Moreover, could a culture of microorganisms form a collective hive-intelligence similar to ants or bees? I'm trying to design a scientifically plausible hive-mind, and I'm trying to decide whether the best option is to merely utilize tiny aquatic insects with the conventional type of hive-intelligence displayed by certain species on Earth (only extrapolated so that the hive, when working together, is not only conscious but can out-think the entire human population or a futuristic supercomputer), or to create bacteria with some primitive level of intelligence that can communicate with others of its kind over long distances, possibly via radio waves, to form a giant brain with distributed intelligence like an octopus.

Which of these is more plausible scientifically, and which would seem more different psychologically when compared to humans?

  • $\begingroup$ you might enjoy this episode of STNG It had microrganisms who thought of humans as "ugly bags of mostly water"... ha! Not sure about distances, but they did act together. $\endgroup$ – WRX Dec 5 '16 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ My answer to this is the same as for this. In fact, is the question “Under what circumstances could a sentient cell develop?” a duplicate? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see the big deal if you allow colonies. At the very least, that's what makes for tissue and organisms. For little bugs, we've covered that in detail across a series of questions. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ all: Please confine answers to the compare-and-contrast aspect that is the specific point of this question. For details on either, refer to the existing posts and don’t duplicate content or scatter relevant information. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 1:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @TheGreatDuck, I sit corrected! $\endgroup$ – WRX Dec 6 '16 at 3:50

Of the two, I would go the bacterial route. But before I explain my answer, I feel I should point out that in either situation, the individual organisms are not intelligent. Intelligent organisms that collaborate to become smarter than an average individual is known as Collective Intelligence. It is very easy to think that the flocking behavior of birds or the herd mentality or even schools of fish are the results of some particular intelligence on the part of the animal. It is not. It all boils down to some very simple rules of behavior like "never be on the edge, more than 3 feet from another fish, never closer than 6 inches, and never get closer than 6 feet from ABC". Also, as @ThomBlairIII points out in his excellent answer, humans can be thought of as a macroscopic colony of microscopic "organisms". A skin cell is not intelligent, nor is blood cell, or even a single neuron. As a whole however, I am able to add 2+2 (but beyond that is questionable at times).

So now to actually answer your question. Were you aware that the amino acid alanine was used to store quantum data? And I'm sure you're aware that cells routinely work at the subatomic level. With just that knowledge, one could imagine a "coral reef" bacterial system comprised of species of bacteria that collectively form a quantum computer. One species gathers protons and creates ions, which another species can use to get the electrons. During cellular division, they release a few electrons causing a pulse which causes a bacteriorhodopsin to "kink"...etc. Eventually the entire system forms a living quantum computer that is able to "out-think" (although "out-problem solve" is probably a better term here) humans and their computers without being an omniscient god-like being. Just as it takes time for my heart to pump blood to my brain, so too would it take time for the bacteria to get enough sunlight or heat from a thermal vent or in order to set up the quantum states needed to solve the problem.

Thank God this isn't a Hard Science tagged question! :D

Edit: I started thinking about the tactical applications of a quantum system. Imagine an enemy that looked at your current troop deployments and instantly ordered its troops into positions ensuring victory! That is, if a quantum computer were given the current state of a chess board, could it collapse into a strong solution? I had to Bing this... and (as usual) someone else thought of it first. If you read that article, you learn two things:

  1. "Can quantum computers solve hard problems quickly? The answer is: yes and no. ... Integer factorization is important practically because many encryption methods rely on the fact that integers having very large factors can only be factored in ridiculously long time using classical computers, making the encryption unbreakable. However this problem has a structure which favours a quantum mechanical solution: namely it boils down to finding the period of a function which is 'easy' for quantum mechanics. ... There is no such natural phenomenon that chess models in an abstract way. It models war fought between humans in an abstract way which is a different story. It is one of the many problems that can only be solved by brute force and this is hard for even quantum computers." Bummer!

  2. (More intriguingly) Both I and @JDługosz are late to the game. Nature already works at a quantum level. So maybe a story about algae being a quantum computer would be less a science fiction book and more of a text book!

