In our first exciting episode of 'Who’s Smarter: Chimps, Baboons or Bacteria? The Power of Group IQ' ( Part I ) we showed how small-brained baboons can outsmart big-brained chimpanzees and how bacteria can out-innovate chimps, baboons, and you and me. We also visited an evolutionary mystery in the world of a bacterial buddy that's with you every day, the E. coli found in your gut.
In a lab dish, E. coli can do something neo-Darwinian theory says just can not be. Neo-Darwinism is a late 20th century, mathematically-buttressed evolutionary dogma that says all evolution comes from competition between individuals, and that cooperation is simply a byproduct of selfishness.
According to this view, all change in a genome-all change in a string of genes-- is random. To survive, each genetic change has to give the selfish members of a species an edge. Yet when E. coli are given a food their metabolism can't digest, salicin, they engineer their genome into a form that disables them. They take a big step backward. Why? So they can take their genome a step forward, re-jigger their metabolism, and turn the salicin from an obstacle in the path into a buffet.
According to neo-Darwinians, the giant step backward is impossible. How do E. coli pull it off? By using Group IQ. And what, exactly is Group IQ? That's what we're about to see.
Computer scientists discovered something interesting back in the 1980s. If you wanted to make a supercomputer for a lot less money than the ones that used to come at huge cost from the Cray Computer Company back in those ancient days, you had to abandon linear processing. You had to ditch the notion of threading all your information just one step at a time through one central microprocessor.
You had to hook up a few dozen or a few hundred microprocessors and let them take their crack at the problem simultaneously.
If you let your swarm of microprocessors operate in parallel, the “parallel-processing” gizmo you produced was a supercomputer. And it cost one tenth the price of a Cray Computer…or less.
Bacteria use the same trick. They use parallel distributed processing. And, frankly, so do you and I. We do it in our brains—communities of 100 billion nerve cells working on problems simultaneously. And we do it in our cultures—collective-thinking frameworks that pool our thoughts with those of our ancestors. But bacteria use parallel distributed processing in even more powerful ways than us human beings.
Remember, there are over a trillion citizens, a trillion one-celled organisms, in a normal bacterial colony. Those bacterial cells spread out like members of a search party looking for a lost kid in a meadow.
The object of their search? Territory rich in food.
They talk to each other constantly, gossiping about their woes and their big scores, their discoveries of groceries, of enemies, of disasters, and of poisons.
The language of their chatter is chemical. They send out biochemical gradients of attraction and repulsion signals—chemical come-hithers and go-aways. When a high-priority problem hits, no single bacterium works on it by herself. The whole colony pitches in. That means between one trillion and roughly seven trillion microprocessors mull over a problem simultaneously. It also means that a trillion or more microprocessors spread out on the terrain are sending their reports in.
Together, those trillion nano-processors make something utterly beyond the power of any single individual. They make something no single individual can even sum up or see. They generate what Eshel Ben-Jacob calls a creative web. They make a collective intellect capable of formulating problems, testing solutions and then, of all the amazing things, literally retooling, upgrading, and reinventing their own central string of genes—their own genome.
Now that is collective smarts. That is collective intelligence. And it began 3.5 billion years ago when bacteria first evolved on this brand new planet earth.
And I do mean that this earth was brand new when the first collective intellects emerged. This planet-in-the-making was still being smacked by comets and planetesimals. With each asteroid that thwomped it, the earth woggled like a pudding. And bacteria apparently outwitted the thwompings. The earth was a tricky and a challenging place when the first bacterial colonies got their group brains up and running.
In other words, the earth was an intelligence tester par excellence. And bacteria passed the tests.
The number of really big problems bacteria have solved since then is staggering. They’ve rejiggered their genomes so they can eat sulfur and rock. They’ve reengineered their genome so they can live two miles below the surface of the earth where the pressures are beyond belief and the food—granite--is on a par with driveway gravel. They’ve retooled themselves so they can live in a flood of radioactive particles that would kill off you and me. And there’s speculation that they’ve even learned to survive two miles above the ground in clouds and that they’ve learned to manipulate the weather so that the rains and sun give them the saunas and the food they love the most.
What’s more, we’ve picked the brain of the bacterial mass mind more than we care to confess. We’ve stolen invention after invention from our single-celled sisters. Our antibiotics are the weapons of mass destruction, the chemical weapons, with which two colonies of bacteria or more make war. Our genetic engineering kits are made of the tools bacteria use to reengineer their own genome.
The tools behind our genetic engineering are plasmids, phages, and transposons. And we stole every one of them from the tool belt that bacteria wear. What’s more, our gherkin, herring, and sauerkraut processors recruit massive teams of bacteria to pickle food. Our cheese makers seduce vast armies of bacteria to make our cheese.
And here’s something even more surprising. You use bacterial powers all the time. You are a collective intelligence of 100 trillion cells. As we’ve seen, a hundred billion of those cells participate in the collective intelligence you think of as just one thing--your brain.
But here’s a bigger surprise. Half of your hundred trillion cells don’t even claim to be you. They’re huge bacterial colonies living in your throat, your gut, and on your skin. Without them you’d be dead. In your pores bacteria turn what you exude into the sweet or sour smell that folks who’ve fallen in love with you have been attracted to…or that have made other folks edge away on those days when you’ve forgotten to use deodorant.
More important, in your gut, bacterial colonies take things you can’t digest and finish the digestion process off for you. Their deal is that you feed them their favorite foods and they will munch them, they’ll shit out what they can’t digest, and their excrement will be on a par with honey and ambrosia to you. They’ll crap out the raw fuels that power you.
What’s more, other bacterial colonies in your gut make your vitamin P, your vitamin K, and some of your B vitamins for you. Without your interior bacterial support team you couldn’t survive. To the bacteria inside of you, you are just a convenient self-guiding transport vehicle, a terrific food-gathering, and food-grinding machine.
So next time you eat a chocolate éclair, remember there’s a lot of it that you can’t do much more than chew. You’re relying on bacterial teams to do the real digesting for you.
I already mentioned that bacteria adapt to radioactivity. They’ve invented ways to thrive in the water pools used in nuclear reactors. Radioactivity periodically shatters their entire genome. Without a genome, you can’t survive. But these bacteria—the Deinococcus radiodurans --have built compression and storage systems that allow them to hold on to their critical data and reconstruct their genome over and over again. Now think about that for a second.
That is the work of high IQ. That is research and development on a scale we can’t imagine. That’s the working of a collective intelligence and more, a collective innovation-and-breakthrough machine.
Next time we'll not only talk more about Group IQ, we'll even come up with a Group IQ test.
On to Part III.