by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses the roots of cognition and decision making. Those phenomena are assumed to originate with the first molecular interactions in semi-closed systems made possible by the advent of lipid-secured membranes create interactive feedback as opposed to the “drift” seen in open systems. This prototype is viewed as a precursor to advanced cognitive abilities, culminating in human cognition.
Whatever is meant by terms such as cognition, intelligence and memory cannot readily be described in concrete organic or neuro-functional terms because there does not seem to be any direct correlation between the wiring or interconnections within the animal brain and the capacities to use basic behavioral mechanisms such as flight, aggression, altruism, or even instinct. (Timmer 2012). Part of the problem lies in semantics; particularly since it is homo sapiens sapiens doing the classifying. We are the only scientists in nature thus our descriptions of nature are both confined to and embellished by our own values and experiences. As owners of a massive cerebral cortex we typically view functions such as altruism and long term planning as the result of big brains. Indeed several renowned thinkers in fields as diverse as psychology,anthropology, neurology have surmised that such functions are a luxuries bestowed on us through the evolutionary expansion of the frontal cortical lobes (Rowe. Bulloch et.al 2001) Others have through meticulous research concluded that limbic circuits within the human brain like the hippocampus provide memory consolidation capacities (Suzuki,Yaneke,et.al. 2004). It appears during a learning task the hippocampus becomes active when the task has been learned, analogous to a librarian who gathers the books and re-organizes them into proper catalogue sequence after the readers have gone home.
On the other hand, most animals and all plants lack a hippocampus and have no frontal lobe. For example a female cobra’s brain is miniscule compared to ours, yet once she recognizes she is pregnant. she digs nests to hide her young, obviously contemplating the possibility that predators and/or unfriendly climatic conditions might jeopardize their safety.
So many other ostensibly complex cognitive abilities are seen in this neurologically simple creature. To prepare for the birth of offspring, the female cobra must on some level be a naturalist, cognizant of the habits of predators. She must be a prognosticator, able to guess as to possible variables related to temperature and terrain. She must also be empathic enough to put herself in the shoes of a hungry predator who feeds on cobra eggs. In effect she must sense their hunger by extrapolating from her own. She must be a chronologist, capable of determining when her offspring will emerge from the eggs and altruistic enough to not only become enraged and frightened over threats to her offspring but also to feel satisfaction when her protective gestures lead to successful outcomes as her offspring make their way into the world safe and sound.
Interestingly, one can attribute all these cognitive and emotional traits to organisms even simpler neurologically than the cobra. It is even possible to extend discussion of so-called cognitive abilities to simple celled creatures because many appear to make decisions in adapting to their surroundings. For example amoeba engage in foraging behaviors tantamount to a huting strategy (Cumming, Hall et. al. 2010). Even at the level of the most primordial organisms, bacteria and viruses – for that matter mere molecules such as RNA and DNA there are decisions being made without use of brains, language or memory substrates – at least as viewed in a conventional sense.
The Search for a Cognitive Monolaw…
In discussing the nature of cognition, one can attempt to gain closure in several ways. One way is by assuming all these behavioral traits seen in brainless and meagerly encephalized organisms are instinctive, thus built into their rigid neurologies. In that sense nature can be said to provide then with the luxury of not having to use cognition or make decisions. A second way is to assume that our concept of cognition is anthropocentrically derived and a somewhat reductionist take on the nature of mind. Unfortunately, neither approach resolves very much.
The instinct argument has flaws, as was pointed out by Maslow (1954). To assume organisms are endowed fortuitously with an ability to act in adaptive ways with little or no neural mechanism by which to do so, one has to first ask about the sources of these fortuitous abilities. Did nature say “presto” – you now have an instinct that just happens to coincide with the demands of the outside world? Unlikely. Even if one invokes the Darwinian argument that various behaviors were honed by evolution over time it does not explain the structural and functional origins of the behavior to begin with. While it is possible that some organs and behavior patterns evolved to serve purposes other than ones for which they were eventually employed – for example the wings on insects and birds that favored temperature regulation before being employed in flight, this still does not address the question of why structures evolved coincident with purpose – as opposed to being random and inconsequential. It also begs the question of how many behaviors had to be tried, winnowed out and selected before the (temporary) right ones arrived through evolution. In fact that juxtaposition of the random with the purposeful is what makes natural selection seem a bit problematic (Russell 2007).
In his book How the Mind Works (1997) Steve Pinker addressed this problem.by proposing a quasi-computer model of mind. He suggested that each layer of the nervous system has built in modules, i.e. for language, perception etc. and that they arise not through random mutations but through apriori functional circuits requiring little or none of the trial and error process inherent in natural selection. He also suggested they blend smoothly with previously established brain sites both structurally and functionally – a hugely determinstic, if not fatalistic concept for a Darwinian advocate.
