Category Archives: The Growing Edge: Book and Paper Reviews

Reviews of studies, commentaries, and books whose content is pertinent to uncovering the harmony of Christianity and the evolutionary sciences.

Review of “Aspects of Plant Intelligence,” by Anthony Trewavas

Central to the uncovering of the harmony between biology, evolution, and Christianity is the idea of Life as an active agent in its adaptations to its changing circumstances.  In Chapters 2-4 in Christianity in Evolution I have presented evidence that animals are intelligent, can learn, and are able through rearrangements in their genetic and epigenetic networks to evolutionarily modify themselves.  But animals are only half of Life’s story on Earth; what of plants, the other half? I turn to plant biologist Anthony Trewavas[1] for his interpretations of the science of plants.  The following is a synopsis of his chapter in The Deep Structure of Biology (Reference below).
Plants are intelligent
It would never occur to most of us that plants are intelligent, primarily because they don’t move, as animals do.  The equation of “vegetable” with the term “brain dead” reflects our sentiments regarding intelligence in the plant world.  However, time lapse technology and striking advances in plant physiology, signal transduction (chemotaxis in E. coli is analogous), molecular biology, and cell-to-cell communication tell a strikingly different story.  In response to signals (light, heat, cold, wind, soil conditions, food sources, etc.), plants can change their various structures (leaves, shoots, roots, limbs, etc.) to individually optimize their foraging for resources.  In addition, plants are able to predict possible upcoming changes in resources (light, water, soil qualities, seasonal changes) and then alter their form, an action called phenotypic plasticity. Animals respond to such changes with movement, plants with phenotypic plasticity.
“It is in foraging for food that animal intelligence becomes a premium, and it is in plant foraging that plant intelligence comes to the fore.“ (p70)  We can perceive the processing of information by animals, but the time frames are much longer for plants, as time lapse technology makes clear. “As we acquire more knowledge about all sorts of behavioral characteristics of living organisms, not only are previous assessments of intelligence and behavior shown to be wrong, but the expanding view enlarges our perspective of life itself.”  (P. 71, emphasis mine)
Trewavas goes on to discuss the issue of intelligence, pointing out that the Latin root literally means to ‘choose between.’  He advances the idea that what we see as innate behavior of animals and plants “arose from learned, that is, intelligent, behavior in the first place, potentially by genetic assimilation.” (p72, more on genetic assimilation later)  He argues that organisms exhibit foresight “that allows organisms to come up with a behavioral solution to an environmental problem with minimal trial and error.  Improved behavioral modification enables the subsequent selection of genes and gene combinations… that allow the strategy to develop with greater rapidity, higher probability, or lower cost.  Consequently, evolution becomes much faster than mechanisms that require selection of random gene combinations, just as foresight reduces the time required for successful behavior.” (p73)  He goes on to argue for intelligence in bacteria, protists, genomes, immune systems, swarms, and metabolic networks.  He concludes that “Apart from the higher animals that use the centralized activity of the brain to process information and in which classical intelligence is located, all other biological systems possess a decentralized intelligence that is a consequence of behavior by the whole system.” (p.79, emphasis the author’s)
Plants are active, not passive
The author proposes that “Two perceptions of plant growth and behavior need to be distinguished.  A common passive view is that plants grow according to a predetermined genetic program with  rates determined merely by provided resources…The active view of plant behavior is in complete contrast.  For plants facing competition from neighbors and from other organisms in a variable abiotic environment, intelligent adaptive behavior is a necessity, not a luxury.” (p 80-81)  He documents numerous strategies , such as exploratory speculative growth of shoots and roots, variations of leaves to capture maximum light, and root strategies to maximize water and minerals in highly variable soils.  “Decision making about phenotypic change involves in some way the whole plant and is, thus, decentralized.”  (p82)  Decentralization is essential in a class of organisms constantly grazed upon by animals.
Plants are networks
Plants, being both social and modular, are interactive networks of leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and seeds.  Such networks evaluate the whole of the environment, and the whole network modifies itself to any environmental change.  As a result, there is “a very complex mixture of communicating signals moving throughout the plant individual.” (p 83)  Signal transduction is the conveying of information about the environment via complex biochemical networks.  As a result, plants “perceive their environment in considerable detail, make meaningful assessments of that information, and institute adaptive phenotypic responses designed to improve competitive ability and resource acquisition…Intelligence is an emergent property that results from complex interactions between the tissues and cells of the individual plant.” (p.93)
Plants are agentive
Throughout the article Trewavas discusses various agentive actions of plants.  For example, plants are territorial, taking over available space and denying it to others.  But plants sense their own kind and avoid competing with them.  They in addition possess complex self recognition systems.  Plants make complex decisions on how and where to vary phenotype to garner scarce resources.  Plants conduct sophisticated cost/benefit analyses in their quest for light, food, and water.  Plants are capable of foresight; they can sense the future possibility that a competitor might overshadow them, and they adapt system-wide in response.  “Foresight of future water availability also institutes characteristic morphological changes in anticipation and preparation…programs indicate an ability to anticipate environmental change, even though it may not happen during the lifetime of the individual plant.” (pp. 89-90).  The author goes on to cite extensive evidence that plants in general learn and remember.  Trewavas leaves no doubt that plants, like animals, actively contend with life’s ever changing circumstances.
Plants, Intelligence, and Evolution
Trewavas notes that intelligence is intrinsic to all biology, from bacteria to plants to animals.  Bacteria use quorum sensing, plants decentralized intelligence, and animals central nervous systems.  Bacteria learn by horizontal gene exchange, individual cells through computation, and higher animals by complex neural networks.  “Underpinning all the forms of intelligence…is a network whose connection strength can be altered, enabling control of information flow and memory to be constructed.” (p. 95)  Why, the author asks, is intelligence so widespread?  Because it is the more intelligent who will forage the most effectively and will be naturally selected.  Intelligence will beget more intelligence.
The author continues, “There are currently at least two kinds of evolutionary models relevant to this discussion. The first, the neo-Darwinian view, sees overproduction, random genetic variation, and differential survival as the basis of evolution.  The second…places behavioral changes as the first response to environmental shifts…Those that adapt most efficiently and are, thus, best able to master the current changes in the environment will experience preferential survival.” (p. 97-98)  Through inbreeding of the more intelligent, the new and more efficient behavior becomes genetically fixed, a process known as genetic assimilation.  In other words, “Whatever genes the successful organism possesses go along for the ride…The very refined and complex forms of innate behavior found in reproductive rituals in animals and birds must surely originally have been learned behavior that has now been genetically assimilated.” (pp. 98-102, emphasis mine)
The author concludes that “Genetic assimilation is initiated by changes in behavior, and, (in plants) behavior is expressed as phenotypic plasticity, which I have indicated is intelligent behavior…The evolution of intelligent behavior found in all forms of life, thus, becomes a central theme in the evolution of life itself.” (p. 102, emphasis the author’s)

