Wednesday March 1, 2017
What we can learn from slime about creativity, complexity and creating a whole new, wholly natural, organisational model
'To be a one at all you must be a many, and that’s not a metaphor.'
From the time of Aristotle, near the end of the 4th century BCE, until well after the middle of the 20th century, the entire biological world was considered divisible into just two great kingdoms - plants and animals.
The separation was based on the assumption that plants are pigmented (basically green), non-mobile (most commonly from being rooted in the soil), photosynthetic and therefore capable solely of self-contained (autotrophic) nutrition, and unique in possessing cellulose walls around their cells. By contrast, animals are without photosynthetic pigments (colourless), actively mobile, nutritionally phagotrophic (eat by engulfing a food cell or particle and therefore required to capture or absorb important nutrients), and without walls around their cells.
This assertion is frequently identified in contemporary ideas which differentiate the human from the animal and plant kingdoms. However it does little service to what is actually happening out in the universe of activity that is Nature.
It wasn’t until microscopy arose as a science in its own right that botanists and zoologists discovered evidence of the vast diversity of life mostly invisible to the unaided eye. With rare exception, the authorities of the time classified such microscopic forms as minute plants (called algae) and minute animals (called protozoa, literally 'first animals'). Such taxonomic assignments went essentially unchallenged for many years, despite the fact that the great majority of those minute forms of life — not to mention certain macroscopic ones, various parasitic forms, and the entire group known as the fungi — did not possess the cardinal characteristics on which the 'plants' and 'animals' had been differentiated and thus had to be forced to fit into those kingdom categories.
In 1860, British naturalist John Hogg took exception to the imposition of the plant and animal categories on the lowly protists and proposed that there should be a fourth kingdom, named Protoctista (the other three kingdoms encompassed the animals, the plants, and the minerals). Six years later German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (having dropped the mineral kingdom) proposed a third kingdom, the Protista, to embrace micro-organisms. Then in the late 1930s American botanist Herbert F. Copeland proposed a separate kingdom for the bacteria (the kingdom Monera), based on their having the unique absence of a clearly defined nucleus. Under Copeland’s arrangement, the kingdom Protista thus consisted of nucleated life that was neither plant nor animal. The following decade he revived the name Protoctista, using it in favour of Protista.
Now, enter the world of slime mould.
A Protista of monumental proportions and presence across the planet, slime moulds are truly ancient. They arrived hundreds of millions, even perhaps a billion years ago, and theoretically at least, they’re immortal. If the slime can’t find nutrient resources it goes into hibernation, turning into a scab or growing spores to await future conditions when it can regenerate. In other words, it’s one of the earthly creatures best suited to survive planetary extinction. As such, we should look hard at what it does and learn from it as much as we can. Lynn Margulis, the evolutionary biologist, argued that 'those great evolutionary survivors, the lowly slime moulds, would inherit the earth'.
Understanding the behaviour of polycephalum - literally 'many-headed slime' - requires a shocking reconsideration of what we mean by intelligence. As I have suggested in other writings, contemporary theories of intelligence almost universally rely on the 'information processing' metaphor. This is the idea that the intelligent brain is like a powerful computer, processing data through computational actions like storage, transfer, and retrieval. Although this is nothing like what brains really do, it dominates how we tend to see the world and daily reality. This anthropocentric and Western industrial theory of computational intelligence as a metaphor for all intelligence is a historically-specific construct. Like all theories of mind throughout history, it tends to mirror the most advanced technology of the era. A t various times the brain has been described as a hydraulic system, an electrical circuit, and a set of chemical reactions. Perhaps the time for 'Brain as Slime' has come!
Many, including Noam Chomsky, have argued that no technological comparison will be accurate until we understand how consciousness works first. Even if it could be artificially replicated, the process can’t be initially grasped through stabs at modelling it. So what if instead of looking for the most advanced metaphor to account for consciousness, we were to look to a 'primitive' organic species such as slime mould, not only to understand or imagine how one's brain works inside the skull, but also the way many brains work together? This collective form of intelligence is opening some interesting new lines of thinking for we humans in our present places.
Unlike a typical programmable agent that processes information through memory, the decision-making process of slime mould can’t be predicted or replicated, since it coordinates itself entirely through sensory feedback with its environment, literally making it up as it goes along. Exactly how this feedback happens is still unclear, but it has something to do with the extracellular slime traces that the cell leaves behind to tell itself where it’s already been. We already recognise and acknowledge this behaviour in the canine world. When our dog sniffs the scent of other dogs who have been there before we know that this is a form of information passing, and not just a handy place for a pee. So it seems quite possible that something similar is happening in the world of slime. It does not make internal memories, but it does make choices based on past behaviour. Its cognition is its movement. It knows exactly, and only, what it does. 'Physarum’s spatial memory works,' writes Steven Shaviro, 'not by internal representation, but rather by a physical marking of the very space that is being remembered. In this case, the map actually coincides with the territory'.
