EPISODE RELEASED 1st NOV 2023
WHAT ROLE DOES BIOELECTRICITY PLAY IN THE FORMATION OF NEW ORGANISMS? HOW DO CELLS CONNECT TO FORM A HIERARCHY OF EVER MORE ADVANCED COGNITION, PREFERENCES AND GOALS? WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE MEDICINE, SENSE OF SELF AND CONSCIOUSNESS?
In this episode we have the extraordinary role of bio-electricity in the orchestration and elaboration of organisms to look at. I became interested in this topic in the nineties when I read a book that was controversial at the time: ‘The Body Electric’, by Dr. Robert Becker who had been studying the bioelectric fields around salamanders as they regenerated limbs. I’ve been hoping to hear about it again ever since, but I thought the research had died out. That was until my guest Zhen Xu at the university of Michigan, spoke about the work of my guest today, in our episode #37 on her work “Histotripsy: Ultrasound for destroying cancer cells”.
He is the award winning Biology professor at TUFTS Michael Levin, in the department of regenerative and developmental Biology, although he started out as a computer engineer. His specialisations are in how cells form bioleletrical networks, used for storing and recalling the pattern memories that guide morphogenesis. He then applies that to next generation Ai to help understand a top down control of pattern regulation in the new field of the bioinformatics of shape. He is also a visionary in how all this can be applied to regenerative medicine and bioengineering and his work obliges us to re-examine our approach to morphogenesis.
I have been longing to find someone to talk to about the implications of this work for the biolelectric nature of collective intelligence, and how that builds up ever higher levels and layers of collective cellular agency, cognition and sense of self, culminating perhaps in collective intelligences greater than single organisms. For that answer you’ll have to listen to what Michael says in the episode.
What we discuss:
06:10 Bioelectrical fields are responsible for which cells become which body parts.
07:30 The cognitive ‘glue’ that binds collectives of cells to goals, agency and preferences.
09:30 Morphogenesis explained.
11:30 Chemistry to cognition is a single continuum.
11:00 Self-organising cellular adaptability.
12:30 Cells also communicate using electric signals, not only neurones.
13:00 Birth defects, cancer, and regenerative medicine: The Re-writing electrical signals solution
16:00 How are cognitive memories encoded in the electrical field? We don’t know yet.
16:45 “Electric face” present in the field: copy it, apply it elsewhere and it grows there!
18:30 The bioelectrical pattern is instructive.
20:15 It’s a simple information encoding.
20:30 Competent active cellular material.
21:55 We must be humble: we don’t know what the competent materials can do.
23:15 If there aren’t enough cells to build, it will signal others to help finish the structure.
24:30 DNA vs Bioelectricty: Analogy of Hardware vs Software with reprogrammability
28:00 Where is the location of the forms stored, memorised and encoded in the bioelectric field?
30:30 “We really have to redefine what me mean by “Where”“
30:45 Statistical inevitability: randomly falling marbles self organise into an Edaisian bell curve distribution over time: The Galton board.
32:21 We don’t know where the truths of mathematics reside.
33:00 Evolution makes organisms that embody wherever mathematics comes from.
38:10 Bioengineering: Training competent materials VS building passive materials.
40:30 Agential’ material: Cells have agency and preferences.
41:45 A hierarchy of higher level training via cognition.
42:15 Assign the right agency to systems, neither too much nor too little.
44:30 Zenobots: cells re-program themselves in days, with no training only influenced by their environment.
48:10 No time for natural selection/evolution in a newly self-adapting system of cells.
50:40 Highly regenerative, cancer resistant, immortal: Plenaria asexual worms.
52:00 Gulf between genomic info and structural information and function
55:40 Gap Junctions: bioelectric gates for cells to network memories and agency
58:30:00 We don’t have access to the past, only to traces in our body and brain
01:00:00 Cancer cells close their gap junctions, separating themselves from the collective of the body.
01:01:50 Cognitive hierarchy of selves within selves, with increasing levels of advanced complexity and agency, each with subjective experience.
01:08:00 Collaborative collective intelligence between organisms VS ever larger selves as one unified intelligence.
01:09:00 Testing agency at any level: Perturbative experiment over only observation.
01:15:00 Ants: Collective intelligence beyond single organisms
William James - “Intelligence is a fixed goal with variable means of achieving it”
Voltage movie of an embryo developing “Electric face” - Dany Adams, TUFTS
Statistical inevitability Edaisian bell curve distribution (Galton board)
Oak tree mutation: Spangle gall Wasp parasite
Cognition chart: Levin, various levels of cognition: Fig. 1&2
Werner Lowenstein book - the discovery of Gap junctions