Even if Pinker’s well-written thesis is correct, it in nonetheless difficult to explain decision making at the anencephalic and molecular levels.
It would seem there is another way to resolve this issue. It is by assuming the existence of a transcendent law or mechanism in nature that requires no brain yet provides for and encompasses phenomena such as memory, stimulus recognition, decision making and cognition. The obvious question is where to look for such a cognitive monolaw.
The Roots of Cognition…
How can decisions be rendered, circumstances recognized, prior experiences referenced/recalled without neural mechanism by which to conduct these operations? One way to address that question is by analyzing the most basic equipment available to the first organisms. A basic requirement of a life form is the capacity to replicate via the transactions between RNA and DNA to align genes in the proper sequence. Another requirement is the alignment of amino acids coupled with the release of water for binding during this process to build proteins leading to the construction of cells and organs. Life also requires mechanisms to react to the outside world for energy replenishment and to facilitate approach and avoidance responses. Yet there is yet another, often overlooked component – a capacity to undergo flux and at the same time maintain internal stability. In other words a homeostatic, self-correcting (cybernetic) mechanism. If not for the latter, life could have come and gone many times over without lasting long enough to undergo changes in complexity.
In many ways the latter typifies the essence of life more than any other quality because longevity is the key to development and fitness. While replication is often cited as the sine qua non of life, and while protein synthesis is considered similarly important, crystals and other non biotic elements divide under certain chemical conditions in a process that runs parallel to replication.(Ferro, 2010) Moreover, as Shapiro has pointed out, amino acids can come together to form proteins yet not in themselves comprise anything resembling what we might call “life” (1986) Any number of pre-organic entities might have formed in the primordial soup, some providing organic essentials. Yet many undoubtedly broke apart from the onslaught of temperature shifts between day and night, oceanic tumult and/or due to the fragility of the compound itself. In that sense, for life to ensue required a holding together of a proto-organic entity so that its mechanical resilience would enable the prototype to expand, become more systemically complex (for example prokaryotic cells incorporating other components to evolve into nucleated eukaryotic cells. Thus if one seeks the foundation of biological existence it might be described in one word…”glue.”
The Origin of Stasis
A most essential glue factor in the advent and continuation of life forms was of course, carbon, a compound that is neither plentiful in the universe nor in the earth’s atmosphere but one that makes up for its lack of availability with extreme resilience. It is most easily seen in the diamond, the hardest substance on earth, which consists exclusively of carbon atoms. Yet carbon is not just firm and resilient, it is also highly chemically accommodating… or “social” if you will. It is capable of bonding with a wide variety of other molecules and provided a perfect base for not only the origin but the continuance of early life forms. Because it has these communal properties it can be said to be the most communicative of all the compounds – a central grammar in the expression of biochemical synthesis.
Yet if carbon provided the mechanical and attractive necessities for life to form, what then provided the functional properties, i.e. the reactive essentials that enabled living things to multiply, heal, move, and ultimately make decisions? To an extent the answer might lie in yet another single term…electricity. Nothing in nature. including carbon can interact with (attract or repel from) other components without the impetus of an electrical charge. Positively charged atoms repel other positively charged atoms, while they are attracted to negatively charges. (The reason probably has to do with the inherent symmetry of the universe but that is beyond the scope of this article). In any event, on some level, stability, resilience, organic communication and genetic alignment – all those things that comprise life, are ultimately rooted in attractions and repulsions. The centralizing feature of carbon is itself rooted in that process. Therefore in seeking the roots of pan-organic cognition this might be a good place to start.
Where have you gone Albert Einstein?..
Watson and Crick, discovers of the DNA molecule, can be compared to Isaac Newton with respect to the latter’s contribution to an understanding of gravity. Newton used precise mathematical terms to determine the “what” of gravity. However it was not until Einstein came along and developed his theories of relativity that we came to know the “why.” As of now there is no “why” (or how) when it comes to an understanding of how life began and more particularly how organisms (indeed molecules such as messenger RNA) are able to make decisions. Some discussion of electricity might be helpful in that respect.
The Roots of Communication…
Communication can be discussed in other than anthropocentric terms, without compromising the nature of human communication. In other words there can be said to be a substrate or monolaw of all communication in nature that encompasses, and set the stage for human language. In its essence communication is really nothing more than an interaction of two components with a systematic (repeatable, predictable) behavioral outcome., i.e. a nonrandom interaction. When a positively charged atom interacts with a negatively charged atom, a galvanization occurs. That is a form of communication.
