Do Cells Have Sentience? New Framework For Understanding Life And Consciousness

Aravindan Neelakandan

Jun 01, 2024, 05:27 AM | Updated 01:06 AM IST

Has a form of cellular consciousness been accompanying life from the very beginning?
Has a form of cellular consciousness been accompanying life from the very beginning?
  • This book argues for sentience at the level of cell or even in pre-cell form of matter.
  • The Sentient Cell. Arthur Reber, Frantisek Baluska, and William Miller. OUP Oxford. Pages 274. Rs 997.

    Microbiologist Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) famously wrote that not only animals but ‘every autopoietic cell’ is conscious. That was in 1995.

    The concept that remained a fringe in biology has been making significant strides and has today emerged as an important position.

    The latest book that not only strongly espouses this position but takes it forward as even a framework for looking into crucial questions in biology is The Sentient Cell (OUP, 2024).

    Cognitive psychologist Arthur Reber, plant biologist Frantisek Baluska and evolutionary biologist William Miller have come together to author this book.

    Each of them has been a pioneer in exploring uncharted paths, challenging conventional notions in their domains.

    Book Cover: The Sentient Cell
    Book Cover: The Sentient Cell

    Do cells have sentience?

    The theory that has been proposed is called CBC — cellular basis of consciousness.

    The authors propose that at the cellular level consciousness emanates from ‘the coordination of multiple internal structures and processes including the macromolecular assemblies at and around excitable plasma membranes and cytoskeletal polymers.’

    The book points out that the plasma membrane only once formed in evolution and since then for four billion years of biological evolution has remained the same. It never appeared de nova in the evolution. This means that the cells are sentient at their very origin.

    This means that a form of cellular consciousness has been accompanying the evolution of life from the very beginning.

    The foundational thesis of CBC is that ‘the emergence of the very first living cells, enclosed with an ancient version of the plasma membrane, is coterminous with the origin of life and consciousness.’

    When the eukaryotic cell came into being what happened was that more than one cell with different cellular architectures came together, which as per the authors meant, ‘two fundamentally different cellular sentiences’ initially distinct from each other came together and their ‘integration took a very long evolutionary time span.’

    The authors also emphasise a principle called 'evolutionary creativity.'

    This principle posits that no trait, form, or function that once had Darwinian survival value ever gets entirely lost in evolution but becomes the basis for new traits, forms, and functions.

    Sentience is an implicit aspect of cellular cognition and memory, and essential for cell survival via contextual decision-making from the very early evolution of cells. This cellular sentience then becomes an important component in evolution, coterminous with life.

    Another principle the book introduces is the concept of ‘homeorhesis,’ ‘a dynamic system that returns to a prior trajectory’ as against the more familiar term, ‘homeostasis,' which is a system that returns to a particular state.’ Then there is cooperation at the level of cells.

    The book is a rich feast of concepts that challenge some of the basic assumptions of biology. Does consciousness then arise with the plasma membranes and the interaction that happens there? For the authors, as already noted, life and consciousness are coterminous. So the question of minimal life is also the question of minimal consciousness.

    To this question, the authors speculate quite boldly that even some biomolecules might possess ‘a mind.’ They give the instance of the mammalian protein mTOR which accomplishes a range of functions in human organisms at the cellular level. The authors ask:

    By sensing nutrients, energy, and oxidation pathways, mTOR participates in the manufacture of proteins by signalling messenger RNA and ribosomes and is necessary for the proper function of the cytoskeleton of the cell. How might one molecule control such a vast array of processes, assess nutrients, oxygen, and energy, and even contribute to the remodelling of the developing human brain? In some ways, mTOR behaves like a brain itself, integrating many highly complex processes and making a wide range of simultaneous decisions. So, is mTOR independently alive? Does it have ‘mind’?

    Apart from such single molecules, the authors favour the view that almost every intracellular component — from plasma membrane to cytoskeletal microtubules has a minute nano brain or ‘mind.’

    In this view of life, consciousness ‘galvanises’ evolution through sentient problem-solving against changing environmental constraints as ‘life is cognition, embodied in the perpetual cellular form.’

    The authors visualise ‘a minimal version of proto-consciousness that was sufficient to respond sensitively and effectively to diverse environmental insults and challenges that were extremely violent on ancient earth.’ They also associate cellular circadian clocks evolving with this early sentience. And when it comes to endosymbiosis and the emergence of eukaryotic cells, consciousness becomes a very important catalysing force for biological evolution.

    The authors also deal with the famous ‘Integrated Information Theory’ (IIT). IIT studies the problem of qualia and considers it an irreducibly internally generated experience. The authors, considering consciousness as informative, state that ‘the major tenets of IIT apply directly to a cellular approach to consciousness, placing it on a solid footing of information reception and analysis.’

    One of the authors William B Miller, the evolutionary biologist, has even authored a book titled ‘Cognition-Based Evolution’ (2023) where he amends the famous statement of the great evolutionist Ernst Mayer — ‘The theory of evolution is quite rightly called the greatest unifying theory in biology’ — by the statement ‘cellular cognition is the great unifying force in biology.’

    The book also looks into the ethical implications of CBC. Often a rhetorical question is asked when one becomes a vegetarian for ethical reasons — Are not plants sentient? The authors give quite a tantalising answer here:

    All cellular life is conscious, senses external events, experiences and evaluates internal conditions, thinks, makes decisions, and has negatively valenced sensations and perceptions. Is there a way for vegetarians and vegans to adapt to this compelling reality — particularly those who have adopted their lifestyle for ethical reasons? There is, and it is obvious. Restrict your diet to those plants that want to be eaten, those whose evolutionary history is marked by the development of biomolecular mechanisms that render them tasty and nutritious to other species and did so for fundamental evolutionary reasons.

    A footnote points out that the ethical implications resonate with the non-violence model of Jainism. One would extend that to the entire Sanatana Dharma though.

    Overall, this book is rich with data and insights that challenge fundamental tenets of biology.

    This trend has been evident as complex networks are uncovered at every level of biology, from molecular pathways to tropical rainforests. While reductionism remains an effective tool, it does not capture the entire reality.

    Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC) to Cognition-based Evolution (CBE) provide quite interesting and transforming views of the field of biology itself. If further validated and developed into powerful schools, they can have a very serious impact on how we approach biology.

    Here one is reminded of one of the very important insights given in the Kena Upanishad that realising consciousness in every pulsation of sentience is the path to immortality and liberation (Pratibodhaviditam matamamṛtatvam hi vindate). CBC and CBE may well be pointers towards that direction.

    If one is to go through the history of the notion of cellular consciousness, then one always arrives at Lynn Margulis (1938-2011).

    As every study progresses into the complexity and richness of processes that shape evolution, one realises that Margulis should be considered as perhaps the greatest biologist since Darwin.

    At the start of the review, the writer has referred to her view of the consciousness of the autopoietic cell. In the same book, she also said:

    The gentle living explosion, in a circuitous 4,000-million-year path to the present, has produced us all. In a sense then, the Vedic intuition that individual awareness is illusory and that each of us belongs to a single primal ground-Brahman-may be accurate: we share a common heritage, not only of chemistry but of consciousness, of the need to survive in a cosmos whose matter we share but which is itself indifferent to our living and self-concern.

    In a way what we see in biology is the revolution of consciousness that may be validating the non-dual vision of those seers who meditated in the banks of Saraswati and Ganga.

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