So, You Think You’re Smart
Let me tell you a story – I bet you won’t believe me at first, but I promise, everything in this story is true. I did not lie, even once.
My best friend has always been sort of a biology geek. In a small attic – can I even call it an attic? It was a full-fledged zoo up there. There were so many small butterflies, roaches, centipedes, and dragonflies. I shuddered every time I entered the dark room, with bursts of sunlight entering in some places. He said his dream was to travel the world and discover all sorts of new organisms – every time he’d talk about his dream there was a spark of glimmering passion in his eyes – it was amazing to watch. As we grew older, he collected more and more organisms and they all had their own place in the small attic.
After school, we went our separate ways. However, we continued to remain in touch, and from time-to-time met up with a couple of other friends. The last time we met, he said he was going on a yearlong expedition with a team of scientists, and we wouldn’t be able to contact him.
One morning, at about 5 a.m. my phone rang loudly, echoing through the entire apartment. Groggy-eyed and pretty annoyed as I had stayed up late last night working on a presentation, I hastily picked up. “Hello, I’m downstairs,” and the call cut. I barely got to hear the voice, but I could easily tell it was him. He would always cut calls before anyone could respond. Chuckling, I put on my coat and headed downstairs. There he was, unshaven beard, gruffy exterior and lopsided grin. I smiled and we started strolling towards the dawn sky, streaks of sunlight already emerging as the birds chirped their good mornings.
Finally, he broke the silence. “Physarum polycephalum…” he whispered.
“What?” I asked; I had no idea what he was talking about.
“There’s this yellow slimy structure” he said, “that we found on the barks of tress of the forest in Europe. You wouldn’t expect it to be such a great discovery, right. It’s just a unicellular organism that is a Protista…pretty unimpressive. Plus, it’s a billion years old, which already proves it’s not a very developed organism. But it has almost 720 different sexes. Scientists say it’s because the organism is multinucleated, which is unexpected from a unicellular organism. All we were able to study was that this slime mold, called The Blob, reproduces by releasing spores, which later develop to form sex cells. When those two sex cells containing different variants of those 720+ genes meet, they form another slime mold.”
“Woah” I murmured. It was interesting, but I couldn’t figure out what the entire point was.
He continued – “The Blob has no digestive system and no nervous system. Forget digestive system, it doesn’t even have a mouth. Its diet consists of fungal spores, bacteria, and other microbes, but we learnt it particularly loves oats. It just slimes onto food and provides nutrition for its multiple nuclei. What’s even more amazing is that The Blob is extremely intelligent even if its brainless and neuron-less. Its able to avoid environmental factors which are detrimental for its growth – like caffeine and light. We even made The Blob solve different problems. There’s the two-armed bandit problem which tests decision-making skills. The Blob had to study two options, identify the more nutritious one, and harvest it. This slime mold was able to manage this in multiple tests and scenarios. This brainless organism can even solve math problems! The Traveling Salesman Problem is a complex technique used to test algorithms. It’s a route optimization puzzle which asks the computers to find out the shortest route between two cities. The Blob was able to solve the problem at the same speedy rate, even when the number of cities kept increasing. They could literally be the fastest computers in the world – imagine that – an organism that existed way before us on earth. This slime mold can even pass on its intelligence and memories when it fuses with another slime mold. As humans we need to develop our brains by going through an entire system of education, but all these slime molds must do is merge. Aren’t you jealous? But you know the biggest discovery was that they can almost be called immortal. Slime molds can die, but not very easily. It can survive even under the heat of a microwave, and when it’s cut, it can merge again in under two minutes.”
“How?” was all I could muster, “how can it do all of this?”
“We aren’t very sure of this yet. Lots of research has happened but we still cannot understand how a brainless organism can be so intelligent. The mere existence of such an organism is quite shocking. It shows that we still have a lot to learn about the evolution of cognition in organisms. We thought we had figured everything out,” he replied.
We stopped outside the gate of his house, and he beckoned me to follow him. We walked up the crooked staircase to his room and climbed the ladder to the attic. I hadn’t seen this place in years, so memories came crashing, one after the other. What my friend did next shocked me. He opened the window and slowly started unhinging all the small cages he had made to keep the insects and other small animals.
“What are you doing?” I asked in a bewildered tone.
“I can’t keep them anymore,” he said. “Humans have always felt that they possess more intelligence than any other organism on this planet. We have always seen ourselves as the center. But The Blob beat us in all aspects of intelligence, even our own computers which we regard as geniuses failed to beat it. Who knows, one of these organisms could be more adept and smarter than me. Who am I to act like their superior and cage them, just because I’m bigger in size?”
I smiled and stood next to him as we watched the organisms fly out into the crack of dawn. It was a new day. A free one.
– Shyla Upadhyay, 11