There are several types of communication. For convenience sake three can be discussed. One type is unilateral – like a breeze pushing an old newspaper along the street. In this instance the newspaper does not have much impact on the breeze, other than perhaps some minor degree of interference from friction. Another type of communication is reciprocal and is exemplified by a protozoan moving back and forth in response to temperature and light differentials.
Communication can also be multi-factorial, whereby complex channels within a system interact with one another to produce fluctuations without loss of systemic integrity. In each instance the level of decision making is different. In the unilateral model (the breeze and the newspaper) the decision is so basic as to be inconsequential. The paper drifts off and does not turn back on the breeze to cause a readjustment. In a two way, reciprocal model the system is modifiable and can be defined as proto-cognitive because the interaction does not end with the first stimulus. In a sense the advent of feedback produces a communicative imperative – seen in the to and fro reactions of the protozoan. At that level, and as a result of feedback, decisions can be said to exist on every organic level.
One does not need a brain or even a primordial nerve bundle to exercise cognitive decision making. One only need electrically-fostered closed, reciprocal interactions. In fact, as Cenik, Cenik et. al have demonstrated with respect to the origin of life the mystical, heretofore unexplained ability of RNA to “send messages” to DNA in creating protein structures in the body might be the result of a simple electrico-chemical reciprocity within a closed system (actually semi-closed is a more apt description) where feedback forces mechanisms to interact in orderly, systemic (and redundant) fashion. The charge originates from a nucleic acid compound) which conveniently contains a highly combustible sugar and energy catalyst known as ribose. A message is conveyed because the system is contained rather than unilateral inputs drifting off into the ether In effect, reciprocity is trapped within the membranes. Boundaries enable feedback to occur. A similar process applies to the famous Miller-Urey experiments where charges impinging on chemical compounds helped produce amino acids (1959).
Membranes are crucial. The availability of lipids in the earth’s earliest environment was necessary since they can form a sheath to both insulate cells and organisms from the outside milieu yet enable nutrients to pass through its border so that organisms can extract energy from the sun and other sources. Semi-permeability is a crucial necessity for life sustenance.
From the Simple to the Complex…
In terms of the above discussion, the most essential difference between cognition at the most basic level and within the realm of human thought might lie in the difference between a simple and complex feedback systems.
In some ways complexity is how life overcomes the law of entropy which holds that all systems in nature will proceed toward decay. The more diverse yet internally regulated the variables in any system the less likely it is that decay will ensue. Since we all die life does eventually proceed toward decay but only after staging an enduring battle against entropy in the face of constant changes in metabolism, maturation, injury and general wear and tear. Organisms endure and can delay entropy due to what H. Ross Ashby called a cybernetic process. Here he was referring to a self correcting system in which higher order rules govern the ebb and flow of internal variations. This applies to brain and soma because while the mind recognizes dangers, for example fleeing from or avoiding unpleasant experiences, so does the immune system and all other bodily structures and functions. Indeed one could argue that a cognitive process exists on every level of organicity and in its essence has little to do with brain or mind.
In that regard a related concept proposed by Ashby was that of ultra-stability. This involves a system where local events can fluctuate but in being tethered to a larger system ultimately re-synthesize in adherence to the rules of the larger system. As confusing as this might seem, we can use the game of chess to create a comparison. Each move by an opponent leads to a counter move. One player might see a direct line between his opponent’s rook and his queen and choose to move the queen to evade to avoid the problem of exposing the king. However in contemplating the move the player notices that his knight is within striking range of the opponent’s rook and that taking out the rook would also save the queen and king. During all this the main “code” of the game (to capture his king and protect yours) remains the same but within that rubric a number of sub-plans are orchestrated.
There is a difference between cognition per se and a game of chess. There are also similarities. The similarity owes to the fact that both operate by multiple sub-plans and actions revolving around a central theme. The point to playing chess is to win. The point to garden variety cognition is neural stability. In that context, Cognition is a dual process, serving two functions; one being neurobiological ultra-stability, the other involving the experiential correlates of that closure.
Arousal, Quiessence and the Sheffield Study…
The above reference to ultra-stability need not be confused with the Freudian notion of tension reduction. For example with regard to the restoration of stability – a mechanism seen in all organisms – it is not a question of arousal or tension being reduced by either neural or experiential closure. It simply refers to restoration of a steady state, which, as conveyed in the classical study by Sheffield could take the form of tension reduction or tension induction (1966).
This view of cognition can theoretically be applied to a wide variety of decisions rendered in nature, and perhaps explain phenomena like messenger RNA and Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene. (1976).” While in many ways this might make human thought seem less unique, perhaps even be discouraging to the anthropocentrist it provides a possible clue as to how nature initially paved the way for human intelligence. While speculative, it does offer a possible connection between the hunting amoeba, the maternal behaviors of the cobra and Newton’s calculations on gravity.
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