Bacteria don’t think.

It seems a statement of the obvious, but bacteria don’t think.

Yet bacteria get around, and indeed are remarkably successful. Same with viruses. So thriving as a species does not require planning, studying, concentration and imagination, all the things we humans are so arrogant about.

And I’m not just talking about surviving, I’m talking about achieving the incredible. Think of the fungi that take control of ants, get them to climb up to a good spot and hunker down so that when the fungus bursts out from the corpse like a slow motion firework (see the picture) it’s got a fair chance of spreading its spores.

Did the fungus plan it? Of course not, the trick ‘evolved’ as the most successful of many different permutations, via, of course the process of natural selection.

So what?

Well, what about humans? We like to think we are the pinnacle of evolution with our big brains and our consciousness and our self-awareness. Our abilities to plan, co-operate and imagine have led us to dominate the planet. Or have they?

Could it be, that just as no ant envisions the design of the anthill, none of us can claim to have masterminded very much? Yes perhaps a building, a harbour or a town’s zoning, but who can claim to have masterminded New York or world trade or democracy?

Surely these ‘real’ achievements are not ours to claim, but should also be laid at the door of the power of evolution, of the unstoppable force of trial and error, of the natural emergence of order from the chaos?

See more about the Cordyceps fungus:

2 thoughts on “Bacteria don’t think.

  1. I have worked with model systems in my lab all my life including budding yeast, fission yeast, E. coli, and P. polycephalum, among others.

    Bacteria and fungi know *exactly* what they are doing, and they consider modes of action in response to stress, nutrient levels, toxins, pheromones, topology, and food sources. Here’s two pieces, one from Princeton, another from Harvard.

    And then, of course, don’t forget that your body – that is the thing that you call “Me” when you read this post, has more bacterial cells than eukaryotic cells.

    You *are* bacteria.

    1. Hi Erik. Great comment. Of course I do not mean to say ‘strategising’ isn’t being done by bacteria or fungi, but rather I’m implying thinking is not always what most people think it is, it often occurs outside a brain, and indeed outside an individual. Of course complex and beautiful strategies exist, but they are woven not only in neurones, but in far more diverse ways.
      Of course the idea of bacteria ‘knowing’ something is fun to think about, I would say they don’t know anything (individually at least) but they do carry the genetic info on how to react to circumstances that emerge as a sort of ‘plan’. Blows my mind 🙂

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