According to Bjorn Brembs, fruit flies generate spontaneous behavior that is not determined either by genetic predisposition or environmental cues. This makes evolutionary sense, he suggests, since too predictable a creature would be an easy meal for the clever predator. Instead, he says that creatures need to be able to strike a delicate balance between engaging in rationally “regular” behavior with respect to certain parameters, while also being sufficiently unpredictable as to not become easy prey.
“predictability can never be an evolutionarily stable strategy. Instead, animals need to balance the effectiveness and efficiency of their behaviours with just enough variability to spare them from being predictable… Competitive success and evolutionary fitness of all ambulatory organisms depend critically on intact behavioural variability as an adaptive function. Behavioural variability is an adaptive trait and not ‘noise’.” All this suggests that motile animals, at the very least, have evolved mechanisms to generate behavioraly variability — action that is not pre-determined, and hence not predictable. Moreover, organisms are able to control the extent of this variability. In many circumstances, routine, habit, and “instinct” are the best strategies; but “faced with novel situations, humans and most animals spontaneously increase their behavioural variability.”
Not only does Brembs believe that this sort of endogenous, spontaneous, “self-initiated action” action exists in numerous animals, he also believes that neural mechanisms themselves exhibit this sort of “unstable nonlinearity.” “These brain mechanisms are “exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations,” and they are irreducible to any binary alternative between “complete (or quantum) randomness and pure, Laplacian determinism,” says Steven Shaviro, in a comment. These fruit flies make apparently chaotic, yet sufficiently regular, decisions, without even being aware of the fact that they are doing so (since they lack the “self” requisite for such awareness) in a manner similar to how the human brain and its neural mechanisms make choices prior to the awareness of these choices by the human self. Brembs cites Benjamin Libet’s well-known experiments in this regard. Indeed, it sometimes appears as though the human self is a helpless witness to the choices made unwittingly (though intelligently!) by the brain by which it is generated.
These are not the only “dumb” organisms which have been found to be quite intelligent. Smile molds (Physarum polycephalum), for example, have been observed exhibiting intelligence in navigating mazes. Perhaps the Deleuzian organism par excellence, the slime mold is neither a multicellular nor a unicellular organism.
“They exist for most of their lives as blobs of protoplasm with many nuclei. Meiosis occurs at the end of the life cycle, when the slime mold develops “fruiting bodies” composed of haploid spores. These spores are widely dispersed, and begin their lives as haploid, single-celled organisms. Two of these unicellular organisms mate, forming a larger cell with a diploid nucleus. But from that point on, mitosis, or the separation and replication of nuclear DNA, is not accompanied by cell division. Rather the entire blob grows in size as it comes to contain multiple nuclei. The blob moves around, sending out filaments of protoplasm in various directions as it searches for food. It is in the course of this process, which seems not to be centrally coordinated, but to involve internal communication among different parts of the organism, that slime molds have succeeded in threading mazes and solving combinatorial problems. [I am referring here to myxomycetes, or “true” slime molds; as opposed to the also interesting, but vastly different, cellular slime molds].”
As Steven Johnson puts it in book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software,
“The slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism, which then begins its leisurely crawl across the garden floor, consuming rotting leaves and wood as it moves about. When the environment is less hospitable, the slime mold acts as a single organism; when the weather turns cooler and the mold enjoys a large food supply, ‘it’ becomes a ‘they’. The slime mold oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm.”
Shaviro alludes to the speculations of the philosopher Giilbert Simondon, concerning whether or to what extent organisms can be thought of as “individuals.” Is an ant colony a population of individuals, or if itself a kind of individual? One could ask the same thing of a bee colony. Is it a kind of superorganism? Shaviro continues:
“Slime molds are more than individual cells, but less than differentiated multicellular organisms. Not only don’t they divide into separate cells, but they don’t differentiate into separate tissues or organs, except when they form fruiting bodies at the point of sporulation. And, as mentioned above, this differentiation takes place, and the spores become separate entities, only via meiosis. This question is related to the fact, discussed below, that slime molds do not make decisions as unified “individuals,” but only as loose, decentralized collectivities — although, again, the members of this “collective” are not separate from one another, as they are in the cases of corals and of ants.”
