New World Dawning

… all adaptive functioning organisms, from the earliest on, must be sentient. A non-sentient organism would be an evolutionary dead-end —František Baluška & Arthur Reber

Preamble The first Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes foremost, posited that reality could most naturally be cut along the body-spirit joint – an insight that was eventually codified in Christianity and then later in Enlightenment modes of thinking. But Descartes, and Christian doctrine, and western science, were wrong, quite wrong. Nice try, but no cupcake.

In fact, as we now know, the joints run along the distinction between life and non-life; and it’s there, along the animate-inanimate divide, that biological science subsequently found the path forward.

So it may be. But just as Christianity before it, so western science is grounded in the belief that embodied life, like the physical universe itself, operates on mechanistic principles, with instinct in life taking the place of gravity in the cosmos as the primary organizing principle. Something like that.

Yet the scientific evidence concerning the nature of life now suggests otherwise, making it possible to dislodge many of old ideas about the mechanistic universe and spit them out, like rotten teeth.

First Approximation


ven as you read these words, biological science is undergoing a tectonic shift; we’re in the middle of it. Fault lines are forming and, increasingly, scientists find themselves ranged on one side or another of a newly emerging understanding of the Living World.

The issue at hand is the question whether life is basically mechanistic, instinct driven, as traditional science assumes, or whether there’s something else going on.

In brief, the long-held “scientific” view of life as mechanistic is now being challenged by the insight that life – all life – may be endowed with mind, and therefore meaning. It would be hard to imagine a frame shift more revolutionary.


Consider the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Scarcely a decade ago, in 2012, a group of neuroscientists signed a declaration that finally formally affirmed what every intelligent person who has ever loved a dog, cat, parrot, hamster, parrot, budgie, tortoise, boa constrictor, goldfish or cuttlefish has known hundreds of years out, that not just humans but all animals have inner lives. As the declaration puts it:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

This idea of lived experience and, with it, goal setting and decision making, has also lately begun to insinuate itself in mycology, the study of fungi. A 2015 introductory textbook to the fungi illustrates the point nicely, as you can readily make out by comparing the following two statements taken from different chapters:

… the mycelium is pursuing genetically determined algorithms of colonial behaviour rather than expressing any intent. This probably seems obvious, but it can be easy to convey impressions of fungal intelligence when we think sloppily about the complex signaling that controls development.

… fungi exhibit aspects of cognition, including communication and memory, within these networks. This leads to the suggestion that fungi could fit in the same category of brains suggested for invertebrates and plants, or even that of eusocial organisms, and that their hyphal networks constitute a liquid brain.

Nor are plants to be excluded from the newly emerging scientific paradigm. Though science-based evidence is harder to come by for plants than for animals (or fungi), the available evidence points squarely to plant awareness. Consider…

…current empirical findings strongly suggest that plants can perform many putatively cognitive abilities once thought to be unique to animals (Segundo-Ortin & Calvo, 2019). These abilities include the capacity to communicate with the plant’s biotic local environment (Arimura & Pearse, 2017; Karban, 2015); to distinguish kin from non-kin and modify behavior accordingly (Bilas et al., 2021); to make flexible decisions about multiple options and trade-offs (Karban & Orrock, 2018; Lee et al., Submitted); and even to learn from and remember past experiences (Baluška et al. 2018).

Or again…

Plant cognition is inferred from behavioral patterns that are adaptive, flexible, anticipatory, and goal-directed (Calvo, 2016; Calvo and Lawrence, 2023). The evidence can take many forms (Baluška et al., 2006), including time-lapse photography (Brenner, 2017; Stolarz, 2009; Stolarz et al., 2014) and specialized electrophysiological techniques (Volkov, 2012; Volkov, 2017) to identify complex morphological and physiological responses (Karban, 2008) during ontogeny that would otherwise be missed (Calvo & Trewavas, 2020). These techniques reveal that plants are highly flexible, being able to do more than simply react to the here-and-now in a fixed, hardwired manner (Raja et al., 2020; Segundo-Ortin & Calvo, 2019; Trewavas, 2017; Trewavas, 2014).

Standing back a bit from all of this, I have to say that listening to these scientists push hard against the socially constructed walls of their respective disciplines is, in some ways, actually in most ways, like watching a dog dance. I don’t say this to disparage. The simple fact of the matter is that scientists are a highly principled lot; indeed, they must be so, for as scientists they’ve no choice in this; so it is to move about inside the evidentiary edifice within which scientific understanding, by its very definition, unfolds.

Yet the fact of the matter is that any born naturalist worth her weight in fish and chips knows perfectly well that every creature that has ever lived and ever will live, from the cell on up, has lived experience, which is to say self-awareness. And if they’ve read their Gregory Bateson, they’ll also know why, namely because lived experience in the form of mind, self-awareness, will, purpose and whatever else you care to call it is life itself; for it it were otherwise, then they’d be no way, indeed no reason, to distinguish life, any life, all life, your own precious life included, from mere biochemistry.

Sure, let the doubters doubt, that’s what doubters do, but surely the time has come, in these opening decades of the Pandoracene, to trumpet far and wide what every born naturalist knows, indeed has always known: that to be alive is to be aware, that be aware is to have meaning, that to have meaning is to occupy a moral universe disjunct from the physical universe, and that to occupy a moral universe disjunct from the physical universe is to be alive.

Next up: “The Living World”