My intellectual career began with the reading of two books under the guide of an excellent teacher: Jeffrey Wallin. The Crisis of the House Divided, by Harry Jaffa, convinced me that the principles of the Declaration of Independence, as articulated by Abraham Lincoln, provided a solid foundation for an understanding of justice. All human beings are in fact created equal, endowed by the laws of nature to certain unalienable rights.
Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss, convinced me that the account of justice articulated by the Socratic philosophers-Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, and Aristotle, was superior to the relativism and historicism that then still dominated the historical and social sciences. At the bottom of this choice was a fundamental metaphysical question: are human beings part of the natural order, such that human nature can be understood in the way that the nature of other living things can be understood? Or are the human things-individual psychologies and collective cultures-somehow sequestered, walled off from our biological nature?
There was never any good reason to believe the latter. It has become increasingly untenable. By contrast, the Socratic approach now has compelling support from modern biology. Just as human beings share much of our natural endowment with other living organisms, so those organisms should present at least elemental forms of our highest spiritual capacities. If anything unifies the Socratic approach it is the idea that the nature that surrounds, if not possessed of logos, is at least logical.
Powerful support for that idea is found in recent research into the humble slime mold. Slime molds are republics of amoebae. The citizens of that republic are single eukaryotic cells. As they grow they form clusters and then tubes that squeeze columns of their brethren alone, like tooth paste squeezed out the nozzle. These tubes grow out in search of food.
The current episode of NOVA is a marvelous account of how intelligent these slime mold colonies are. They can navigate a maze. They can explore corridors and quickly abandon fruitless routes. They can learn where they have been before and learn that certain unpleasant routes (a salt covered bridge for example) are nonetheless the routes to plentiful food sources. How they do all this is the next mystery, but they do it.
I am hesitant to call this behavior intelligence, as the scientists interviewed are tempted to do. For my part, that is a translator’s bias. I translate the Greek nous as intelligence, and nous indicates an understanding of what something really is. That requires a conscious mind. Slime mold amoebae have no brains or nervous systems. It is unlikely that they are conscious.
I have no hesitation in saying that the slime mold colony presents a mind. The colony acquires information about its environment and processes that information into action strategically. If that’s not mind, I don’t know what is.
I am, I would like to tell myself, capable of nous. This is because my brain is a much more sophisticated thing than a slime mold colony. In one respect, it is much the same. My brain has about eighty-six billion neurons. These are just single cells capable interesting electro-chemical reactions, but they are wired together in such a way as to allow me to read Plato’s Republic. This doesn’t mean that my thinking is reduced to mere slime. It means that the slime had the potential for philosophy.