Shaviro likens this behaviour to the theory of Extended Mind, a philosophical concept put forth in the late 1990s that the brain and its environment can be seen as an indistinguishable coupled system, something which resonates with knowledge practices of Dreamtime evident in indigenous Australian communities whose human presence maintained a continuous presence for over thirty thousand years. There is something sustainable in the symbiosis of mind, place and matter. Nakagaki, on the other hand, compares it simply to the human unconscious response to stimuli. Both theories are metaphorical attempts to move beyond the information processing metaphor, by relocating intelligence altogether from the brain itself to a type of distributed, physically situated site, or, as in the work we are doing in the Naturally Smart programme linking schools from across the world, a 'place-specific' system.
The slime mold is a hybrid, it functions as an organism but it is also an organisation — not so much a train as a railway system. Like robotics, infrastructure design has begun to learn from the notion of decentralised, environmentally specific intelligence. Keller Easterling describes the evolution of massive worldwide infrastructure systems: 'When the object of design is not an object form or master plan but a set of instructions for an interplay between variables, design acquires some of the power and currency of software. […] It is an "abstract machine" generative of a "real that is yet to come"'.
Working within the consciousness of other living entities requires adapting along with it, so our parameters for the investigations need to find ways to host infrastructural design challenges - ,what are the core conditions here? What might happen here? What do we think we want and, importantly, what would Nature do? How might our intervention be enhanced through the natural resources available to us?
At every stage of the learning we can calibrate multiple parts to form an understanding of our work as a whole. Through the Naturally Smart programme, we are in the process of developing, across multiple sites, a huge interactive platform which in turn serves as our shared laboratory. Our ideas needs habitats — we are not just involved in replication and continuous repetition of existing knowledge. Instead we move, just like slime, through the architectural space. The habitats we construct as a result of interrogating our places are interactive, often resembling puzzles in their own right as we weave together a sequence of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes singular, threads of actions which are always connected in the wholeness of place. The labyrinth we create is a generative form of actions which contains not only the formal history of computational problem solving and theories of mind, but also represents the collision of the natural and artificially constructed space we inhabit. We are what we become in such settings. The place is intimately woven with the mind. Imagine what we will be, and we will be what we imagine.
What better way, then, to explore human actions instead of seeking greater levels of security and effectiveness through ever more complex modelling systems and accountability to past conceptualisations of any standard. Instead, we begin to formulate an impression of place which results from multiple interactions and responses at a sensory level to our environment.
As we begin to move the work of Naturally Smart towards numerous sites of enquiry and narrative globally, we can therefore usefully examine the collective, as well as the localised, meaning of the activity. Can Naturally Smart be designed and function as a protist, slime-like organisation? What would we need to profile? How could and should we organise? What data would we gather? How would we report our actions? Damasio wrote in his work on consciousness that the ‘feeling’ of what happens plays an immense part in the way things happen and how we explain and subsequently experience them. Designing an organisational process which is capable of multifunctional action, in multiple settings, where each node is also part of the combined effect, and functions in a non-linear and lateral collaboration with other nodes, seems to be the point we are now at as a group.
So, can we develop ‘naturally’? How can we evolve devoid of hierarchical structures which inevitably inhibit and induce reductive solutions in our practice? Can the collective mind of the Naturally Smart community function as a consciousness? Does it help us to form a mode of working to consider it in this way? The remarkable intelligence of polycephalum is not in its asynchronicity, but in its lack of any need for a manager governing that decentralised movement.
This is governance as a distribution system not of organisation and management but of idea and action?
If we were to focus on the level of unconsciousness, that which we don’t elucidate, what we can’t yet fathom or see, wouldn’t this generate a new dynamic for development and learning? We may find clues for this in the similarities between the information processing of humans and other forms of organic and synthetic life.
Will the people in our organisation react to the conditions in different ways each time they explore the configurations of themes we have identified as the pattern language of the programme? Will the network's presence affect the performance and action of a school, knowing that there is a dispersed, wider community than the one we directly function within? What narratives will each place spell out as they grow across the maze of schools and communities involved? How do we all communicate with the viewers, with each other, to best show what we are doing? How do we respond to the notion that the behaviour of our companions in each place enact a type of knowledge beyond our existing codified systems of representation?
What we have started to try to do in the design of the website and a mode of operation for Naturally Smart is to initiate a simple way of positioning existing action, but once we begin to move out to wider iterations of the work we don’t as yet know how best we can share the learning and likewise the work as a totality becomes a living, unpredictable, unknowable, slime-like entity.
Paper was drafted and hugely inspired by the paper Slime Intelligence by Elvia Wilk and Jenna Sutela and first appeared in Medium.com