All Living Things Think, No Matter How Teensy


Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing

By Frank T. Vertosick Jr.
354 pages. Harcourt. $26.

Frank T. Vertosick Jr., a neurosurgeon, has written a book that's an argument for a grand idea: most living things operate according to the same general model. That model is a network. A network is a self-regulating community of small things. "I could summarize the main thesis of this book in one sentence," he writes: "Life is a network."

The rest of "The Genius Within" is devoted to backing that thesis, and the reader must be warned: it's complicated. Dr. Vertosick begins by explaining that by "life," he means "intelligence." Intelligence is the ability to find an experience's important features, to identify patterns in those features and to recognize the same patterns in the next experience. This intelligence is a property of networks. Examples of living networks are colonies or immune systems or brains, made of viruses, bacteria, immune cells or neurons.

Intelligence emerges from networks because their subunits follow certain rules: they are all connected, they communicate through these connections, and they can strengthen or weaken the connections. The easiest way to show a network in the process of creating intelligence is with a kind of computer called a neural network.

A neural network has rows and rows of transistors, called neurons, each connected to all the other neurons. The top row of neurons takes in input; the bottom row signals output. A teacher shows the input neurons, say, a blue triangle. Electrical signals tear down a random path from one neuron to the next, and the output neurons say, "red square." "Wrong," the teacher says, so the network strengthens some connections and weakens others, tries a different path and comes up with "red triangle."

"Getting warmer," the teacher says, so the network adjusts again to a path that's somewhat different and the output neurons say, "purple triangle." "Close, but no cigar," the teacher says, so the network uses the same path except for a slight jag to the left and nails it, this time and every time thereafter. By getting the answer wrong, then less wrong and less wrong yet, the network finally gets it right. From these rules, from individual learning and global natural selection, Dr. Vertosick says, intelligence emerges.

And so Dr. Vertosick tells of bacteria swapping genes and communicating via hormones to become drug-resistant; and immune cells binding themselves to foreigners to produce immunity; and neurons zinging electrical signals from one to the other to create the mind. And he also agrees with James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, that all life and all parts of the earth co-evolved as a single super-network. "When Nature hits on a good idea — in this case, network architecture," he writes, "it uses it again and again."

Dr. Vertosick works hard to make his grand idea clear. His sentences are mostly simple, his voice is direct and friendly. He clarifies complex science with analogies. He paces the explanations slowly, so that the reader can mentally digest each step before attempting the next one. Even so, the book is almost impossibly confusing. One problem is the number of scientific fields covered. The reader has to digest, among others, neurology, genetics, cell biology, immunology, bacteriology, high-energy physics, electrical engineering and connectionist computer science — an overload for which Dr. Vertosick apologizes nicely.

The overload problem is compounded by a vast number of detours into, among others things, ant colonies, punctuated equilibrium (a theory of nongradual evolution) and fractal dimensions. None of these seem necessary. The most obstructive problem is that Dr. Vertosick explains his idea less with the neural net model — which is complicated enough — than with physicists' mathematical models of the model.

In this meta-model, called an energy surface, a right answer becomes an energy minimum, or a valley at the bottom of a hill. The concept is not helpful. In the end, the reader sees bits and pieces of the science and only the broadest outline of the argument, and ends up baffled. Dr. Vertosick anticipates this. "Few people," he writes, "possess the requisite knowledge to grasp the whole thing at one sitting." Few readers would re-read it.

But what if he's right? What if the genius of life is that it's built of small, discrete things connected into societies, and that out of those societies emerge immunity and intelligence? This idea, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is always lovely in itself. And the possibility of a universal architecture is enriching and delightful, like the knowledge that the elements we're composed of were made in stars.

So the next question is, how would we know he's right? Dr. Vertosick is a scientist and so knows that figuring out an idea is right requires testing it, then using the test results to modify the idea, then testing the new idea. And while all this is going on, he and his colleagues will argue over definitions, measuring errors and interpretations until they mostly agree.

With big, interdisciplinary ideas — like continental drift or species extinctions or Dr. Vertosick's life-as-a-network — scientists sometimes don't agree until a lot of tests, taken together, build into a case. But in this book he proposes none and perhaps none are possible. An un-testable idea, in the physicist Wolfgang Pauli's words, is not even wrong. So for now, the decision between a delightful possibility and not-even-wrong awaits the scientists.

See these other sites 
and their related links 
to help fill in the blanks:

Consciousness as an Active Force

Page 2


Thought this article from Metanexus might be interesting also.