He goes on to cite an article by Tanja Latty and Madeleine Beekman that focuses specifically on slime mold cognition. The researchers argue that slime molds, like ant colonies, make decisions collectively. Collective behavior results from several individual behaviors. As Shaviro says,
“Each slime mould is made up of many tiny pieces of slime mould, each oscillating at a frequency determined partly by the local environment, and partly by interactions with adjacent oscillators such that each oscillator can entrain those close to it.” Given this situation, and “owing to the slimy nature of acellular slime moulds, it was not possible to test [rationality] in individuals, and instead, we relied upon population-level preferences.””
Citing Alfred North Whitehead and Bjorn Brembs, Shaviro says:
“Another problem with rational choice theory and behavioral economic theory is that they assume separate individual “preferences” which are only summed secondarily and extrinsically. But in actuality,this is never the case. Every individual’s decisions are influenced by (even if not reducible to) the decisions of others, plus all sorts of supplemental contextual factors. As Whitehead says, in every process of decision “whatever is determinable is determined” by the situation in which the individual finds itself, the “stubborn fact” that it cannot evade; although at the same time “there is always a remainder for the decision” to be made by the actual entity itself (PR 27-28). This mixture of self-determination and dependence is a matter of degree, just like the balance between externally determined and internally self-generated action that Brembs describes. Slime molds represent an extreme ontological case, in which the contrast between internal and external definition, as well as between individual and collective determination, is pushed to its most intensely ambiguous point. This is why slime molds seem to slip in between the logic of separate individual decisions, and that of collective, but extrnisically-summed, decisions. Reducible to neither, they embody the point at which the logic of preferences-among-a-menu-of-items breaks down. And this is why Latty and Beekman’s focus on limited choice expands into something more like the indeterminacy of free will as defined by Brembs.”
This sounds quite similar to what Deleuze says of the relation of interiority and exteriority, endogenous initiatioin vs. reactivity to external stimuli, in his magnum opus, Difference and Repetition:
“A living being is not only defined genetically, by the dynamisms which determine its internal milieu, but also ecologically, by the external movements which provide over its distribution within an extensity. A kinetics of population adjoins, without resembling, the kinetics of the eg; a geographic process of isolation may be no less formative of species than internal genetic variations, and sometimes precedes the latter. Everything is even more complicated when we consider that the internal space is made up of multiple spaces which must be locally integrated and connected, and that this connection, which may be achieved in many ways, pushes the object or living being to its own limits, all in contact with the exterior; and that this relation with the exterior, and with other things and living beings, implies in turn connections and global integrations which differ in kind from the preceding. Everywhere a staging at several levels.” (Difference and Repetition, 217)
The slime mold is a great example of an organism which violates what Deleuze describes as an “arborescent schema,” which he argues is a top-down, vertical source which imposes such order on the world as an “arborescent schema.” It is considered in opposition to the rhizome, which is the image of thought which he intends to replace the arboreal schema with. The arboreal schema is a tree-like structure which constitutes an “immutable concept given prominence either by transcendental theorising works on epistemology or ontology” such as Hegel’s “Absolute Spirit,” the Cartesian subject, Platonic forms, or the God of the Hebrew-Christian tradition:
“All other concepts or particulars are organised vertically under this concept in a tree/trunk/root arrangement. The ordering is strictly hierarchical, from superior to subordinate, or transcendent to particular, such that the individual or particular element is conceived as less important, powerful, productive, creative or interesting than the transcendent. The subordinate elements, once so arranged, are unable to ‘move’ horizontally in such a way as to establish creative and productive interrelationships with other concepts, particulars or models. Rather, their position is final, according to an organising principle implied or determined by the superior concept.
