The Thing That Discovers Itself


There are two necessary plot points in a life story: birth and death.[ix] [x] The character—an organism—is designed to remain alive in the meantime.  Wherever the organism is, that is the setting.  Life does not exist in a vacuum.  The relationship of an organism to the environment is central to every story.  If we lived in a hypothetical static environment, survival would be no problem.  There would be no conflicts; there would be no resolutions.  All would be perfectly fit and there would be no evolution.  But our planet is dynamic.  The setting is perpetually changing.[xi] This is the central conflict of the story.  How does the individual survive?  It must somehow modify itself at the right moments.  To do this, an organism must know certain information about the environment.

There are examples across all biological classifications of this resolution between character and setting.  Bacteria—such as descended from the Western Australian microfossils—direct their motion toward food or away from poison.  This basic stimulus-response program—called chemotaxis—perfectly suits a microbial existence.  Plants also sense their environment and chemotactically adjust themselves.  They orient their leaves and branches toward light and sink their roots into nutrient-rich soil.[xii] An order of amoebae—dictyostelium, or slime molds—groups their single cells together when in adverse situations.  This worm-like social organization is capable of movement.[xiii] But somewhere along the way, the problem became speed.  The environment began to change at a higher rate.  Multicellular organisms that could react more quickly were more likely to survive.  Certain members of the 680-million-year-old phylum cnidaria—aquatic animals such as jellyfish and coral—have nerve nets consisting of specialized cells that respond to stimuli such as odors.  The cells transmit electric signals to the muscles, telling them to contract.[xiv] So somewhere along the way, nature went electric.  And further adaptations refined a key evolutionary solution: the nervous system.  Stimulus-response is still the program.  The organism still senses information and modifies itself.  In the nervous system—as within cnidarian nerve nets—information is translated into electric impulses.  In most animal nervous systems the impulses sent along the nerves to the brain.  The brain is the operator in a communication network that is principally akin to telegraph messaging.  Human wiring, however, is spectacularly complex.  And it must be so: look at the range and richness of our potential.  All that we think, say, feel, and do—including, of course, the arts and the sciences—originates in the brain.  It is the most complex thing in the known universe.  It is a thing that can discover itself.

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About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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  • Very interesting and informative article. One hundred billion humans to have ever lived, huh?

    Just one web admin comment: the endnotes look like links but do not go anywhere when clicked. Of course the endnotes are at the end of the six pages, but it’s a little confusing.

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