Is intelligence is a basic feature of life? What do we mean when we speak or write about intelligence? There are at least a few working definitions, one is humans know it when they encounter it, as in the Turing test. Another is that human intelligence marks the top of a scale of animal intelligence. Casual language about intelligence usually confuses it with smartness, and is a competitive notion.
I wonder if intelligence is not a more profound aspect of all life, present in every living organism and at every scale. We may find a more useful idea of intelligence if we give intelligence some wiggle-room. I also wonder if intelligence is a fundamental property of life. Could any organism function without some level of intelligent or orderly information transfer and exchange within it's boundaries? Isn't information transfer and exchange a basic operation within intelligence? Perhaps an organelle or a virus does not aspire to the label highly intelligent, but it gets it's own job done.
Information transfer and exchange, or intelligence, if you will indulge my argument, may be a side effect of life, a by product, or it may be the driving force of life. Certainly when it stops, living things die. The presence and kind or absence of information may cause or facilitate life and survival or eliminate it.
Information scales. We have some; Cetacians and elephants seem pretty smart; it is present in parrots as
Dr. Irene Pepperberg has demonstrated with Alex, and certainly my dogs and cats are quite the smartest in the world; pigs and rats (who keep intelligence research going), are brighter than we might wish to admit. So on and on down the evolutionary elevator to our own individual body cells, organelles, bacteria, viruses, and to smaller more confusing things that may or may not be living, like prions.
Prions are interesting because it seems that despite their smallness we know so little about them yet they have great impact on much larger organisms, like us. Prions must be awfully smart for their size. I admit defeat. So maybe we could use a scale of intelligence that compared size or mass to our own ability, with our greater intelligence, to understand these smallest of beasties. Seriously, there may be some kind of formulaic function worth considering.
If you doubt that intelligence is a property of life, try to outsmart a virus by thinking about how to avoid it or kill it. Don't sneeze at this idea. We have been working at this for decades, at great cost, and we have only won a few skirmishes and minor contests, but we have not won, nor do we yet deserve, the title.
The mammalian and anthropocentric way we regard intelligence is far too narrow. Intelligence on an expanded scale is not about who or which species is smarter. Nor is ntelligence is restricted to rich, white, male humans. The real scale of intelligence is possibly a continuum indexed by increasingly complex information processing.
If you find these ideas interesting you might like to read the work of Dr. Lewis Thomas, who wrote "The Lives Of A Cell" (and other books). Perhaps his great intelligence emerged from his declaration that he was himself a community of organisms, each with it's own agenda. He remains an intellectual and literary hero.
Post Script: I just realized that someone on the religious right, opposed to women's right to choose, and to the right to a safe abortion or embryonic stem-cell research, might attempt to distort this argument in favor of their beliefs. That would be terrible nonsense. In order for such an argument to be consistent, this person or group would have to give equal opportunity to all levels of intelligence, including that of bacteria and viruses, which they would have to vow to protect with their lives, thus eventually destroying whatever intelligence they previously enjoyed.