Furthermore, the tree is a self-contained totality or closed system that is equal just to the sum of its parts. Relations between elements of the system are interior to and inherent within the mode. They are stable or even essential in so far as, first, the superior concept is the all-powerful defining force that dictates the position or meaning of all else in the system and, second, the tendency is to think of the system either as complete in itself or else unconnected to other systems in any meaningful way. The tree is ‘fixed to the spot’ and static. Any remaining movement is minimal and and internal to the system rather than exploratory o connective. Because the creative potential of disorder and inter-connectivity is precluded, the potential inherent in conceptualising and thinking in this manner is very limited.”
It is Deleuze’s rejection of such a model of thought that would encourage him to study the intelligence of ants at all, since ants are typically seen as comparatively “dumb,” relative to humans. True, humans are capable of forms of cognition and behavior that profoundly transcend the behavior of individual ants. But this does not mean that ants do not have anything to teach us. In fact, studying insects can provide us with a profound new perspective on life, and fundamentally challenge previous conceptions when it comes to concepts such as individuation, intelligence, individuality, collectivity, and so on.
The arborescent is to be contrasted with Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome. “Rhizome,” in biology, refers to a plant that extends itself underground and develops new plants through a horizontal, tuber-esque root system. Deleuze is interested in this concept because it functions in such a way that it “‘maps’ a process of networked, relational and transveral thought, and a way of being without ‘tracing’ the construction of that map as a fixed entity.” This is opposed to the more ‘vertical,’ aborescent thought which involves being able to trace a lineage to an unconditioned, ultimate source at the top of a hierarchy. Deleuze sees many aspects of the root as engaging in behavior which resembles that of a rhizome. Felicity Coleman:
“[the] rhizome [is] an action of many abstract entities in the world, including music, mathematics, economics, politics, science, art, the ecology and the cosmos. The rhizome conceives how every thing and every body – all aspects of concrete, abstract and virtual entities and activities – can be seen as multiple in their interrelational movements with other things and bodes. The nature of the rhizome is that of a moving matrix, composed or organic and non-organic parts forming symbiotic and aparallel connections, according to transitory and as yet undetermined routes…Such a reconceptualisation constitutes a revolutionary philosophy for the reassessment of any form of hierarchical thought, history or activity.”
She summarizes the point by saying that “The rhizome is any network of things brought into contact with one another, functioning as an assemblage machine for new affects, new concepts, new bodies, new thoughts; the rhizomatic network is a mapping of the forces that move and/or immobilise bodies.”
Deleuze wants to be able to articulate difference in terms of the particulars themselves rather than deriving differences from a category imposed upon them by another category. He believed that difference precedes identity, and we can examine each particular as an individual in itself rather than defining it in relation to a metaphysically prior substance or entity. In the case of an arboreal schema,
“Rather than deriving concepts from individual particulars (or interactions between them), an abstract concept is used to organise individuals and determine their meaning relative just to the organisational hierarchy. Difference has to be added back to each element in order to define it as a particular, rather than having individual elements serve as the starting point for conceptualisation. In contrast, Deleuze holds that lived experience coprises particularity and uniqueness in each moment, experience and individual, the inherent differences of which ought always to be acknowledged. By positing the concept over the particular, thinking of the arboreal kind abstracts from lived experience in its very structure. For Deleuze, thinking in such a way stifles creativity, leaves superior concepts relatively immune to criticism and tends to close one’s minds to the dynanism, particularity and change that is evident in lived experience. Not only is such thinking necessarily abstract, it also serves to protect the status quo and relieve dominant concepts and positions from productive critique.”
