Evolving Intelligence: From atoms to higher organisms

By Henk de Weijer


Every day it becomes clearer that the old dichotomy of matter and mind needs to be replaced by the polarity of energy and consciousness. Many new questions come up, resulting in many satisfying, but also many dissatisfying answers. In the past, passionate researchers like Giordano Bruno and Jacques Benveniste, who could not resist searching behind accepted horizons of knowledge, were sacrificed in the maintenance of the status quo. The insatiable thirst to know and understand how the universe functions cannot be suppressed. In our time, with its multiple possibilities, this has resulted in a tremendous increase of research in all directions and areas.

Whatever the concepts of ’mind’ and ‘awareness’ may mean, it will be difficult to deny that humans have a mind and are aware of it. When their body is a product of the full path of evolution, their mind also must have evolved on that path. The form of the human body has evolved in a long process that started with the emergence of subatomic particles immediately after the Big Bang. The next step was the formation of the five first atoms – Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, and Boron – at the moment of recombination, 380,000 years later. All other natural atoms received and still receive their identity in a never-ending process, during the explosion of stars and novae. In the Proterozoic, the era that lasted from 2.5 billion to 500 million years BCE, first prokaryotes and later eukaryotes were formed. The first human species emerged six and modern human beings two million years ago. In this way, not only forms but also their respective minds must have evolved. Forms and events can be observed and analyzed but a mind is mainly an internal affair, and consequently it is not easy to observe and analyze it. However, there is a way out. If a mind is something that has evolved in the course of evolution, it must be a composition of a substratum that knows.

Energy ultimately leads to entropy. Organic forms, and especially new ones, must have a syntropic cause. Accepting that energy is involved in forming new forms and events does not mean that energy automatically and simultaneously should be considered as the cause of new forms and events. Let me give a small example. The art of flying cannot be performed by ignoring gravity, but an organism that has learned how to fly does need to embrace it and play with it. That creative and skillful play cannot originate from a blind force; in addition a creative and skillful catalyst is required. Forms need a managed structure with a creative and skillful capacity, capable of observing and adequately interacting with all internal and environmental influences. It needs a mind, and its substratum can only be consciousness. Different from energy, consciousness is a substratum with particular qualities like intellect, memory, intuition and more. Intellect is an internal property but is also fit to express itself in behavior and form. If intellect and its expression, intelligence, have evolved from level zero to their present level, it will be interesting to see whether this evolution can be observed in atoms, molecules, viruses or uni- and multicellular plant and animal organisms.

Both plant and animal organisms show intelligent skill in interacting with their social and physical environment. Not only their behavior but also their physical structure shows a high degree of consistency and intelligence. Separate from biology, physics discovered that molecules and atoms, the fundamental components of organisms, show signs of memory in the form of some rudimentary intelligence. The results of various kinds of research are remarkable, yet they meet large amounts of skepticism. Despite this skepticism, this article will show a small number of examples of that research.

Examples of Intelligence


When ice cubes are heated up, they melt, lose their cube form and don’t regain it after lowering the temperature below 0ºC. The transition from order to disorder is irreversible. The water molecules do not retain a memory of the state of order from their previous organization. Although this is true, it is not an absolute truth. Before a gas is cooled down to absolute zero -0K- and thus becomes a Bose-Einstein Condensate, first an intermediate state, called the prethermalized state, occurs. For a remarkably long time, the atoms keep some ‘memory’ of their previous quantum mechanical origin.

In 2012, Jörg Schmiedmayer of the Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology (VSQT) described the background of that memory: “If we split the atom cloud into two parts and recombine them after some time, a wave pattern forms. That is proof that the atom clouds still contain information about having emerged from a highly ordered quantum physical state.” The so-called correlation length of the period of ‘memory’ does depend on the density of the gas cloud but not on its temperature. This dependence is supposed to indicate that the prethermalized state is a fundamental property of quantum physics.


Researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University (LMU) connected one end of a synthetic polymer gently to an atomic force microscope (AFM), and the other end to a gold surface. When the salinity of the medium was increased, the molecule gradually folded together. After the salt content of the medium had been lowered, the molecule unfolded again. These, what are called ‘intelligent molecules,’ are designed to function as nano switches, nano sensors, and chromatography procedures or to recognize diseased cells, while leaving healthy cells untouched.

Edwin Oviedo, from Carabobo University in Venezuela, designed a particular procedure to synthesize an appropriate new catalyst and assumed the resulting procedure to be specific to the source (a chosen commercial catalyst). After the outcome had been observed, the same experiment was repeated with two additional samples. To the surprise of the whole team, the results were not identical but had doubled. Each step was scrutinized to assure that the same chemicals had been used, and all steps of the concerned procedure had the same condition. What had happened? No explanation seemed to fit. Some mysterious traveler is hiding in the background.


Viruses can choose their victims and if necessary wait a long time inside the body of their choice before they strike. They can infect a victim as a prophage, and integrate into the chromosome of their victim until the most appropriate moment to come out of the box and replicate. They are predators, biological killing machines and unfit to cooperate. Not entirely true! They are killing machines, but also capable of co-operating, although they lack feelings of empathy. Helen Leggets work at the University of Exeter showed that they only cooperate if it serves their interest to kill as many cells as possible. When a virus works with related viruses, it kills slower, because by doing so it can replicate more. Conversely, when a virus cooperates with unrelated viruses, it kills faster to dominate the other viruses. Who can deny that this practice is smart and efficient? Only one little problem is worth mentioning here: neither viruses, nor organelles, nor cells, have brains and neurons.