[1] Trewavas A. “Aspects of Plant Intelligence,” in The Deep Structure of Biology-is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal?” Simon Conway Morris, Ed. (2008) Templeton Press, West Conshohocken, Pa.

Anthony Trewavas is a professor at the University of Edinburgh.  He has special interests I plant-cell signal transduction and plant behavior.  He has published over 220 papers and two books.  He is a fellow in a number of professional societies.

Review of “Reinventing the Sacred,” by Stuart Kauffman

A Book Review of

Reinventing the Sacred-A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion


Stuart Kauffman

Stuart Kauffman is well known in biological circles for his theories about complex systems.  He is a prominent MetaDarwinist, and his views are not widely accepted among mainstream biologists.  He is a physician, biologist, philosopher of mind, researcher, and entrepreneur.  He was active in the thinktank Santa Fe Institute, and is now a professor at the University of Calgary.

In this book, he first systematically dismantles scientific reductionism, from the perspectives of both physics and biology.  It is from the position of NeoDarwinist reductionism that such vocal atheists as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Weinberg have declared that all life is in essence just particles slamming together and therefore ultimately meaningless.  Kauffman points out that in fact numerous features of life, including consciousness and mind, are emergent phenomena.  That is, rather than living things existing only as assemblies of particles, they function on levels and scales unimaginably  greater than the sum of their parts. Biology, he states, is not reducible to physics.