  • $\begingroup$ I’ve had similar thoughts. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 1:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Technically DNA is a miniature computer processor. Perhaps a super-massive cell with 10+ DNA strands could have enough computing power to form intelligence through dynamic DNA manipulation if itself? $\endgroup$ – user64742 Dec 6 '16 at 3:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @tim that article in SD doesn’t make a lot of sense. I wonder if the reporter scrambled it? See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_biology for the well-known examples. Ask Google for videos on google tech talks quantum photosynthesis. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 5:47


Volvox is a genus of green algae that forms spherical colonies of up to 50,000 cells.

enter image description here

Volvox colony:
1) Chlamydomonas-like cell
2) Daughter colony
3) Cytoplasmic bridges
4) Intercellular gel
5) Reproductive cell
6) Somatic cell

Each mature Volvox colony is composed of up to thousands of cells from two differentiated cell types: numerous flagellate somatic cells and a smaller number of germ cells lacking in soma. Adult somatic cells comprise a single layer with the flagella facing outward. The cells swim in a coordinated fashion. The cells have anterior eyespots that enable the colony to swim towards light.

Here, a distinct hive-like mind exists--they all cooperate to swim in a certain direction and they process visual data, so that demonstrates a definite complex communication between individuals.

In addition, Volvox can be sexual or asexual. In sexual colonies, male colonies release numerous sperm packets, while female colonies produce single cells that enlarge to become eggs. So, they even coordinate to mate.

While Volvox are not using radios yet, it's still proof microorganisms can form hive-minds capable of complex behavior. So, it's not that big of a leap to imagine more evolved colonies capable of more human-like intelligence.

Humans As Gestalt Entities

In fact, when considering how individual Volvox cells differentiate to perform different tasks, i.e. have an eyespot or a flagella, their growth and organization bears a striking resemblance to how groups of human stem cells differentiate to form humans. In that sense, humans could be considered a macroscopic colony of microscopic differentiated stem cells possessing a very highly evolved group mind.

  • $\begingroup$ regarding your last 2-3 comments... I think the author was thinking of a blob that had a hive mind whilst retaining individuality. Like a county of bacteria that occasionally "go to war" and form into a giant body of them all stacking upon one another in a massive destructive wave. $\endgroup$ – user64742 Dec 6 '16 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @TheGreatDuck - While this information is awesome and deserves an upvote I think the author meant "Could an individual cell or group of cells have intelligence" as opposed to "form intelligence" $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 6 '16 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, I'll write a separate answer for that idea, since my answer would be very different. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 6 '16 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra I added a new answer regarding cells and cell organelles. See what you think. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 6 '16 at 4:42

Could an individual cell or group of cells have intelligence?

I think it is possible for an individual cell, and hence a group of cells as well, to have intelligence. The real-life example I'm basing this on is the precise, well organized functioning of cell organelles within a eukaryotic cell:

enter image description here

Essentially, such a cell is an organism just like a human, complete with mini organs (organelles) that perform specific tasks. For example:

  • Brain - Cell Nucleus

  • Skeleton - Cytoskeleton

  • Limbs for movement - Flagellum

These organelles perform complex tasks requiring great precision and very low error rate. As such, they could be considered extremely "intelligent", just as a human engineer can be said to be intelligent and not just a mindless mechanical contraption set in motion by chemistry and physics.

So, I think it's plausible to posit some cells could indeed evolve to be intelligent, particularly if they evolved in an environment favoring microscopic evolution much more than Earth does.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not «a cell» but specifically eucaryote cells. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 6 '16 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Yes, good point. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 6 '16 at 6:43

Search for articles on 'physarum polycephalum maze solving' and you'll see that biologists have been amazed at the ability of this slime to solve mazes.

Also interesting to note that this slime will group in blob or slime in periods of least food availability and resume ´individual' life when food is plentiful.

However one challenge with considering a super blob of planetary size would be the diminishing returns due to communication cost across all cells.

You might want to consider blobs of blobs or super blobs like the super ant nests of Amazonian ants. So specific blobs tackle in small committees specific problems. This also allows some of them to fail.

This could make it temporarily look like our world. But if the blobs where to constantly form and dissolve with each single cell retaining the ability to leave the bigger blob you could keep the framework of your story.

You might also consider throwing panspermia in which could give you a startravelling species.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I've never heard of slime molds solving mazes! I love stories like this! $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 6 '16 at 6:50


Yes, a bunch of micro-organisms working together can get reasonably intelligent.

