper tree in the photo lives at the top of 75 Mile Ridge in the Grand Canyon. I have no idea how long it has lived there or how long it will continue living but I suspect it is in its middle age. Perhaps it is a hundred years old with perhaps another century to go. Two hundred years to watch the Grand Canyon. Not too bad a life. I spent a night with it last month and remembered a poet who thought it might be nice sometime to be a tree, “looking out in all directions at once.”

We’ve talked here before about avian intelligence. Ornithology is just one science beginning to learn that our definition of “intelligence” has been too limited.

We humans often divide organisms into three categories: Those which are inanimate, those which are sentient, and those which are also sapient. Sentient beings can feel; sapient beings are also self-aware and capable of judgment. Eastern religions don’t make the distinction, at least not as clearly. Most recognize many non-human sentient beings and many include “sapient” within the category of “sentient.” That is why a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others, vows to free all the numberless sentient beings which exist, not just the human ones.

Crows and Ravens use tools, hide their food caches and feel pain. Obviously they are sentient. Are they also sapient? Aware that another Raven is watching, a Raven will pretend to cache food at one spot but then hide the food somewhere else when it is not observed. Doesn’t that imply self-awareness and even judgment? A New Caledonian Crow with an ability to make tools to reach grubs was once put in a cage with another crow which never demonstrated the slightest ability to make a tool. It just waited for the tool-using crow to get a grub and then stole the grub. Single cell organisms “learn” to avoid unpleasant stimuli. Aspen trees “learned” to clone themselves to avoid the vicissitudes of sexual reproduction. Doesn’t that evolutionary decision imply sapience?

It is safe to assume that juniper tree at the top of 75 Mile Ridge is at least sentient. What if it is also sapient in some way we don’t yet comprehend? It may not be that much of a stretch into anthropomorphism to imagine that it is. That at some level it knows where it lives; knows what it is. Is it aware of a bird when the bird sits in it? It is envious of the bird’s ability to fly? Does it ever wonder where the humans who walk by it go? Would it like to hike along sometime and go experience what is up there two thousand feet higher at the South Rim of its home?”

It can’t, of course. Even if it is sapient, it is still a tree. Whatever consciousness it possesses is cabined and confined by its essential nature and its history in the Grand Canyon. It is not free to get up and move. It cannot be something other than what it is. It is not free to re-create itself from scratch. About all it can do is rearrange a branch here or there, drop some needles or change the direction one of its roots is growing.

Pretty much like us; which may be the reason we humans have had such a limited idea of intelligence. The whales, dolphins, orangutans, Chimpanzees, the crows. the ravens, even the trees may know more than we’ve given them credit for.


Gahan Wilson also speculated recently — in a manner only he can do — about the nature of plant intelligence. Here is the result of his speculations as published in the New Yorker’s issue of November 26th, 2007.071126_cartoonwilson_1_a12920_p465.jpg

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