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Biosystems. 2018 Jan;163:23-35. doi: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2017.11.008. Epub 2017 Dec 2.

Evolutionary epistemology: Reviewing and reviving with new data the research programme for distributed biological intelligence.

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Department of Life Sciences, College of Health and Life Sciences, Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom. Electronic address:


Numerous studies in microbiology, eukaryotic cell biology, plant biology, biomimetics, synthetic biology, and philosophy of science appear to support the principles of the epistemological theory inspired by evolution, also known as "Evolutionary Epistemology", or EE. However, that none of the studies acknowledged EE suggests that its principles have not been formulated with sufficient clarity and depth to resonate with the interests of the empirical research community. In this paper I review evidence in favor of EE, and also reformulate EE principles to better inform future research. The revamped programme may be tentatively called Research Programme for Distributed Biological Intelligence. Intelligence I define as the capacity of organisms to gain information about their environment, process that information internally, and translate it into phenotypic forms. This multistage progression may be expressed through the acronym IGPT (information-gain-process-translate). The key principles of the programme may be summarized as follows. (i) Intelligence, a universal biological phenomenon promoting individual fitness, is required for effective organism-environment interactions. Given that animals represent less than 0.01% of the planetary biomass, neural intelligence is not the evolutionary norm. (ii) The basic unit of intelligence is a single cell prokaryote. All other forms of intelligence are derived. (iii) Intelligence is hierarchical. It ranges from bacteria to the biosphere or Gaia. (iv) The concept of "information" acquires a new meaning because information processing is at the heart of biological intelligence. All biological systems, from bacteria to Gaia, are intelligent, open thermodynamic systems that exchange information, matter and energy with the environment. (v) The organism-environment interaction is cybernetic. As much as the organism changes due to the influence of the environment, the organism's responses to induced changes affect the environment and subsequent organism-environment interactions. Based on the above principles a new research agenda can be formulated to explore different forms of biological intelligence.


Biological intelligence; Biomimetics; Cell biology; Evolutionary epistemology; Microbiology; Philosophy of science; Plant biology

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