Monday, January 10, 2011

Bumble-brain? Not at all. It's the bees knees!

Well, here's a story we learned about thanks to Holly.  It's the report of an experiment to see whether bees could be taught to do Sudoku puzzles.  Sounds rather zany, and in fact that's a bit beyond the achievement reported in the story.  But it's on the mark when it comes to our arrogance about the specialness of our own species...and our supposed intellectual superiority over all of otherwise-automaton Nature.

Fig 1 from the paper in
Bio Letters
Children in a primary school in southern England wanted to know if bees were as smart as humans.  With some help from scientists, they set up an experiment.  Bees were given a choice of colored 'flowers', some of which contained sugar-water, the others salt-water.  Could they learn spatial and color relationships in order to home in on the good stuff?

By arraying sources of 'nectar' in 4x4 panels of small tubes ('flowers'), each with a color made visible by light shining through colored filters, the bees were tested to see if they had a color preference, or could recognize that the nectar (sugared tubes) were in a 2x2 array within the 4x4 panel.  The bees quickly and correctly recognized the array geometry and most of them had a color preference as well.  Controls were done to see whether it was the array, the relative density of nectared tubes, or the color that were determinative.  The clear result was that the bees did in fact learn these sophisticated challenges.  They were neither searching randomly nor dumbly, nor hard-wiredly.  They could learn and remember subtle things.  It is not a stretch to say that they were thinking.

Whether the Blackawton Primary School investigators (8 to 10 years old) can now teach the bees to do Sudokus, only time will tell, though if determination and enthusiasm are the key, they've got it knocked.  But the study, simple enough but in a way unique, reinforces the idea that these pin-headed flying creatures are not just a knot of pre-programmed neural connections.

As we quoted in an August 2009 post  about ant brains, Darwin himself marveled at these abilities in his book Descent of Man:
...the wonderfully diversified instincts, mental powers, and affections of ants are notorious, yet their cerebral ganglia are not so large as the quarter of a pin's head. Under this view, the brain of an ant is one of the most marvelous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man.
 We have not only the arrogance of our powers over other aspects of Nature, but also the limitations of perspective that come with our size, abilities, lifespans, and conscious self-awareness.  Naturally, we interpret things through the lenses of these limitations.  Even our instrumentation, powerful though it be, is directed and has been developed by us from within these same limitations.

It may not be in our immediate interest to think that fish feel pain, or that ants or birds, dogs or monkeys, can think.  But in ways we should be seriously aware of, the evidence shows that it's so.  We can at present only speculate about the mental experience ants may have (say, related to our own consciousness), but as scientists and as citizens (or school-children), we should be aware of what is known from facts, not just from our own prejudices.

Among all else, here's a demonstration that real science can be done by ordinary people, who can then learn not just about the methods and modes of scientific thought and investigation, but also a respect for the truth about Nature, relative to our mythologies.  Legitimate investigation can be fun as well as informative, and without being trivialized.  It's an important lesson in an era when, in the US in particular, we need a revival of serious science education (that is, not the kind of superficial Gee-Whiz! material that loads up Hollywood, television, and some magazines like Nature and Science (!)).

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