He cites what he calls Darwinian Preadaptations as illustrating his points.  (In Christianity in Evolution, I described  these preadaptations  as “Life is a tinkerer.”)  That is, life has the uncanny ability to find new and unpredictable uses for existing structures.  Thus, some of the jawbones of early reptiles  were modified to ultimately become the tiny bones in the middle ear of later vertebrates, including us.  In another example, the poison injection system in bacteria has been recruited and modified to become the base of the bacterial flagella, a propeller to swim with.  He asserts that Darwinian Preadaptations, (the tinkering of Life) “confront us with a radically new kind of unpredictable creativity in the evolution of the biosphere…Thus a radical, and, I will say, partially lawless creativity enters the universe.  The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us.” This is the worldview I subscribe to, and around which I wrote Christianity in Evolution-Discovering the Harmony of Science and Faith.”

In Chapter 6, he illustrates how life is agent.  He states that the action of a bacterium swimming up a glucose gradient is acting teleologically.  He calls this simplest living system a “minimal molecular autonomous agent…capable of acting on its own behalf in an environment…Thus the agent must be able to detect, make a choice, and act.  Virtually all contemporary cells fulfill this expanded definition.  Such systems are emergent in (Nobel Prize winning Stanford Physics Professor) LaughIin’s sense, with novel properties, for they are agents and can act, where the action is the relevant subset of the causal evens that occur.”  It is a superb chapter that echoes my fundamental premise, the agency of life, which allows me to then make a Christian interpretation that is most plausible.  He goes on to declare that because life is agentive, meaning, values, morality, and ethics devolve.  I should note that he wrote this book in 2008.  I discovered it only a couple of months ago.  Basically, I reinvented the wheel.

In Chapter 7, The Cycle of Work, he discusses the agency of the cell as it establishes and maintains its boundaries and carries out its various metabolisms.  It is an excellent discussion of how Life recruits and utilizes biochemistry and physics. One can well see why he is unpopular among mainstream biologists.  In Chapter 8, talking about self organization, he states “It is, at a minimum, a concrete example of the possibility of emergence, non-reducibility, and, as we shall see, the powerful idea that order in biology does not come from natural selection alone but from a poorly understood marriage of self-organization and selection.  Thus, the classical belief of most biologists that the only source of order in biology is natural selection may well be wrong.”  He concludes, “We truly need a new worldview, well beyond the reductionism of Laplace and Weinberg. ..We must rethink evolution.”

In Chapter 10, “Breaking the Galilean Spell,” he is not taking aim at Jesus but at Galileo, who was the first reductionist.  He writes “We began this book by looking at reductionism, which has dominated our scientific worldview since the times of Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace.  This philosophy holds that all of reality can ultimately be understood in terms of particles in motion, and nothing else has reality, in the sense that it has the power to cause future events.  As Stephen Weinberg puts it, all the explanatory arrows point downward.  The logical conclusion is that we live in a meaningless universe of facts and happenings.”  Kauffman disagrees:  “What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred—agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life, and the planet?  We are neither ready to give these up nor willing to consider them mere human illusions. ..The schism between religion and science is, therefore, in part, a disagreement over the existence of meaning.” (italics mine).

I really liked his discussion of mind, in Chapter 12, as a “meaning-doing system.”  Kauffman asks, “Where then do meanings come from?…Meaning derives from agency…an increased rate of glucose molecules detected by a glucose receptor as the bacterium swims up he gradient is a sign of more glucose up the glucose gradient, and that sign was interpreted by the bacterium by its oriented motion up the gradient…the glucose is given meaning …by the bacterium’s reception of the sign, and in its doings, swimming up the gradient.He concludes, “Without agency, as far as I can tell, there can be no meaning.”

Another great chapter is #14, “Living into Mystery.”  Page 231 reinforces my idea that the Ruach is not confined to life on earth or to humankind, but rather pervades all the particles in the universe.  Perhaps this is why Jesus can stop the winds on the Sea of Galilee, why “even the winds obey him,” why he can walk on water or turn it into wine.

On page 231, he states “In the new scientific worldview I’m describing, we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, in which agency, meaning, consciousness, and ethics have evolved.”  Kauffman declares this world sacred.  I totally agree.

We differ from him in one detail.  For Kauffman, the sacredness of the creation is enough God for him.  We see the universe imbued with the Ruach and made sacred and supported by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.