What’s the plural of ‘mongoose’? Could it be two mongeese? I don’t know and …. right, right , my spelling thing on this machine has already told me, it’s mongooses. Can’t even have wee mysteries anymore, the machine sorts you out illico. But what the machine doesn’t know is that we have a thriving mongoose family as neighbours right next to our house. They live under a big, very dense bush below which dining- and sleeping rooms have been excavated. This little population seems quite stable, at times 4 or 5 little ones play around but they grow up quickly and then disappear to set up house elsewhere I assume.

They’re clever folk, know exactly what we do and seem not to bear a grudge when I built our house right next to theirs. But then, all our other small neighbours get on quite well with us, I find it remarkable how many different kind of smallish birds live in and fly around the surrounding bush. Because of our lush climate we often have all the doors open and these little flyers have a good look inside and as we are not very tidy people they find plenty of crumbs to eat. However they don’t spend much time looking for food, as they’re so well adapted to their surroundings their needs are soon satisfied and plenty of time is available for play.

Our larger neighbours like the kelp gulls and petrels are more aloof and use the wind eddies that our house produces during a westerly breeze to perform their acrobatics. They also don’t seem to spend much time looking for grub and I’m convinced they fly because they like nothing better.

One thing all these abundant flyers and runners have in common is great cleverness and dexterity to make use of their surroundings, including my wife and I. That’s where I see the difference between these wild animals and the cultivated animals we had when we were farming. Cows were still quite clever as they had to produce their calves in the bush but all the bulls we had turned out to be perfectly stupid. Whereas a cow would manage to open a gate if she saw some better grass on the other side, such insight could never be scraped together by a bull. I had one who tried to shag a cow across a barbed wire fence and lost his wedding tackle in the proceeds. Sheep appear to be born without any rational insight but pigs can be quite clever if they’re given some freedom. It’s possible that clever dogs exist, I’ve never met one except the ones written about in books. The same insight is valid for architects.

I’m inclined to change the definition between wild and cultivated animals, I’d rather call them civilised and slave animals. Whatever these civilised beasties do, they do it well and efficiently. I built mouldings around my windows to shed rainwater and rock martins, a swallow like bird, love to congregate there to loaf and work on their wings. These little flyers approach the house at ± 60km/h and when within 10 cm. of the wall, stop, turn around and pose their little backsides on the moulding. Although I’ve watched them do their trick many times from quite close I still don’t know how they do it, it would need one of those fancy cameras with many exposures to study the mechanics of their flight. Of course, these wee birds don’t have much inertia, they must weigh around 20-30 grams; yet to harness that kinetic energy to the millimetre needs a flawlessly functioning brain that can hardly be bigger than a rice grain.

Already many years ago students established that differences in intelligence could be measured in the behaviour of paramecia, one cellular animals that are everywhere. Some kind of labyrinth had been contrived and a poor paramecium had to find its way to get to the grub. It appeared that some paramecia were cleverer than others because they manage to scoff before most of their competitors. Other one-celled creatures have been used in similar experiments and there seems to be no doubt that intelligence can be detected in tiny, invisible morsels of living matter.

Plants and trees show by the way they defend their existence great ingenuity that can only be caused by a well functioning intelligence. Not far from me was a small game park of a few hundred hectares, inhabited by a dozen eland. Although there was plenty of bush that elands like, these animals did not do well because this bush defends itself when animals start eating it. It changes the chemical composition of its sap and releases pheromones in the air to warn his bush neighbours. The eland stops eating because of the change in taste and knows from experience that the next bush won’t be any better and so trundles off at least 30-50meters further to continue his meal. The park was too small for these animals; when it became a few thousand hectares they did much better. In arid conditions bush can’t afford to lose half its leaves as it will die and a defence had to be invented.

Serious studies show that intelligence is inseparable from life but many researchers do not agree with that, they maintain that all life on earth as we see it today is to be explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Evidently, this theory has been modified as new discoveries saw the day but even our recent knowledge of genetics has not greatly modified Darwin’s ideas. However, since I studied marine biology at the university of Cape Town, a long time ago, I have always had a kind of reluctance to accept this theory based on hazard and chance. I could not accept that the beautiful living world that surrounded me was just a question of bloody luck, not better than a bet on a horse. But, as I didn’t turn out to be a great biologist I could not gainsay Mr. Darwin’s theory.

Then, a few years ago I read a book, ‘Darwin’s Black Box’ by Michael Behe, (Simon & Schuster). This book proved to be a great eye opener for me. Michael is a micro biologist who has studied the interior workings of living cells, a study that has advanced enormously since the days that I studied biology. This book is a Must-read for anyone who is interested in the natural sciences. The author describes the phenomenal complexity of life inside the cells, the numerous chemical, electrical reactions that have to happen for life to live. I’ll only give you one example: when we cut ourselves, soon a blood clot forms to stop the loss of blood. Michael, in his impeccable english tells us that more than thirty actions and reactions in which many enzymes are involved, are necessary for the successful formation of this all important clot. These actions must all happen in rigorous order, one out of sync catalysis would be a cause of death; either through loss of blood when no clot forms or if all the blood would clot. If you take the letters I needed to form my last phrase and line them up any old how you would not know what I had been trying to describe and for a blood clot to form a similar discipline, like placing letters in the right order, must be exercised by the cells for the organism to function successfully. Michael calls such a system ‘irreducibly complex’ or of an ‘irreducible complexity. It means that any component taken out of the system will cause failure. He illustrates an irreducibly complex system by means of a mousetrap, you know the thing mounted on a little base with a spring, catch and a wee hook to fix the bait. To make such a trap function you need every part or no mouse will be caught, the thing is of an irreducible complexity. A bicycle wheel will still function even after the removal of a few spokes, its complexity may be reduced.

A mousetrap, made out of inanimate material, cannot be found in nature, the thing had to be made by a human guided by a certain amount of intelligence. Living systems got where they are today by being modified from other living systems before them and we have plenty of fossil proof for such an evolutionary theory. But we have no theory how irreducibly complex living systems came about, as these systems do not work when a few bits are missing. Were these systems put together by intelligent action?


My friends, I need some time to follow up on the above, see you soon.  


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One Response to Intelligence in animate- and inanimate matter.

  1. Jack says:

    Very nice article Nick, but please you are not going religeous, are you?

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