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No. 15: Spring 1981

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If bacteria don't think, neither do we

As one goes step-by-step down the ladder of biological complexity, one discovers that flatworms, plants, and even bacteria display purposeful behavior. Bacteria, which are usually regarded as fairly inert when it comes to responding to environmental pressures, actually react in different ways to dozens of different stimuli. This ability at the very least requires sensory equipment, internal clocks, a memory, and a decision-making capability.

If bacterial activity is all preprogrammed (the reductionist view), are not humans also preprogrammed? Human programs are larger and more complex, of course, but still devoid of "thinking." Conversely, if humans really do think; that is, transcend preprogramming (free will, if you wish), then bacteria must also think. The third possibility is that at some step in the ladder of life, "higher" life forms begin to think. There is little evidence that life is split so profoundly between thinkers and non-thinkers.

(Morowitz, Harold J.; "Do Bacteria Think?" Psychology Today, 15:10, February 1981.)

Comment. This ancient controversy about determinism has been revived as:

(1) Simple life forms have been found to be not-so-simple; (2) All life seems unified by a single (or small number of) genetic codes; and (3) "Higher" life forms seem more and more to be just composites of simpler, cooperating biological entities.

From Science Frontiers #15, Spring 1981. 1981-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987