Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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The unexamined inner lives of insects

Lars Chittka and Catherine Wilson write:

René Descartes’s dog, Monsieur Grat (‘Mister Scratch’), used to accompany the 17th-century French philosopher on his ruminative walks, and was the object of his fond attention. Yet, for the most part, Descartes did not think very highly of the inner life of nonhuman animals. ‘[T]he reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts,’ Descartes wrote in a letter in 1646.

Followers of Descartes have argued that consciousness is a uniquely human attribute, perhaps facilitated by language, that allows us to communicate and coordinate our memories, sensations and plans over time. On this view, versions of which persist in some quarters today, nonhuman animals are little more than clever automata with a toolkit of preprogrammed behaviours that respond to specific triggers.

Insects such as bees and ants are often held up as the epitome of the robotically mechanistic approach to animal nature. Scientists have long known that these creatures must possess a large behavioural repertoire in order to construct their elaborate homes, defend against intruders, and provision their young with food. Yet many still find it plausible to look at bees and ants as little more than ‘reflex machines’, lacking an internal representation of the world, or an ability to foresee even the immediate future. In the absence of external stimuli or internal triggers such as hunger, it’s believed that the insect’s mind is dark and its brain is switched off. Insects are close to ‘philosophical zombies’: hypothetical beings that rely entirely on routines and reflexes, without any awareness.

But perhaps the problem is not that insects lack an inner life, but that they don’t have a way to communicate it in terms we can understand. It is hard for us to prise open a window into their minds. So maybe we misdiagnose animal brains as having machine-like properties simply because we understand how machines work – whereas, to date, we have only a fragmentary and imperfect insight into how even the simplest brains process, store and retrieve information.

However, there are now many signs that consciousness-like phenomena might exist not just among humans or even great apes – but that insects might have them, too. Not all of these lines of evidence are from experiments specifically designed to explore consciousness; in fact, some have lain buried in the literature for decades, even centuries, without anyone recognising their hidden significance. [Continue reading…]

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