The meaning of life in levelsTo begin, you need to understand “level”. You need to understand what I mean by the assumption that life grows in levels. We humans know that our bodies are composed of cells. Also, biologists tell us that long ago (perhaps one billion years) single cellular organisms were the fanciest forms of life on Earth. So single cells organized somehow to form larger organisms, larger Living Things (LTs). We say that life grew from the level of single cells to the level of multicellular organisms such as ourselves.
But there are more levels than those two we have just mentioned. If we look down the scale, we see that the larger single-cellular organisms (called eukaryotic cells) seem to have grown from many still-smaller and more primitive organisms (called prokaryotic cells) like bacteria and the organelles found in eukaryotic cells.
Since we humans start our exploration on the level where we live, we can think of ourselves as level N. Then we think of single-cellular organisms as level N-1. And we can think of tiny bacteria as level N-2.
Now suppose we try to look up the scale of levels, toward level N+1. Notice our human organizations: families, businesses, churches, and states. We make these organizations as we attempt to find advantageous cooperation among ourselves. Our strong social instincts show, I claim, that we strive continuously for better organizations. Most of our attempts at organization fail. But sometimes we succeed, and when we do succeed those successes are copied and multiplied (Darwinism at the level of memes).
I would not say we had reached level N+1 until one of the organizations which we create possesses all the properties of a single autonomous Living Thing. Those properties, as you may recall from Section 1.4.2, include: senses, memory, resource consumption, calculating capacity (ability to decide), and ability to act.
So I assume that life has grown in levels in the past, and continues to grow now toward the next higher level as we humans organize our affairs. This is what I mean by the assumption that life grows in levels.
The meaning of inter-level learningSometime after we have become accustomed to this life-in-levels view, our attention may naturally focus upon the growth from one level to the next. The levels are interesting and worth recognizing, but the really interesting part for us scientists must be the growth from one level to the next.
Now, to introduce inter-level learning, consider these two questions:
- Under what process, what set of steps, did single cells become organized to produce a multi-cellular organism such as a human with senses, memory, calculating capacity, abilities to act, etc.? That is, how did life grow from level N-1 to level N ?
- How might we humans better coordinate our activities to achieve successful families, businesses and states, organizations which help their constituent members to live better? That is, how might life grow from level N toward level N+1 ?
My proposal, that inter-level learning may be possible, assumes that there is some structural similarity between the challenges faced by LTs on two different levels in the hierarchy of life. I may be overreaching in this assumption, since I have not started to seek empirical evidence in support of the assumption. But, in support of this assumption, we may notice that the general assumptions of RPM (See Section 1.4) apply at any and all levels, while making no distinctions between levels. So, within the model suggested by those general assumptions of RPM, nothing suggests that the challenges faced by LTs on one level must be different from the challenges faced by LTs at a different level.
But neither, of course, do those general assumptions imply that that the challenges must be the same at two different levels. The Resource Patterns (RPs) which beckon growth above any given level may demand development of organizational capabilities which differ from the organizational capabilities needed on a different level. Also differing from level to level will probably be the capabilities of the LTs available to start organizing upward from that level. For example, probably we humans bring to our efforts of organization a different set of inherent capabilities than eukaryotic cells brought to their challenges of organization; but this assertion needs support from knowledge we do not yet have about the abilities of eukaryotic cells.
One example of inter-level learningIn the draft of Chapter 5 we ran through a thought experiment in which tabletop critters developed a line of exchange between large deposits of the two essential resources, water and sugar. This thriving organization of critters could exist without any of the critters knowing about the RP. No critter knows where its trading partners get the excess of the resource which those trading partners are willing to trade away. Each critter, in order to find what it needs, has learned only how to behave and trade locally. Yet the sum of all this local knowledge adds up, in the perceptions of us human overseers, to a thriving trade route.
If you accept those conclusions of that thought experiment which starts from the level of critters, then you may join me in supposing that a similar condition can exist on the level of humans. We individual humans, it seems to me, are for the most part incapable of comprehending why we live so much better now than our ancestors lived 5,000 years ago. The perhaps surprising idea that we humans could stumble into great wealth without any of us comprehending how or why it happened gains support, I claim, from inter-level learning, from the thought experiment in Chapter 5.