Sound, Energy, and the Scientific Disciplines, 
Ananda Wood

**** Metanexus: Views. 2002.09.18. 

Disciplines, Part 1/2 From: Ananda Wood Email: <

    Sound According to a traditional conception, we can think of the entire universe as made of sound. This conception may be introduced by going down through a series of levels that are called 'tanmatras' in the Indian tradition. Literally, the Sanskrit word 'tanmatra' means 'that-merely' or 'that-measuring'. ('Tat' means 'that', and 'matra' means 'merely' or 'measuring'.) As 'that-merely', a tanmatra is a subtle essence, to which more obvious appearances may be reduced. As 'that-measuring', a tanmatra is a way of measuring or viewing our experience of the world. 

    So the tanmatras are a progression of subtle essences, found through deeper ways of looking at the world. In particular, there are five tanmatras, corresponding to the five traditional elements of 'earth', 'water', 'fire', 'air' and 'ether'. And they also correspond to the five senses: of smell, taste, sight, touch and sound. _ The first tanmatra is that of 'earth' and 'smell'. Here, 'earth' can be interpreted as objective matter, which is divided into particular objects. Each object is a piece of matter; and together all such objects make up an external world. At this level, experience is viewed through the kind of perception that identifies a particular object, as something different from other things. 

    That kind of perception is represented by the sense of smell, which sniffs out particular things. As for example when a dog sniffs out a trail of scent. Or when we speak of 'smelling a rat', to imply a sense of detection that zeroes in on something particular which has gone wrong. _ The second tanmatra is that of 'water' and 'taste'. Here, 'water' can be interpreted as flowing energy. Each particular object is conceived to be a gross appearance, made of something more subtle than what previously appeared. It is not a separate piece of matter; but, instead, it is a pattern of energy currents, flowing from and into other patterns. At this level, experience is viewed through a sympathetic activation of energy in the perceiving organism. That kind of perception is represented by the sense of taste. 

    It is clearly moved to act in sympathy with the flavours that it perceives. As it perceives an attractive or repulsive flavour, its own perceiving action is attracted or repelled accordingly. _ The third tanmatra is that of 'fire' and 'sight'. Here, 'fire' can be taken as a metaphor for meaningful information, which throws light on represented things. Each apparent form or pattern is conceived to have a meaning, and thus to represent something that has to be interpreted. At this level, experience is viewed through the interpretation of apparent form. That kind of interpretation is represented by the sense of sight. It shows us visual shapes and forms that clearly have to be interpreted, to tell us what is thus perceived. _ The fourth tanmatra is that of 'air' and 'touch'. Here, 'air' can be taken as a metaphor for qualitative conditioning (on the analogy of climatic conditioning in our physical atmosphere). 

    Each representation is conceived to be made up of relative qualities, which have to be evaluated. At this level, experience is viewed through the qualitative evaluations of intuitive judgment: as represented by the sense of touch. _ The fifth tanmatra is that of 'ether' and 'sound'. Here, 'ether' can be interpreted as pervading continuity. Each variation of quality is conceived to show a common continuity of underlying principle. At this level, changing experiences are viewed through the penetration of insight: to show an underlying continuity that they share in common. That kind of insight is represented by the sense of sound. It hears the changing sounds of words, and understands through them a continuity of meaning and consciousness that they express. Thus, among the faculties that take perception in, the sense of sound is accorded a special place. 

    It represents the deepest level of understanding: reflecting back from changing appearances to a changeless ground of consciousness that is expressed. From that inmost ground, the outward faculty of speech draws meaning and expresses it in sound. In traditional learning, with its intensive use of recitation and memory, experiences of listening and speaking are central. A student learned by hearing and reciting, far more than by reading what was written down. Thus it was only natural to make a profound investigation into the microcosmic and macrocosmic experiences of sound. In that investigation, sound is taken to be a special kind of movement, called 'vibration'. This is a repeated movement, about a central point of origin. In this kind of movement, there is a repeated cycle of disturbance: from an originating, central state of equilibrium and rest. 

    As our bodies speak and hear, we experience physical vibrations in our chests and throats and ears. At the lower notes of sound, the frequency is slow; and so we notice the throbbing movement of individual cycles that make up the vibration. As the pitch of sound gets higher, the frequency increases, and we are less able to notice the individual vibrations. When the pitch is high enough, we do not notice the individual vibrations at all. There, we only notice shapes and meanings and qualities of sound, produced by vibrations whose movements are too fast for us to perceive directly. Thus we conceive of subtle vibrations: which our senses cannot see directly, but which produce perceived effects in our experience. 

