Nature Previous - Next


The Mind of the Bee

and the future of the global environment

My views are resolutely held, and (hearing or) reading them may provoke you into a response, a question, or a wish to engage in debate: but I have no mission to convert you, nor even any wish to come to an agreed conclusion. I want all points of view to flourish. In the ecology of ideas, just as in the ecology of bogs and forests, I want to promote symbiotic diversity, not uniformity. When I meet a sedevacantist, or a stalinist, I rejoice at the variety in human understanding so keep yourself open to novel, or long discarded, possibilities don't monoculture your mind.

By Gillies MacBain  

The view I want to put forward may surprise you: information technology has no fundamental or long term role in the future of the global environment.

I want to ask you to choose, between the most powerful conceivable digital computer and the mind of a bee a honeybee.

In 1990 three Californian scientists, Sejnowski, Montague, and Dayan, measured the activity in a bee's brain.

The bees's brain was humming along at ten million million floating point operations per second ten 'teraflops' that was ten times faster than the most powerful computer available in that year.

But suppose we develop the computer to the ultimate an environmental computer programme with the capacity to monitor all Ireland every blade of grass, every soil micro-organism, every breath of wind and every drop of rain?

Not enough.

Ireland has to be monitored as an integral part of the global environment the sunlight, the prevailing wind, the gulf stream, and volcanic eruptions, from deep in the earth to dust in the upper atmosphere.


But a computer that could handle that volume of ongoing global information would have to keep it to itself. To print it out would take every minute of every day, and use more wood pulp than there is in all the sustainable forests of the world.

We would have come to the limits of information gathering and rational planning. (Certain computer programming has already moved beyond it). We would have come to the environmental, philosophical and spiritual crisis which now lies in wait for us.

The limit on rational planning is not a limit on computing capacity. Once you have reached a certain threshold, you no longer need a bigger computer, just the same one with a more sophisticated programme.

Certain kinds of complex problem solutions now mimic nature in that they are compiled in several versions. The computer runs these through and evaluates them. The best are then selected and their best aspects re-combined into new variations. This is an algorithm of genetic evolution.

The programmes form, in effect, a breeding group or genetic pool as a basis for evolution. The word algorithm means step by step procedures for carrying out operations by the blind application of specified rules.

Within its own parameters, it is natural, not artificial, selection. The operator who breeds computer programmes from computer programmes is like a little god in his own laboratory, magnanimously granting the equivalent of free will. He can go for another cup of coffee while the programme runs the recombining and re-selecting process through, say, 5000 generations.

When the optimum programme is selected, it is the best approximation, given the time and resources available, to the solution of a problem, the complexity of which may be exponential, fractual, and ultimately uncomputable.

If this is leading into an area which is so arcane that both you, and I, are in danger of becoming lost, have no fear. This is not a complete explanation but only a whetting of the appetite: your minds are the programmes that I am trying to breed, with variations, and let loose to breed on their own!

When the optimum programme is finally put to practical use, the machine has evolved it, in effect, from experience, not from foresight. Neither the machine nor the operator have a blueprint that describes the programme or why or how it works.

Some scientists crave control, and they find this element of trust very unsettling indeed.

Imagine again, that you or your grandchildren are standing in front of a shiny black box that contains an ongoing computation of all the moment-to-moment unfolding data on the biosphere, and everything that inhabits it, or impinges upon it.

What information would you access?

Would you press the fast forward button to see if the story ends happily? If the human race survives without wrecking its own habitat beyond recovery?

or would would press the rewind button to go back and inspect the origins of life itself?

it doesn't work like that.

On the frontiers of complexity nature is creative and exhibits emergent properties. The past and the future are not rigidly bolted onto the present and in any case: to pose a question is in effect to select from the available data. A question contains, within it, implications both as to the answer and as to where the questioner is coming from. There is no neutral question.

Data itself is aimless and access to it is only a half way house to solving a problem.

The mind of the bee asks questions as to the colour of flowers. The location and abundance of honey: the answering of those questions by the bees is a matter of life and death life and death is the concrete non-latin name for evolution.

If 20th century technology built a bee, it would be of metal and plastic and wiring, about the size of a land rover and flown from mission control back in the hive.

But the live bee carries its mission control software in its tiny head, as well as the entire genetic blueprint of how to build a bee, in every cell of its body and from one generation to the next and its initiatory programme is the cosmos, in its entirety.

In being, the bee carries more information about the problems of operational bees than could ever be listed, narrated, or printed out.

The mind of god, or the pattern of nature, (and the choice is yours) is information, but except in our own tiny part, it is not knowledge. It has generated self-consciousness in us, but is not fundamentally self-conscious.

That is a conclusion that the evolution of computer programmes is also currently leading us to.

It is not in the mind of God to count in tens only hominids that still count with their fingers do that. In fact the genetic code, which is carried in every cell of the bees body, and in yours, has four letters.

No one has yet attempted to explain why this is so and yet we have already, foolishly, embarked upon genetic engineering. Perhaps the genetic code is not one-dimensional? The genetic code is not a list. If it were, two letters corresponding to the computer O and I, or on and off, would be enough.