Concluding reflectionsNow I have completed my description of inter-level learning. In what follows you may find a few reflections on the subject.
On the concept of Life in Levels
Our ability to perceive that life has grown in levels depends, of course, upon our definition of a living thing. According to that definition we perceive a living thing when we see an organization which has all the properties of living things which we listed in our initial assumptions.
We can find many examples of organizations which are not living things because these organizations lack one or more of those properties which taken together define a living thing. I would say that all of the organizations which we humans have built to date fall into this lesser category. A state, for example, can sense, remember, decide, and act in many ways, but cannot reproduce itself with predictable success. A corporation which operates a chain of fast-food restaurants, for another example, can reproduce in part by starting up a new restaurant location. But such a corporation probably lacks the ability to reproduce itself entirely, as a whole new corporate structure.
If we assume that life will eventually continue its growth from our human level N to a higher level N+1, I guess that we humans have barely started that growth; we have progressed only a small fraction of the way from level N to level N+1. To support this guess, notice that the complexity which we can see in the organizations created by us humans remains triflingly small when compared with the complexity we can see in a human body composed of organized cells. On that scale of complexity, it would seem that we humans have only started our long journey toward level N+1.
It is worth noting, when we consider the vast complexity of a human body, that most of the cells in a human body carry the same DNA, the same set of instructions. I find it frightening to consider the analogous situation in an organization composed of humans. In that analog humans would lose much of the individuality which we now enjoy. The humans would all have the same set of rules coded into their minds, or something like that.
On intelligenceWhen we consider eukaryotic cells, in light of their accomplishment in having organized themselves to make us humans, we humans may suspect that eukaryotic cells possess a considerable measure of intelligence. Indeed since, as just noted above, eukaryotic cells seem to have accomplished a much greater feat of organization than we humans have yet accomplished, perhaps we should humbly conclude that eukaryotic cells are more intelligent than we humans. But how could we know? I believe we have no good definition of “intelligence”. Experts on intelligence, I have heard it said, inform us that intelligence is what is measured by an intelligence test. In other words, they don’t really know what intelligence is.
Our stupidity about what we mean by “intelligence” is confirmed, I believe, by the assertions made in recent centuries by some of our fellow “intelligent” humans, assertions that intelligence is a uniquely human trait. So other mammals lack intelligence in this view. But experiments with many animals and even, I have heard, with cells, have shown increasingly that those others possess some of what we now recognize as intelligence.
If we were to display some intelligence of our own, in a quest for evidence to prove that others lack intelligence, I think we would have to start that quest by learning the language of the others which we propose to test, so that we could quiz them in a language which is meaningful to them. I believe we humans are now making our first clumsy steps in that direction, but we have far to go.
As such I will claim that we have no way of knowing just how intelligent a single cell may be, and we are not qualified to assert that cells could not have been intelligent enough to build us multicellular organisms.
Continuing this line of thinking, we humans should admit that we are capable of seeing only a few of the levels of life assumed by RPM. In addition to our own level we can see perhaps two levels below and one level above. But we certainly are not capable of seeing way to the bottom of the levels which RPM suggests may exist.
When advances in our instrumentation bring us evidence of new levels of smallness, evidence of new entities smaller than any previously known to us, we are not yet in any position to start quizzing the intelligence of those entities. First we would have to learn their language, if they have one. So it seems possible to me that the levels of life reach down into quantum mechanical realms. Although I will make no such claim, note that particles at the subatomic level exhibit two of the properties we attribute to LTs, being abilities to act and to act non-deterministically.
Having admitted our poor ability to see more than a few steps down the scale of life-in-levels, we should also admit poor ability to see up the scale. To my perception it usually seems that we humans are at the top. But how much trust should we place in such a perception? One of the lessons which I hope will be taught by RPM is that perceptions grow to serve particular orders as encouraged by the existence of real, or at least plausibly proposed, RPs. Other perceptions, beyond those so needed, present no justification for their growth in RPM. So my perceptions, as a human, serve my development and survival at the human level. Surely, as should be suggested by the history of the development of science, I am surrounded by orders which I am not capable of perceiving at my stage of development. Higher levels of life may exist beyond my ability to perceive.