    Like modern physics, traditional conceptions make much use of this idea of subtle vibrations, behind the forms and names and qualities that we perceive. In particular, forms are conceived to be made up from pulsating currents of vibrant energy; names are conceived to achieve their representation and meaning through a radiant resonance of sympathetic vibration; and qualities are conceived to show a vibrant swinging to and fro between opposites (like pain and pleasure, depth and height, heat and cold). Subtle energy In one way, there is a remarkable agreement between modern physics and very much older ideas of matter and energy. Modern physics tells us that material things, like rocks and trees, are not quite the separate pieces of matter that they seem to be. 

    Each object is made of molecules and atoms, and in turn the atoms are made of sub-atomic particles which aren't quite particles. Instead, the sub-atomic 'particles' are quantum elements in dynamic patterns of vibrating and radiating energy. Thus, material objects are made up of complex energy patterns which are not really separate. These patterns, which we see as separate gross objects, are essentially interconnected, by the subtle vibrations and radiations of energy fluctuations that make up the patterns and the interaction between them. In India, the concept of a particle has long been described by the Sanskrit word 'anu', which also means 'minute' or 'subtle'. 

    This word 'anu' comes from the root 'an', which means to 'resonate with sound' or to 'breathe'. And it is closely related to the word 'prana', which means both 'breath' and 'energy'. In the Katha Upanishad (6.2), the concept of prana is shortly but quite explicitly described. It is a subtly vibrating and propagating energy that makes up the entire universe. Wherever we may look, the changing things we see are only gross appearances of this more subtle energy called 'prana'. The universe of changing things -- whatever may be issued forth -- it is all made of living energy, which moves and oscillates and shines. Beneath the similarity with modern physics, there is of course a crucial difference. The energy of prana is alive. Both in our bodies and the world outside, it is a natural energy whose functioning expresses living purpose and meaning, from underlying consciousness. This living energy cannot be known properly by looking out at its external forms and controlling them, through our material bodies and their external instruments. 

    It can only be known reflectively, through a reflective listening that harmonizes our living faculties with what they see outside themselves. From the viewpoint of prana (and other such notions in different traditions), the energy of modern physics is rather crudely objective. It is measured through material instruments and described by mathematical calculations. Thus measured and described, it is controlled, again through material instruments, towards the achievement of external objectives. The trouble here is that a subtle energy is being measured and controlled by material instruments which are essentially cruder and more gross. As quantum physics admits very explicitly, such crude material instruments interfere indelicately with what we know through them. So they only give us an uncertain and discontinuous knowledge of the world. 

    Through them, we do not properly observe a more delicately definite order and continuity which the mathematics describes (in the evolution of undisturbed quantum systems), but which the instruments can only measure doubtfully and jerkily. The calculations of quantum physics are of course extremely complex and sophisticated, and they can be very successful in a specialized kind of way. But to quite an extent, the mathematical sophistication is a convoluted way of managing an admitted crudity of our material instruments; and such convolution can only work partially, achieving some particular results here and there. It cannot properly make up for the underlying crudity that always undermines it. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of modern physics, traditional notions of living energy can all too easily seem vague and unscientific. The trouble is that they belong to a rather different approach, which requires some further consideration. A question is raised here, about what science is and how ideas may be 'precise' and 'scientific'. 

Calculation and education:

    In modern physical science, ideas and theories are used in a particularly
calculating way. They are used to calculate external results, in a
physically objective world. The results are tested and applied through
physically fabricated instruments and engineered machines.

    Is this the only way of using knowledge and testing truth? In actual
practice, no. Calculation is a rather limited approach, insufficient in
itself. What it achieves is narrow: like using a map to calculate
instructions for a journey. 'Go n miles in x direction, then m miles in y
direction...', and so on. Such an approach is only good for getting to some
chosen place.

    A map is not just a calculating instrument. It has a more basic use: through
education. It represents an entire territory, including many places. So it
enables one to look at the territory as a whole. That educates one's
understanding of where one is; and it helps develop the living ability
through which one gets around and goes about one's business.

    Like a map, ideas and theories are used in two ways: through calculation and
education. The calculating use is inherently narrow and specialized. It
cannot take the whole environment into account. So it depends on living
education, for an integrated understanding that puts its narrow aims into
perspective. In the modern world, as our computing and physical sciences
achieve spectacular results, we clearly lack the broader education that is
needed to use them sensibly.

