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Cell intelligence

Before we live by ideas, we seem to live among them. Nothing goes unprophesied. The shadows of ideas fall ahead of them and mark out the shape of things to come for those who care to trace it. The prophecies of science fiction writers are an obvious example: I nominate Looking Backward. In 1887 Bellamy felt the shadow of the radio and colored in the pattern of affordances he traced from prophecy.

There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day’s programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.

Contrast this prophecy, made in the heat of fiction, with another made in earnest. I own a book – a curiosity – entitled Cell Intelligence, self-published 1916 by one Nels Quevli: registered pharmacist, bachelor of law, and flaming eccentric. The argument of the book is encapsulated in its full title:

Cell Intelligence the Cause of Growth, Heredity, and Instinctive Actions, Illustrating that the Cell is a Conscious, Intelligent Being, and, by Reason Thereof, Plans and Builds all Plants and Animals in the Same Manner that Man Constructs Houses, Railroads, and Other Structures

This sounds stranger than it is; try The Selfish Cell. Quevli in 1916 maps to Dawkins in 1976. Both Quevli and Dawkins conclude that life does not fall out of any equation, and that since it is not a force or a property of matter, its existence at all is contingent, and its forms must be historical.

There are two main theories by which the growth and development of plants and animals in life are explained: First, chemical and mechanical forces; second, Intelligence or a Divine Being. However, so far no one has yet ventured the proposition or statement that the intelligence that has caused the production of all these structures we see, such as plants and animals, was the property of the cell.

And since it is not determined, it must be intelligent (or selfish) because its survival and ramification imply something equivalent to memory.

I do not pretend to know what intelligence is, nor what memory is, but I want to show that the cell is a being possessed of that something, whatever it is. If man is intelligent the cell must be.

Both are asserting that cell intelligence and human intelligence are the same. The difference is whether we follow Quevli in applying the vocabulary of human intelligence to the cell, or Dawkins in applying the vocabulary of the gene to human intelligence.

Bellamy’s prophecy is interesting, but after Bellamy radio still had to be invented. But Quevli in 1916 knew what Dawkins knew in 1976. Ideas are autologous: the description of an idea, is an idea. To predict it is to bring it about; to imagine it is to create it.

This property of ideas leads to certain perversities. Everywhere we find that the longest training, the deepest commitment, the finest specialization yield ideas that could just as easily have been dreamed up on a long walk or talked out in a bull session. The difference is the imprimatur.

But if specialization does not yield better ideas – if it only makes them more persuasive – then someone who is more interested in understanding than persuasion might ask whether it would be better not to specialize, and cultivate the faculty of having ideas directly?

The case could be made that the person who has one idea, and devotes their life to advancing it, is wasting their life: settling for an idea that, being their first attempt, probably isn’t even very good. The case could also be made that intellectual monogamy ought to be the goal of anyone who takes ideas seriously, and that though essayistic dalliance with a series of ideas may be charming in the exuberance of youth, it becomes absurd and pitiable if protracted into maturity.

This tangle recalls others. Being one person – having one personality – is enough for most of us; yet we see writers and actors contain multitudes where each member, whether absorbed from life or condensed from fancy, is as much a person as the person who contains them, having virtues and vices of their own they do not pass on to their host. If myself is something virtualizable, am I wasting myself in being only myself?

But writers and actors are not the best people; what they contain they do not combine. The conversation of Shakespeare was surely intense, but less than Hamlet times Falstaff times Rosalind. And actors especially may owe their multiplicity to nothing but the quality that Borges imputes to Shakespeare (who was also, remember, an actor): they can become anybody only because they are nobody.

The homuncular fallacy is not a real fallacy. It could turn out to be part of the definition of consciousness that it is built from what is also conscious, a potential infinity like two facing mirrors. We contain cells, cells abridge us; we are people with personalities and yet we contain people with personalities. Sometimes it seems that everything is recursive, that even reality only represents itself: considering Robertson’s Titan, for example, I cannot help suspecting that the world, too, only serves to perform what has already been anticipated in imagination.