Intelligence in Nature

Jeremy Narby shares his insights at Bioneers


At the 2005 Annual National Bioneers Conference, anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby discussed the meaning of intelligence in nature. Exploring western scientific terminology in contrast to shamanistic definitions as well Japanese interpretations, he debased the general idea that the meaning of intelligence is ubiquitously agreed upon between world systems.


Narby is best know for his thought provoking book, The Cosmic Serpent, where he shares his early revelations as a young anthropologist in the Amazon awakening to extraordinary sources of knowledge that the shamans access. In his field studies to assess how indigenous people use their resource, his findings were on the contrary to popular belief, discovering that their depth of knowledge, was exceedingly insightful. He was initiated into the shamanic world through parting in traditional ceremony where he encountered first hand insights to their indigenous beliefs. Shaken from his inherited western foundation, his experiences lead him on a life long journey to explain the nature of consciousness as well as to define intelligence itself.


"Plants don't have a brain, but act like a one."

Photo: Alan Highton
Photo: Alan Highton


At the conference in California, Narby addressed a diverse audience of forward-thinkers, integrating his earliy experiences as an anthropologist with his more recent biological investigation as outlined in his book, Intelligence in Nature.

"Intelligence in nature is a

contradiction of terms because

intelligence excludes non-humans

and nature excludes humans."


Delving deeper into the science of nature, Narby combs through biological journals and current research being conducted all over the world from Scotland, France and to the Far East. Moving his focus beyond the jungle and beyond the laboratory, he searches for further evidence to his provocative question of what is intelligence?  Pushing the inherited limitations found in language systems, he illustrates how our words embody our general concepts of perception, stating that, "Intelligence in nature is a contradiction of terms because intelligence excludes non-humans, and, nature excludes humans."


Overlooked and assumed concepts by most scholars and scientist, Narby questions if we have fallen short on our quest for true knowledge. Have we failed in answering the simplest of questions? Has our inherited definitions limited us in our pursuit for truth?  In Narby's usual modest demeanor, he takes us on his personal journey from the jungle empathizing with a jaguar to identifying with the survival decisions faced by a slime mold in a lab. Humbling us all just a little bit, we must acknowledging our unwavering parallel to the simplest of creations down to the hydra. By stripping away the outer layers and probing beneath the skin, Narby welcomes us to take hold of what binds all living beings together resulting in an equatable awareness, intelligence, or otherwise expressed as a kind of 'smartness' on some level.


By Leah Dittmer

Creative Director