In the creation story of the Vishnu Purana, the first thing to manifest at the beginning of our cosmic cycle is cosmic intelligence. From this cosmic intelligence emanates the individual intelligences of all existing entities in the universe. In men and women it manifests as human intelligence, the human mind. But it also appears as the intelligent influence in all of nature's kingdoms, visible and invisible. What goes on in a single biological cell — its power to adapt to changing circumstances and environments, its refined technology, and its construction of proteins and DNA molecules — goes far beyond human understanding even today, let alone the human power to engineer. According to theosophy the cosmic intellect is the sum total of all divine and spiritual intelligences. The beginning of a new evolutionary cycle on whatever scale — take the "creation" of the earth as an example — is the reawakening of these hosts of intelligences. This endless multitude of intelligent beings forms in its hierarchic structure on all levels of existence the intelligent core of all that lives. In other words, the macrocosmic intelligence which guides the birth and processes of the universe is reflected on a microcosmic scale in each individual being. H. P. Blavatsky said in her article "Kosmic Mind" (1890):
Occultism tells us that every atom . . . is a little universe in itself; and that every organ and cell in the human body is endowed with a brain of its own, with memory, therefore, experience and discriminative powers. The idea of Universal Life composed of individual atomic lives is one of the oldest teachings of esoteric philosophy . . . If plants can be shown to have nerves and sensations and instinct (but another word for consciousness), why not allow the same in the cells of the human body? Science divides matter into organic and inorganic bodies, only because it rejects the idea of absolute life and a life-principle as an entity . . .
Blavatsky later wrote that, thanks to physiology, modern science stands on the threshold of discovering that consciousness is universal. Now, more than a century later, science has passed that threshold, as we shall show in a number of examples.
Not so long ago scientists denied that consciousness and intelligence existed in simple organisms such as the amoebae. Today, thanks to research using modern technology, we know that even these simple organisms have their strategies of attack and defense and are able to react variously to outward impulses. They can perceive differences or changes in their environment and act accordingly. Therefore they need sense perception and, more importantly, a "mind" to judge impulses of various kinds, combine them, and then stimulate their bodies to perform an adequate reaction. While they do not have sense organs like ours, nevertheless they do have organelles with analogous functions. They are at least as intelligent as rather complex computer software, but must also have a reason to choose between one thing and another. In other words, they seem to have their likes and dislikes, which are themselves forms of consciousness. Likes and dislikes have also been discovered in plants. We can measure physiological reactions within plant cells to a "telepathic" perception of human emotions, as has been extensively discussed in The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, among many other works. The famous inventor Thomas Edison believed that even atoms possess a certain measure of intelligence.
All this relates to the personal intelligence or consciousness of cells, plants, and organisms in general. But there are expressions of consciousness within these same organisms which go far beyond their personal powers, such as the extremely complex processes of organic chemistry within our cells and bodies. Biochemist Michael J. Behe in Darwin's Black Box (1996) gives many examples of extremely complicated chemical processes in nature, with emphasis on those in the human body. One example is the series of processes which takes place from the moment a "light unit" or photon hits the eye's retina. To summarize very briefly and incompletely: within a picosecond a molecule called cis-retinal changes into trans-retinal — no chemical change, but a change in spatial structure of the molecule. This in turn changes a protein that is naturally present within the retina cells. This protein now has different chemical properties, and attaches itself to another protein — which loses a part of itself, which has a function in energy handling. Some other changes follow. Molecules are cut in half, causing channels of electric particles to be closed. This creates an electric imbalance, which is transported through a nerve to the brain. But this is not all. If it were, a cell of the eye's retina could be used only once. In reality an equally complex and intelligent series of processes restores the balance, and brings the cell back to its original chemical condition. Of course this restoration is not just the first process in reverse, but follows its own intricate path.
Altogether many molecules are made and broken down. A lot has happened since the cell received the first photon and was made ready to receive the next. Who could still maintain that the essence of such a cell is not intelligence? This is only one photon hitting one cell. There are scores of such cells, some for black and white perception, others for color perception. And how do the brain cells that receive those millions of unspecified impulses recombine them into an image which our consciousness can comprehend?
Our consciousness not only receives the impulses, but is able to interpret their meaning. Moreover, our consciousness is able to match information from different senses: both by sight and touch we can recognize that an object is round; by sight, smell, taste, or touch alone we can recognize a strawberry for a strawberry. None of these senses will tell us that it is an orange. Still, we know that both are edible fruits. Written text seen by the eyes contains for the consciousness almost the same information as when heard. How this is possible is still a mystery for science, a mystery that can be solved only if we recognize that sensory and intelligent discrimination and consciousness are inherent qualities of all matter, or rather the other way round: that what we call matter represents "crystallized" phases of consciousness-intelligence. If the subtle forces of nature such as intelligence, consciousness, and life were fundamentally different in essence from matter, bridging the gap between them could not be explained.