Consider a sweater. Analytical intelligence can take it apart in a careful logical order, to show that it consists of a small number of long, single strands of wool. In this fashion, the world always corresponds, at rock bottom, to the basic code of the type of intelligence that is investigating it: if the medium is digital and sequential, the ultimate answer to analysis is a sequence of bits or an array of pixels.

But the sweater, nevertheless, has a pattern. It is generated by repetition. You can identify it as a Fairisle or Shetland or Aran.

The unreflective mind of the bee goes along with the pattern of nature, it does not attempt to unravel it. That is how the bee deals with uncomputable complexity, and that is how we should, too.

Environmentally, the brain of the bee is superior to our own rational intelligence.

Now with this I am leading you around, like a Zen teacher, not to tell you something, so much as to baffle your reason, until you let go of some 20th century baggage that you have carried around with you for too long

Who designs the bee?

The department of the Environment? The laws of physics? Some chance configuration of particles in the micro seconds after the big bang? Or is it an original design the prototype from the garden of Eden, via Noah's ark?

Each of those suggestions takes us back to an outside or transcendental air traffic controller, or creator, or monitor, or rulebook of atomic physics, or authority, or steward.

Both the Genesis creation story and the big bang theory (the latter being the origin myth of modern physics) fall into this category. They are not opposing views. (You may see Catholics and Protestants fighting on the streets but you are unlikely to see theists and materialists fighting on the streets!)

Both the editors of Genesis and the purveyors of popular science suppose the same thing: that the world was created out of nothing: ex nihilo: on a particular and historic day.

Those who are dubious about the hand of a divine craftsperson, should look closely at the presently available alternative: a singularity. The abstract latin-root name of the big bang means spontaneous generation, as in the mediaeval explanation for the appearance of maggots in bad meat, now discredited completely.

Both the materialists and the traditionalists are unaware that they are interpreting the world as a text and imposing upon it the textual requirement of having a page one. We are educated to work from both these texts. Western civilisation has a two-faced philosophy. We teach one at primary and the other at third level.

Both aspects of our accepted philosophy insist as a dogma that the world had to have a beginning and this carries with it the destructive implication that the world must have an end

The earth as an expendable resource.

The scientific world view prides itself on being detached, but it is less than semi-detached. It sits upon the creationist worldview as neatly and easily as modern Galway city centre offices sit upon the mediaeval street plan of the earlier town.

It is time to reconcile the modern and the mediaeval world view openly and honestly not, as we have done so far this century, on the quiet.

We have been educated to see the mind of God, or the laws of nature, as eternal and unchanging but far from being unchanging, when you actually come to looking for either, they are elusive and fickle and evolving, creative and endlessly fertile!

Let us go along with John Scotus Eriugena, the Irish ninth century philosopher, and suppose that God is a part of nature. Suppose that it is the mind within nature that flies the bee, or, to define nature in theological terms: suppose that the patterns of nature are immanent, not transcendent, not like the laws of Moses or the nomadic but rigid laws of physics.

Suppose that creation is ongoing and that the true date of the creation of the world is today. Suppose that the mind of creation that flies the bee is an integral part of the bee and of the whole biosphere and every bit of the cosmos impinging upon the flight of the bee

Look at the alternative! If God (or the 'laws of physics') observes every sparrow that falls and can number every hair of your head and every particle in the galaxies where is all this volume of information stored?

I have fantasised about an Irish environmental super computer to bring you to this point I am saying that in a dark brown way of thinking as opposed to a green there is no room in the world to store all of this except in the interacting complexity of nature herself the living earth and all that impinges upon her.

The mind of God and the pattern of creation are not opposites, but two names for the same thing. It is information held in being not gathered up by comprehension and filed separately as knowledge.

Creation is her own intelligence and our conscious intelligence is a humble subset of that intelligence.

So let nature take her course and let computers follow.

As artificial intelligence evolves, the computers will pass painlessly through their equivalent of a spiritual crisis: they will take their leave of pedestrian pre-written programmes to evolve via genetic algorithms, to form their own unconscious complexity.

The scientific community may be in for an intense culture shock. If, as many suppose, gods are not real, then it follows that gods are not hardware in the sky. Gods (for gods there are and always were) must be part of the software of the world of human culture evolved in programmes tested over generations

Faced with this, it is the materialists (not those of childlike faith) who must accept that the day is closer when one of their self-generating computer programmes will re-invent the concept of the 'mind of God' for the benefit of it's own subtle internal procedures. The irony is that in the absence of a full print out the operator may be unaware of the machines 'conversion' and thus unable to do anything about it!

So what is the destiny of the hive? Let the mind of the hive be the evolving life and death experience of the bees! Imitate the patterns of nature rather than try to control them.

Power is an animal that demands to be fed. It grows as it is fed and as it grows its appetite gets larger and larger and harder to feed. That is a cul-de-sac.

Life, with a restless mind of its own, is the only sustainable system.

The only sustainable future, the only way open to us that is not a cul-de-sac, is to reintegrate ourselves with nature and with the mind of God and with that deeper sense of ourselves and our world which lies beneath and beyond rational planning

The natural mind.

Let it be.

Gillies Macbain is a philosopher and thinker. He lives in County Tipperary where he runs an organic farm and hostel at Crannagh Castle.

Previous - Next