In the late 1980’s, a severe drought occurred in South Africa. People, plants and animals suffered. The Greater Kudus, big South African antelopes that are herbivores, sought their hope in the still green Acacias. Then, thousands of Kudus started to die. The mortality rate appeared to be related to the number of Kudus on a farm. On small farms, there were even no deaths at all. Post-mortem investigation of the Kudus showed that the rate of fermentation in the stomachs of the animals on the big farms was much lower than the ones on the small farms. Not only that, all dead kudus had unusually high doses of tannin in their stomach. Big animals can easily absorb the small amounts of tannin that plants produce to kill parasites and insects. The extremely high amounts of tannin in the Kudus stopped the fermentation in their stomachs and they died of starvation.

Then the acacia trees were investigated. On the big ranches, the level of tannin in the trees was four times larger than on the small farms. It was obvious; something caused the acacias to overproduce tannin. The air around the branches was researched and appeared to contain Ethylene, CH2=CH2, a very light and odorless gas. When it gets to the branches of acacia trees, it causes the mitochondria in their cells to produce enzymes that catalyze the production of more tannin. This was a chemical chain reaction of the trees, to prevent a certain death of their identity in already difficult circumstances. How could the trees think of this practical solution and implement it?

Plants may have intelligence, but are they also able to learn? To find out about this, a team from the University of Florence designed a test in which mimosa pudica plants (touch-me-nots) were dropped 15 cm. Definitely a significant shock, but not life threatening. The plants were variously grown in low light (LL) and high light (HL) environments. The team expected the LL plants to learn more quickly. The first test clearly showed the fright of the plants; they closed their leaves. Eight hours later the test was repeated, with the same result. Then a large group was trained by dropping them 60 times with an interval of some seconds, and this was repeated seven times a day. Gradually the plants stopped closing their leaves. However, when a different shock was performed, the plants closed their leaves again. Remarkably, the plants remembered their training. Six days later the plants that were subjected to the lengthy testing did not close their leaves at all. When both HL and LL groups were tested again after 28 days, both groups were shown to have learned that the drop was harmless and even opened their leaves wider than before.

How do plants transmit their intelligence, learn and remember, since they don’t have brains and a neural system? According to Dr. Gagliano: “Calcium based cellular signaling is one possible explanation, as is the processing of information by cells via ion flows – plants have well-established pathways to transmit information via electrical signals.”


Cooperation is a widely spread phenomenon in the course of evolution. However, it is mixed with various forms of the opposite strategy: cheating. Cheaters do not cooperate with the overall group but still gain the advantages of the cooperation within their group. Nevertheless, they may co-operate with other cheaters or in some instances they may cheat, while in others they do not. To go with the flow may be a sign of intelligence, but the conscious choice to sometimes cheat and sometimes cooperate hints at intelligence, as well as a feeling of identity.


According to Linnaeus, Insecta had no brains. Now we know by research, that both human beings and insects have brains and are smart, but does this also mean that intelligence depends on the quantity of neurons? The content of whale brains is about 30 dm3, of human beings about three dm3, and of honeybees 1mm3. We can memorize places and have a sense of time. We can learn, collect and interpret information and cooperate for targeted action, but honeybees can also do this. Our brains are one million times bigger than the brains of a honeybee. Are we one million times smarter? It could very well be that the intelligence of insects per mm3 will outsmart our brains. More efficient or not, the presence of their intellect and intelligence is not a point of discussion.

Larger organisms

Humans have instinctive behavior, a definite feeling of identity, emotions and intellect, creativity and intuition, as well as deep discrimination. About half a century ago it was assumed that humans were the only organisms that had such characteristics. At present, increased research shows that both animals and plants are much closer to us than ever thought before.

Magpies recognize their own reflection and can distinguish between the faces of strangers and those of people they regularly see. Elephants can paint and are self-aware. Cephalopods (cuttlefishes) are incessantly curious and able to use tools. Pigs are trained to move a cursor along a video screen. Dolphins are creative and cooperate cleverly. Intelligence is not an exception; it is a rule. Small and big animals, small and big plants, all are equipped with it.


In this small sketch of evolving intelligence, from atoms to higher organisms and the associated research, the name Jagdish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) should certainly not be lacking. By experimenting with his crescograph –a device to measure the growth of plants– he discovered many similarities between plants and animals. After the year 2000, continuously increasing research on the behavior and intelligence of animals and plant organisms has been carried out. Scientists like Eric D. Brenner, Stefano Mancuso, František Baluška and Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, have done legitimate research while using careful terminology. They demonstrated that the electrical and chemical signaling systems in plants were very complex and comparable to those used by animals. Although intelligence in animals is meeting less emotional resistance, plant intelligence still is controversial. Stephano Marcuso only says: “Intelligence is a property of life.” Lincoln Taiz, a professor emeritus of Plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz, has a promissory attitude: “The plant behaviors that we cannot yet account for, will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.” Clifford Slayman is even tougher: “Plant Intelligence is a foolish distraction, not a new paradigm.”

Positive or negative bias is equally dangerous for a balanced increase of knowledge. If physical bodies evolved from atoms to full-grown organisms, there is little reason to assume in advance that many mental skills would not have evolved along that same path. It is also more than reasonable to assume that properties like ‘memory’ and ‘intelligence’ in molecules will be closer to linear behavior than the same properties in humans. New, clearer definitions that take evolutionary developments into account and let go of existing anthropomorphisms are badly needed.