Preferences, decisions, goals. When you hear these words, you probably think of humans. Or, if not humans then maybe charismatic animals—you know, great apes, certain species of birds, maybe dogs. In any case, I bet you think of creatures that are more or less cognitively sophisticated. I know I do. But, according to some researchers, this is an outmoded and over-narrow way of thinking. They propose that decisions and goals—not to mention other fancy-seeming constructs like memory, problem-solving, and intelligence—can usefully be ascribed to an astonishingly large array of agents. Not just humans, not just animals, not even just organisms.
My guest on today’s episode is Dr. Michael Levin. He’s the Vannevar Bush Distinguished Professor of Biology at Tufts University; he directs the Allen Discovery Center and the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. In recent years, Mike’s been developing a radical reconsideration of the nature of mind and intelligence. He argues that it’s not just humans and other smart creatures that traffic in all this classically cognitive stuff. It’s also cells, tissues, organs, colonial organisms, and much more. He sometimes summarizes his view as “cognition all the way down.”
Here we talk about how Mike came to this perspective. We discuss his empirical studies of bioelectricity, including some pretty astonishing experiments on planaria. We dig deep into two of the conceptual models he uses in talking about his “mind everywhere” framework: the “axis of persuadability” and the notion of the “cognitive light-cone”. And we talk about why Mike rejects the criticism that this is all mere anthropomorphism. In fact, he makes a compelling case that it’s time we retired that term altogether.
In the intro to Many Minds way back when, we talked about how the terrain of mind is vast. But as I’ve learned about the work of Mike and others, I’ve become convinced that the terrain of mind is actually vaster than I imagined then—maybe vastly vaster. I think you’ll like this one, folks. And even if you’re not convinced, there’s little doubt you’ll be provoked. Enjoy!