Print this page

Observations placeholder

Watson, Lyall - Portuguese man of war



Type of spiritual experience


Firstly, the Portuguese  man-of-war, has no brain and no central nervous system, so we might ask, how does it act as a colony – the ‘well integrated orchestra’ that Watson speaks of.  Its actions are extremely well co-ordinated.  How does it do this?  Furthermore, when the time comes to multiply, the organisms Watson calls the ‘few little sexual adults’ simply leave.  They are not dependent on the rest of the organism for life.  Thus the jelly fish is, as he says, simply a co-operating colony.

My contention is that that level of co-operation can only be achieved via ‘function - software’.  The ‘software’ provides a common consciousness for the creature – a common pool of shared memory as well as a set of functions which are integrated – thus there is, as it were, a software package called ‘Portuguese man of war’, which  comes with a ‘Communication’ program, a shared ‘memory database’ program, a ‘feeding’ program, a ‘reproduction’ program, a ‘digestion’ program, a ‘sensory’ program, a ‘stinging’ program and so on.  Each part of the packet is allocated to a specific type of cell grouping, but the package as a whole is integrated and works for the colony. 

What Watson describes is an intelligent organism, it can trim sails, it ‘knows’ how to sail, it ‘knows’ about the wind, it ‘knows’ how to protect itself from desiccation.  How ?  By having ‘sailing’ software and highly sophisticated sailing software at that.  No programmer I know of has managed to write software to control sailing ships to this level of sophistication, although ‘sailing’ programs exist and can be used to automatically sail yachts.  It clearly also has navigation software.

We need to think of this as software that is invisible to us.  Software that is ‘stored’ with the organism as a package, but where, if any cell grouping breaks away, the software that controls it also separates and goes with it.  This is an important point.  Wherever it is ‘stored’ it has to be lower than a cell level if this organism is representative.  Thus we start to see that the animating software is implemented with the ‘hardware’, the organism, but we cannot ‘see’ it.  And it is not reliant on brain.  We have brains to act as complex processors – hardware processors.  But brain is not needed to animate the universe, the vast majority of the universe’s systems operate without ‘brain’.

Ralph Waldo Emerson – The Poet

Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in the pleasant walks of critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently.  We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and unity into Variety

A description of the experience

Lyall Watson – Heaven’s Breath

Five hundred million years before Ferdinand Magellan entered the Pacific in 1520, another Portuguese sailor circumnavigated the world.  It still does.  There is just one species, found in all oceans and known since the 15th century as the ‘Portuguese man of war’……..

It is a jelly fish.  A creature without head, tail, limbs, mouth, gills or body cavity, that looks and behaves like an individual, but is actually a colony of larval and adult animals that cling together and have, between them, contrived to develop a transparent, sky blue, air filled float that acts precisely like a sail and carries this enterprising community wherever the wind blows.

The float is a comparatively simple structure, a membrane surrounding a bladder of air produced by special gas glands.  It is attached, however, to a tangled darker blue tissue mass that is anything but simple.  Part of it is the original polyp, now surrounded by a crowd of daughter buds, some of which are protective and sensory, some of which take in and digest food, some consist entirely of a trailing tentacle which may be up to 50 metres long, and a few are little sexual adults.  These groups of specialists form the sense, digestive, feeding and sex organs of the creature’s body, but it is very difficult to decide just where individuality lies.

… They have the sort of coordination and unity of purpose we normally associate with individuals, but their behaviour is more like a well integrated orchestra…. The actions of the members of the colony are controlled by and subordinate to ‘colonial will’.

Physalia is, in essence, a superorganism


Physalia colonies drag their stinging tentacles through the rich plankton layers beneath the ocean currents and they lift another part of their structure up into the air to take direct advantage of the wind …. The man-of war is an accomplished sailor with an astonishing ability to change and trim sail by adjustments in muscular tone which erect or collapse the float and alter its sailing posture.

When there is little or no wind, Physalia’s sails are deflated or lie flat on the water, and if the sun is hot, the colony contracts and starts a rhythmic rolling motion … the result is that the whole float is kept wet and protected from desiccation.

When the wind blows, the man-of-war sets sail.  The float is pumped up to take full advantage of the breeze and the colony works as a well trained crew, trimming the sail by fitting its curvature precisely to the wind.  And the most wonderful thing of all is that Physalia does not just go wherever the wind blows, but sets its own course.

The tentacles stream out behind like a sea anchor, and the rest of the colonial appendages are arranged in a clump or bulge on one side of the sail, which means that the colony, the hull of the vessel is asymmetric.  It floats with its long axis and therefore its sail at an angle of 45 degrees to the wind.  With the result that it travels downwind, but at an angle of about 45 degrees to the wind.  In nautical  terms, it sails on a broad reach.

The source of the experience

Watson, Lyall

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image