In August of 2000, a Japanese scientist named Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced that he had trained an amoebalike organism called slime mold to find the shortest route through a maze. Nakagaki had placed the mold in a small maze comprising four possible routes and planted pieces of food at two of the exits. Despite its being an incredibly primitive organism (a close relative of ordinary fungi) with no centralized brain whatsoever, the slime mold managed to plot the most efficient route to the food, stretching its body through the maze so that it connected directly to the two food sources. Without any apparent cognitive resources, the slime mold had “solved” the maze puzzle.
For such a simple organism, the slime mold has an impressive intellectual pedigree. Nakagaki’s announcement was only the latest in a long chain of investigations into the subtleties of slime mold behavior. For scientists trying to understand systems that use relatively simple components to build higher-level intelligence, the slime mold may someday be seen as the equivalent of the finches and tortoises that Darwin observed on the Galapagos Islands.
How did such a lowly organism come to play such an important scientific role? That story begins in the late sixties in New York City, with a scientist named Evelyn Fox Keller. A Harvard Ph.D. in physics, Keller had written her dissertation on molecular biology, and she had spent some time exploring the nascent field of “non-equilibrium thermodynamics”, which in later years would come to be associated with complexity theory. By 1968, she was working as an associate at Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, thinking about the application of mathematics to biological problems. Mathematics had played such a tremendous role in expanding our understanding of physics, Keller thought – so perhaps it might also be useful for understanding living systems.
In the spring of 1968, Keller met a visiting scholar named Lee Segel, an applied mathematician who shared her interests. It was Segel who first introduced her to the bizarre conduct of the slime mold, and together they began a series of investigations that would help transform not just our understanding of biological development but also the disparate worlds of brain science, software design, and urban studies.
Johson, Steven. Emergence. Peguin Books Ltd. 2001, pp. 11-12.
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