An average human is, after all, merely 30 trillion or so cells.

Each of these cells (or rather their ancestors) started life out identically, as a completely undifferentiated stem cell. Each of these cells is very simple. Together they can form an almost-convincing facsimile of an intelligent being.

So a human is just a colony of 30 trillion cells, that cooperate to such an extent that they have even delegated control (nerves) and propagation (germ cells) to subgroups of the colony. But, is this not exactly the sort of specialization that a colony of insects do?

The "no" part of the answer comes from exactly which definition of "organism" you are using. You likely require the bits to be individually motile, like bees, rather than almost-permanently glued to each other, like human cells are.

  • $\begingroup$ Colony of cells - who am I, what I do, what is my purpose... really thinking about few trillion cells, really brings phylosofical questions in to a practical realm - how I exists. wow, lol. Most enlighting answer this year sofar. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 19 at 22:56

These answers all seem bad, so I'll add my own.

In our world, there are no known mechanisms of computation that exist within a single, individual cell. From time to time, someone posits such a mechanism, but those are fringe science as far as I'm aware.

Thus, single cells are never intelligent, not even single neurons.

However, there is nothing in physics, chemistry, or biology to suggest that this is impossible. Computational mechanisms could easily be small enough to fit within a cell, and could be made of the sort of organic substances we tend to find in cells. Greg Bear wrote a novel about this (Blood Music, I recommend it), where a mad scientist type engineers bacteria that are individually as intelligent as humans.

For the purpose of your question, if intelligence is Turing computational (unclear, but no reason for it not to be), and if sufficient computational density could fit within a single cell, then they could be as intelligent as any other larger organism. There are probably limits to their intelligence (doubtful single cells could be superhumanly intelligent), but without a clearer picture of how those computational elements function it's difficult to give much more than speculation on that.

Biologies that are more alien than Earth's probably allow more leeway, it wouldn't be implausible that some inorganic crystalline life forms would grow something akin to computronium.

  • $\begingroup$ Bacterias are capable "making decisions", they do change activities according to changes of external situation. I mean decisions is bit to big, but information signal procesings is a mundane thing for them, so statement "there are no known mechanisms of computation that exist within a single, individual cell. " needs some clarification, at least $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 19 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg A mechanical push button machine may "make decisions based on input", but it's hardly computational. A network of neurons, on the other hand, definitely does some sort of computation, even if it's not the most efficient or intuitive from a compsci point of view. $\endgroup$ – John O May 20 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ By the same logic, same as network of butons, which more or less cpu's are. And notice I do not equalise computarion to intelligence, and my comment adresses the statement in quotes. As I said computations in cells happen all the time as part of regular activity. I even do not interested in mention some experiments which do make "transistors" out of cells or inside them, there at least 2 approaches I have seen beeing reported, u probably may find it on your own. So statement is just plainly wrong and misleading in 2 aspects. U can disagree upon one but u may find another one - !"no known". $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 20 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg This is mostly a semantic disagreement, I think. If you prefer, please take any time I use the word "computational" to mean something that operates at a higher level than can be considered Turing-complete. That is, able to run arbitrary programs. No paramecia are going to be able to contrive to do that, even if they can occasionally act as some trivial collection of logic gates. $\endgroup$ – John O May 20 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Brainfuck is turing complete and making an interpreter of finding one within cell not impossible. One of the cell things I mentiont popsci.com/technology/article/2013-04/… . I'm under mod survailace for comment activity, so can't write until u get the point. I preffer substance over form, but no matter how I look at the statement it looks as factually incorrect attempt to make strong statement. U may try to define elaborate u version of comp in A as it seems detrimental piece of context to interpret u A. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 20 at 18:00

I do not believe that in the real world they can possess a hive mind like that of bees but I do believe they can all share the same primitive goals such as moving in huge swarms or by locating others of its kind through a sort of energy pulse.

So I dont see why this could not be a thing, but if they did form a hive mind I think it would be very very primitive.

This idea of your reminds me of something out of Dr. Who. There was hive like creatures in one of the episodes.

  • $\begingroup$ Probably, Classic Doctor Who. Most likely, The Invisible Enemy with its intelligent virus organisms. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 6 '16 at 5:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.