The slime mold is also an example of the Deleuzian concept of the “assemblage.” For Gilles Deleuze, assemblages are “complex constellations of objects, bodies, expressions, qualities, and territories that come together for varying periods of time to ideally create new ways of functioning.” When they come together, they serve a specific function. The slime mold is perhaps one of the most fascinating models of an assemblage in the biological world, although potentially any square inch of reality can be thought of as an assemblage:
“An assemblage transpires as a set of forces coalesces together, the concept of assemblages applies to all structures, from the behaviour patterns of an individual, the organisation of institutions, an arrangement of spaces, to the functioning of ecologies. Assemblages emerge from the arranging of heterogeneous elements into a productive…entity that can be diagrammed, at least temporarily. The diagram defines the relationships between a particular set of forces; a diagram is, according to Deleuze, the ‘map of destiny…Effectively, the diagram is the code or arrangement by which an assemblage operates, it is a map of the function of an assemblage…”
The example of the slime mold is also a great embodiment of what Deleuze articulates as a distinction between deterritorialization and reterritorialization. To deterritorialize an assemblage is to produce change in an assemblage, especially in such a way that destabilizes it. In the words of Adrian Parr, to deterritorialize an assemblage is to “free up the fixed relations that contain a body all the while exposing it to new organisations.” As Parr notes, however, deterritorialization should not be seen as the opposite of territorialization or reterritorialization:
“It is important to rmember that Deleuze…is concerned with overcoming the dualistic framework underpinning western philosophy (Being/nonbeing, original/copy and so on). In this regard, the relationship deterritorialisation has to reterritorialisation must not be construed negatively; it is not the polar opposite of territorialisation or reterritorialisation (when a territory is established once more). In fact, in the way that Deleuze and Guattari describe and use the concept, deterritorialisation inheres in a territory as its transformative vector; hence, it is tied to the very possibility of change immanent to a given territory.”
In other words, it is not as though there is a body whose repetitions constitute it as metaphysically “stable,” whose stability is then disrupted by something which deterritorialization. Instead, all bodies and processes are always already in a state of continual change. Even in its repetitions, a territory never repeats itself in exactly the same way, and in this way, is always in a process of reterritorializing and deterritorializing itself and of being impacted in such a way by its environment. Such de/re-territorialization, therefore, is purely relative. The slime mold is a particularly extreme example of a body or set of bodies in a state of continual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Humans cannot undergo comparable splitting without succumbing to death/chaos/entropy.
Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “individuation” functions as an account to produce a “genetic” account of individuals. However, he rejects the teleological and hylomorphic notion of the “individual” as the end-point of a process. Instead, bodies are in a state of continual flux, and the distinction between part and whole, individual and multiple, are in a state of constant flux. This is illustrated particularly poignantly by our example of the slime mold, which continually oscillates between “part” and “whole.”
The slime mold is an intriguing example of what Deleuze referred to as an “organism.” A technical term in his vocabulary, it refers to a centralized entity with a hierarchy. Such an organism is molar (as opposed to molecular) and stratified (as opposed to smooth. As John Protevi points out, “The organism is an emergent effect of organising organs in a particular way, a ‘One” added to the multiplicity of organs in a ‘supplementary dimension.’ Also important to note is that an organ is a ‘desiring-achine’, that is, an emitter and breaker of flows of whcih part is siphoned off to flow in the economy of the body. Organs are a body’s way of negotiating with the exterior milieu, approprating and regulating a bit of matter-energy flow.” Thus, the concept of the organ plays a crucial role in Deleuze’s critique of interiority.
The organism “is the unifying emergent effect of interlocking homeostatic mechanisms that quickly compensate for any non-average fluctuations below certain thresholds to return a body to its ‘normal’ condition (as measured by species-wide norms; hence Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of ‘molar’).” Constructing an organism involves taking a body of material and centralizing or molarizing it. As Protevi points out, the organism is an emergent moment on the “body without organs.” This body without organs refers to reality considered as nothing but a dispersal of becomings. It refers to reality as pure virtuality. In the case of an organism, an unusually complicated set of repetitions emerges from the body without organs to become an organism.
The “organism” is set in a rigid set of habits which excludes other sets of habits in order to maintain itself. That said, Deleuze is critical of the habit of the organism to remain too rigid, as rigidity is not conducive to experimentation. Instead, the organism is considered to contemplate its singularities or the virtuality which makes possible brand new and connections previously unknown to it.