Communications Biology                          volume  7, Article number: 378  (2024 )             Cite this article

Collective intelligence: A unifying concept for integrating biology across scales and substrates

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2024-04-01 02:30:03

Communications Biology volume  7, Article number: 378 (2024 ) Cite this article

A defining feature of biology is the use of a multiscale architecture, ranging from molecular networks to cells, tissues, organs, whole bodies, and swarms. Crucially however, biology is not only nested structurally, but also functionally: each level is able to solve problems in distinct problem spaces, such as physiological, morphological, and behavioral state space. Percolating adaptive functionality from one level of competent subunits to a higher functional level of organization requires collective dynamics: multiple components must work together to achieve specific outcomes. Here we overview a number of biological examples at different scales which highlight the ability of cellular material to make decisions that implement cooperation toward specific homeodynamic endpoints, and implement collective intelligence by solving problems at the cell, tissue, and whole-organism levels. We explore the hypothesis that collective intelligence is not only the province of groups of animals, and that an important symmetry exists between the behavioral science of swarms and the competencies of cells and other biological systems at different scales. We then briefly outline the implications of this approach, and the possible impact of tools from the field of diverse intelligence for regenerative medicine and synthetic bioengineering.

One defining feature of complex life, making it distinct from our current engineered artifacts, is its multiscale nature: there is order in biology across levels of organization, from molecules to cells, tissues, organs, whole organisms, and societies/swarms1,2. Crucially, however, this goes well beyond structural nesting: it is in fact a multiscale competency architecture3,4 because each level solves problems in its own relevant domains (Fig. 1). As evolution facilitated the increase of complexity, living things became composed of layers that cooperate and compete to solve problems in metabolic, physiological, anatomical, and behavioral state spaces (reviewed in refs. 5,6). Biology’s robustness, open-endedness, evolvability, and unique complexity likely depend on the fact that evolution works with an agential material – a substrate with competencies, computational abilities, and homeodynamic setpoints5,7 that strongly influence the structure and function of multicellular forms. Adaptive behavior in new problem spaces3,4 can arise because higher levels of organization can deform the energy landscape for the subunits8, while benefitting from their ability to navigate those landscapes autonomously and without micromanagement.

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