Michael J. Denton in Nature's Destiny (1998) gives another interesting example from biochemistry, that of proteins. Proteins are built of chains of amino acids which mainly consist of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Proteins have a specific spatial structure which, as we have seen above, is very sensitive — for example to the temperature or acidity of the environment — and which can very easily be changed and restored for specific purposes within a living organism. Proteins are stable, but remain in a delicate balance, ever on the threshold of chaos. They are able to bond themselves to certain chemicals and to release them in other situations. It is this property which enables them to perform a variety of functions, for example catalyzing other chemical reactions in a cell. Proteins have the power to integrate information from various chemical sources, which is determined by the concentration within the cell of the chemicals involved. As we have seen when discussing the eye, proteins enable the processes in the cell to regulate themselves. This self-regulation is called allostery.
Thus proteins have a remarkable two-sided power — firstly, the performance of unique chemical reactions and the integration of the information of diverse chemical components of the cell; and secondly, intelligent reaction to this information by increasing or decreasing their own enzymic activity according to present needs. How this is possible is still regarded as one of the greatest mysteries of life. It means that the functional units which perform the chemical processes are at the same time the regulating units. This property is crucial for the functioning of the cell processes in orderly coherence. It prevents the chaos that would no doubt follow if the enzymic activity were not precisely adjusted to the ever-changing needs of the cell. It is thus the remarkable property of proteins to unite the role of both a microprocessor and a functional machine in one object. Because of this fundamental property, proteins are far more advanced than any man-made instrument. An oven, for example, has a thermostat to regulate temperature, and a functional unit, the burner or electric coil, which produces heat. In a protein these two would be unified.
Blavatsky maintained that every cell in the human body is furnished with its own brain, with a memory of its own, and therefore with the experience and power to discriminate between things. How could she say so within the context of the scientific knowledge of her day? Her knowledge was deduced from occult axioms concerning the functioning of the universe and from analogy, which is applicable on all levels of being. If there is intelligence in the great order of the cosmos, then this is also represented within a cell, and there must be a structure within the cell comparable to the physical brain. This structure must have the power to enable the processes of intelligence on the physical level to take place.
G. de Purucker wrote some seventy years ago about life-atoms, centrosomes, and centrioles. He stated that "In each cell there is a central pranic nucleus which is the life-germ of a life-atom, and all the rest of the cell is merely the carpentry of the cell builded around it by the forces flowing forth from the heart of this life-atom." A life-atom is a consciousness-point. He explained that
the life-atom works through the two tiny dots or sparks in the centrosome which fall apart at the beginning of cell-division and its energies stream out from these two tiny dots, and each tiny dot, as it were, is already the beginning of a new cell; or, to put it in other words, one remains the central part of the mother-cell, while the other tiny dot becomes the central part of the daughter-cell, etc.
All these phenomena of mitosis or cell-division are simply the works of the inner soul of the physical cell . . . The heart of an original nucleolus in a cell is the life-atom, and the two tiny dots or spots [the centrioles] in the centrosome are, as it were, extensions or fingers of its energy. The energy of the original life-atom, which is the heart of a cell, works throughout the entire cellular framework or structure in general, but more particularly through the nucleolus and also through the two tiny dots. — Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 444-5
Along these lines Blavatsky says that the "inner soul of the physical cell . . . dominates the germinal plasm . . . the key that must open one day the gates of the terra incognita of the Biologist . . ." (The Secret Doctrine 1:219).
We have seen that the presence of intelligence within biological and even chemical structures is no longer entirely taboo in scientific circles. But how far has science gone in its views relating to the existence of a brain, consciousness, and the power to discriminate between situations in the cell? Members of one modern research team, led by Guenter Albrecht-Buehler of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin and Robert Laughlin Rea of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, have written comprehensively about this question after decades of research. In their lengthy internet article they write: "Intelligent ecologies contain intelligent populations, which contain intelligent organisms, which contain intelligent cells, which contain intelligent compartments, which contain . . . and so forth." ("Cell Intelligence" on www.basic.nwu.edu/g-buehler/htmltxt.htm)
One conclusion of their research is that cells have control over the movements of all parts of their bodies, and that these are regulated from a "control center," the centrosome. Little was known about the centrosome until relatively recently. Under the microscope one could often, but not in every cell, see two black dots, named centrioles, within the centrosome. Much more is known today about the structure and functions of the centrosomes. The centrioles in the centrosomes are found in human and many animal cells, rarely in plants. But both animal and plant cells can make centrioles de novo if they need them, i.e., if they differentiate into migrating cells. Albrecht-Buehler and Rea describe the two centrioles in great detail. The pair, consisting of two cylinders arranged perpendicularly, are responsible for the cell's navigation and orientation. It is interesting that the centrioles are embedded in dense electronegative material. Purucker spoke of a pranic nucleus, the life-germ of a life-atom, which works through the two tiny dots or sparks in the centrosome. Prana is the psycho-electrical field which manifests in the individual as vitality.
