The idea that we live in an intelligent universe has thrived for quite a while. It’s an important idea because it would explain many things, including how we got here. I keep my eye out for any bit of evidence to support the theory, and a beauty surfaced recently on the PBS program, Nature, entitled “Clever Monkeys.” It turns out that monkeys are far more than clever. They may be tapping into the basic fabric of the cosmos.
I’m thinking about a short segment of the program about red colobus monkeys in Africa. They and their cousins, the white-and-black colobus, subsist on a diet of tough, toxic tree leaves, and being large monkeys, they must consume a huge quantity of leaves to get enough nourishment. But the particular vegetation they eat is high in cyanide, and every day a colobus ingests enough poison to kill a human being. They survive because of bacteria in their intestines that helps neutralize the cyanide. Yet in the process the colobus has bad indigestion — as the narrator intones, “They don’t seem to like their diet very much.” And indeed, the monkeys on camera look listless and sour-faced.

But the red colobus recently made a life-altering discovery. They found that if they eat a bit of charcoal from the abandoned fires of local villagers, their indigestion is cured. This had made them happier monkeys, and as a result their numbers have dramatically increased; not only that, but they are free to explore other food sources. These advantages aren’t felt by the white-and-black colobus, who haven’t hit upon the charcoal-eating trick. New generations of red colobus learn the habit by having it passed on from mother to child.
It’s amazing how much critical knowledge is contained in this one anecdote. Self-medication is well known, but here the red colobus has hit upon the same property in charcoal that emergency room doctors use when a patient arrives with acute poisoning. Medical science is able to explain how charcoal absorbs toxins in the stomach. Monkeys can’t explain anything or do laboratory research. It is completely untenable to claim that they eat substances at random until they hit upon just the one perfect remedy — such random behavior isn’t seen among them. Nor is the behavior genetic, because native tribes moved into the vicinity of the colobus and lit fires only recently compared to the 40 million years that monkeys have existed.
What we are witnessing is an intelligent discovery on the part of creatures who stand far below Homo sapiens on the evolutionary chain, and that discovery is being passed on from mother to child without genetic adaptation. To me, this means that quite a blow has been struck for intelligence being innate in the universe. It suggests that evolution itself has never been random but is guided by the principle of intelligence — not “intelligent design,” which is a red herring supplied by religious conservatives. The intelligent universe is a cutting-edge idea, not a throwback to scripture. As a theory, it gives us a much more elegant explanation for many things that are clumsily explained by falling back on randomness to explain every new development in Nature.
At the moment, evolutionary theory refuses to abandon the notion of random selection, and geneticists cling stubbornly to the doctrine of random mutations to explain why new things appear in the unfolding story of life. We all have a stake in this argument, however. Seeing the red colobus evolve before our eyes cannot be denied. It didn’t happen randomly, and their new discovery represents a quantum leap forward in their survival. There’s much to think about here, since we want to know how early humans made their first discoveries and passed them on to us. Rather than saying that a larger brain made intelligence possible, why not say the opposite, that intelligence dictated a larger brain so that it could expand? Life moves forward inexorably, no one doubts that. Now it’s up to us to explain the hidden forces behind evolution, in hopes that we can tap those forces and guide our own future.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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