    However, when ideas and theories are used for living education, their
testing and application is not confined to the restricted methods of our
physical sciences. Such sciences restrict their field of study and
application to a physical aspect of experience. Accordingly, they are tested
and applied in a restricted way, through the material instruments and
machines that they develop.

    Modern physics is of course educational, but its educational effect is not a
direct part of its testing and application. It is material instruments that
test physics directly; not the developed minds and faculties of physicists.
Those minds and faculties must go through standardized material instruments,
to test the ideas and theories of physics.

    What about other disciplines: like philosophy, psychology, biology and
medicine, even astrology and alchemy? In their field of study and
application, they include aspects of mind and life, in a way that merely
physical sciences do not.

    Accordingly, where physics is applied by the material instruments that it
develops, other disciplines are applied more directly through the living
faculties they cultivate in those who use them. For example, philosophy is
tested and applied through its clarification of understanding, psychology
through its cultivation of mental insight and therapy, biology and medicine
through living management and health.

    Must these other disciplines be somehow less reasoned, less rigorously
tested? Must their living application make them less scientific? Not really,
though it does put them outside the jurisdiction of modern physics and its
material instruments.

    A map may be digitized and fed into a computer for the purpose of guiding a
missile to its target. That is one kind of map, with one kind of truth and
accuracy. But it does not diminish the need for a different kind of truth
and accuracy, in a map that is educational. When truth is educational like
this, there's no less need for it to be carefully reasoned and tested
against experience. In fact, it needs a more delicate reasoning, and a more
sensitive testing, than truth that is merely technical.

Scientific disciplines:

    There are thus two ways in which a discipline can be scientific. The first
and most obvious is outward, through standardized systems of external
technology. The second and more subtle is inward, through a carefully
reasoned and systematic education of our living faculties.

    It is in the context of the second, educational approach that the idea of
living energy has long been used, in many traditional sciences. A person's
body is conceived as an organic pattern of energy currents ('nadis' in
Sanskrit) which make up the living faculties of personality. A similarly
living energy is then conceived to be perceived in the world outside. And
our perception of the world is described as a mutual co-operation and
correspondence between the microcosm of individual experience and the
macrocosm of the outer world. To cultivate the co-operation and clarify the
correspondence, various physical and mental exercises are prescribed. Hence
the extensive prescription of customs and rituals in traditional society,
and the intensive training of psychosomatic control and contemplative states
in special disciplines like yoga.

    But it would be a mistake to think that traditional sciences are essentially
a matter of prescribed training. Beyond its preliminary period of didactic
obedience, traditional education was more essentially concerned with the
independent-minded enquiry of reasoned questioning. The statements of a
traditional science were didactically condensed, to enable their condensed
transmission, before the extensive use of modern communications. But after
these didactic statements were initially learned, they were meant for a
sustained and highly reasoned questioning, during the course of practical
experience. It is thus through reasoned enquiry that the texts of a
traditional science are meant to be interpreted, to clarify an educated
understanding of the subject.

    Moreover, in the traditional sciences, there is a profound admission that
even reasoning is not the essence of their knowledge. It is simply a way of
taking a harder look at what is seen, and listening more carefully to what
experience has to say. This harder looking and more careful listening are
essentially subjective, approached  in a reflective way. But they are also
impersonal, for the approach is both reflective and dispassionately
    We have got used to thinking that our physically objective sciences are
somehow 'hard', and that anything else is a 'soft option'. But in the view
of many traditional sciences, they are based upon an impersonal subjectivity
that enables a harder and more penetrating look at how things are. It may be
worth considering that view, to see what we might have to learn from these old sciences.

    This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online <>. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors. To comment on this message, go to the browser-based forum at the bottom of all postings in the magazine section of our web site. Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to Dr. Stacey Ake, Associate Editor of Metanexus at <>. Copyright notice: Columns may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and "Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science <>". Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by William Grassie. ****

Back to "Universe"

See God

What the (*&%#@@#$3$) Do We Know! A must!
Also here;

How Thoughts Shape Matter  and then this;  DNA Can be influenced and reprogrammed by words and frequencies

Thought Energy

Thoughts On Thinking Matter: James Barham. 

The Power Of Words

DNA Healing PDF

Is DNA hyper-communication a native internet?

Also see Lynne McTaggart's "The Field" and FAQ page

Also see: The Secret Life of Plants

Sparta and Baboonery - The Guesswork of Collective Mind (1,200 to 600 b.c.)

Gene-culture Coevolution

Evolution’s Arrow

Evolving Creative Mind

Global Consciousness 

Are we what dreams are made of?

D.N.A. Repair


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