Cell cross-section showing centrioles
(from Mader, Inquiry into Life)
The separation of chromosomes during mitosis and meiosis is organized from the centrosomes. It is believed that the centrosome forms the focal point of the cell's cytoskeleton, which provides the internal organization and shape of the cell and its differentiation. Due to differentiation, there exist many types of cells and specialized tissues in an organism. In higher organisms all cells contain all the organism's genes, but the difference between, say, a skin cell and a kidney cell is dependent on which of the genes are active in particular cells and under specific circumstances. There is evidence now that a cell's genes are activated and regulated by its cytoskeleton.* Differentiation requires cooperative cytoskeletal function.
* T. T. Puck and A. Krystosek, "Role of the Cytoskeleton in Genome Regulation and Cancer" in International Review of Cytology (1992), 132:75-108.
Centrioles are shown to be red and infrared sensitive, and certain cells move in the direction of light sources in these wavelengths by utilizing their centrioles. Centrioles have been found to be ideally-designed photodetectors and to act as receptors and transducers in photosensitive cells. Each of the perpendicular cylinders consists of nine slanting blades (each built of three microtubules) arranged parallel to the cylinder's axis, so that the cell can recognize the direction and distance from which the light comes.* The centrioles can therefore be called the "eyes" of a cell, though their structure is entirely different from that of the eyes of larger creatures such as vertebrates or molluscs. Biologists have exclaimed that the "centrioles' structural beauty, unfathomable geometry and intricate behavior have created an air of mystery: 'biologists have long been haunted by the possibility that the primary significance of centrioles has escaped them'.''†
*G. Albrecht-Buehler, "The cellular infrared detector appears to be contained in the centrosome," Cell Motility and the Cytoskeleton (1994), 27(3):262-271; see also his Cell Intelligence at www.basic.northwestern.edu/g-buehler/summary.htm.
† Stuart Hameroff, "Did Consciousness Cause the Cambrian Evolutionary Explosion?""
When the cell recognizes a source of light, it can move in the direction of that source, but not merely automatically. It can also make choices and move from one source of equal quality and intensity to another. Cells can also move towards other cells and can make choices as to the path they follow if there are several possibilities. Albrecht-Buehler's conclusion is that cells most probably communicate through their power of lightwave perception, and are giving off signals in the form of infrared pulses that can be perceived by the other cells. This, then, would be the way in which they locate their proper position within the bodies of more complex organisms. The movement seems, in reaction to what the centrioles or "eyes" of the cell perceive, to be guided from the centrosome, the "brain" of the cell, via a radial array of unbranched microtubules or "nerves," connecting the centrosome with the cellular microplasts or "musculature" contained in the cortex of the cell.
The most remarkable fact is that the cell is able to interpret the incoming information, to order and integrate countless unforeseeable signals, and then purposely act within a certain limit of choice. Therefore a measure of intelligence is needed. Apparently the organ of intelligence, from which all organization of movement is implemented, is the centrosome, "one of the most mysterious parts of the cell," as Albrecht-Buehler states. The centrosome is not only the bearer of information about the morphology of the cell, but can, according to Albrecht-Buehler, be regarded as the "brain" of the cell, because it is probably the cellular data integration system. The implication is that cells are much more than mere automata, reacting to chemical stimuli as programmed by the genetic code, and possess a part, in their own humble way, of the cosmic principle of intelligence. The intelligence of cells also implies that the classical picture is turned upside down: instead of genes and chemical processes governing the whereabouts of the cell, molecules and their genes would, in the words of Albrecht-Buehler, "be the 'collaborators' or even 'slaves' of the life functions of the cells." The genes, then, can be compared to a library, storing all necessary physical information. In any case, the idea of cells having perception and intelligence, choice, and therefore a "will" and consciousness, is in harmony with the ancient teachings of the omnipresence of consciousness and all other cosmic principles.
Our conclusion is that from the theosophical viewpoint, it is not DNA or even the nucleus which forms the essence of the cell or of life, but the "life-atom" or soul, which has its particular focal point in the physical aspect of the cell. Through this focal point the soul guides all processes of the cell, and perhaps adjusts it to its needs. Returning to the Vishnu Purana, we note that cosmic intelligence in its lower aspect is divisive (i.e., manifesting itself in innumerable forms of expression), but in its higher aspect it is non-divisive (i.e., it knows that the apparent separation of phenomena is an illusion). Buddhism teaches that the supreme realization is that separateness is an illusion and that all things are interdependent and in essence One. If we apply this teaching to centrosomes, shouldn't we conclude that their spiritual core is intelligence which knows itself in its higher aspect to be united with the larger functional whole of which it is a part — in this case, the whole cell, which in turn is part of a physical body? Humans, plants, and animals in their turn each take part in the still larger whole of the earth, etc. Evolution in nature is no more and no less than the ever continuing cyclic unfolding of cosmic mind.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)
Everything in the Universe, throughout all its kingdoms, is conscious: i.e., endowed with a consciousness of its own kind and on its own plane of perception. There is but one indivisible and absolute Omniscience and Intelligence in the Universe, and this thrills throughout every atom and infinitesimal point of the whole finite Kosmos which hath no bounds, and which people call SPACE, . . . — H. P. Blavatsky