Friday, May 4, 2012

Cute and fuzzy....cockroaches?

We humans like to think of ourselves as specially endowed with social niceties and conscious awareness of our group, our friends and neighbors, and our relatives.  We might make exceptions for other species, like cute little puppies, and argue that they really must have some sense of self and socialness, some form of consciousness that we would accept.  Here, we'll ignore warfare, holocausts, torture, rapine and pillaging, and burning at the stake, which aren't really social niceties, or we can excuse them away by saying that those are ways that we keep our own tribe pure.

But what even tree-huggers really, really don't want to acknowledge is that definitively not cute or cuddly critters could possibly be like that.  Sadly, a current story is now reporting that Nature's absolutely most uncuddly creatures, cockroaches (Ugh! we hate even to type the word!), could be social animals with social awareness and even social consciences!  Heavens to Murgatroyde!  Not that!

The theories of consciousness usually rely on some aspect of brain size, in particular, of course, to exceptionalize humans.  Our greater cortical endowment compared to our primate relatives is Exhibit A in this claim.  As partial confirmation, dolphins, who in their own way are also cute and cuddly, have relatively large brains and relatively social behavior.  But ants?  Cocroaches?  Plants?  Yes, even peas in a pod have some similar attributes! 

It is a hard pill to swallow, perhaps, but it is not impossible even for non-neurally wired critters, like peas, to have some sort of a sense of self.  Understanding that in neural terms is out of the question, so if it exists it would be in some utterly different form.  We have zero idea what that might 'feel' like to be a leaf or pea plant, since 'feeling' is a neural term.

But back to our pets, the roaches.  The BBC reports:
By unveiling the secret lives of these insects, they are finding out that cockroaches are actually highly social creatures; they recognise members of their own families, with different generations of the same families living together.
Cockroaches do not like to be left alone, and suffer ill health when they are.
And they form closely bonded, egalitarian societies, based on social structures and rules. Communities of cockroaches are even capable of making collective decisions for the greater good.

Without going that far down on the food chain, maybe, just possibly, other primates have what we would recognize as consciousness if we could experience it.  But we face a serious problem, that goes beyond the elusiveness of the notion of internal self-awareness that we call 'consciousness'.  If this is a "quantum" kind of phenomenon that depends on large numbers, then how is it that cockroaches, with brains smaller than their droppings, have sophisticated social and discretionary behavior?  And what about the tiniest ants with brains smaller than pinpoints, yet who have complex problem-solving ability?

The obvious but hubristic answer is that the roaches are just molecular robots, responding to food molecules and pheromones.  They don't actually think!  But we must let that idea scurry away into a dark crevice.  That's because by the very same anti-Cartesian argument--that brains are just molecular constructs, and that 'mind' is nothing apart from what those molecules do--our brains are just molecular robots, too: neurons communicating by neurotransmitter molecules and the like.

And if we're hypothesizing molecular 'auras' of activity, like electromagnetic fields, to show that mind is just the higher-level organization of many molecules, then as in physics this should exist at ever smaller scales (tiny magnets have tiny magnetic fields, but they still have fields).

This means that we have to search for consciousness in some different way, that is not in the least specific to humans (otherwise, for example, humans must have something beyond the real-world 'stuff' of other animals, the Cartesian mind/body dualism rising its ugly head again!).

Whatever consciousness is, it has evolved, as far as we can tell.  That means it must exist in other species in some form or other, and if precedents mean anything, we'll find different forms of it, and we'll find it all over the biosphere. Anything that complex requires many components and is assembled very slowly over eons, with manifestations in diverse species.  And the sensitive social peas may suggest that it has wholly different forms, not all based on neurons, as we mentioned earlier.

What kind of musings cockroaches do, in the long dark nights while they're quietly active in your house, only they know; but without writing, they  have no way to tell us!


Steve Bates said...

Ulp! You mean that I, good vegetarian that I am, just ate a bowl of split consciousness soup for lunch? Well, at least they weren't cockroaches!

The more I read about emergent phenomena, the more I see a vast comprehension gap between reasonably well-established quantum phenomena and their equally well-documented physiological/sociological cousins some indefinite number of levels "up". Whoever makes some plausible scientific connections across that gap will certainly have my attention!

Ken Weiss said...

There is of course something major to be discovered. Dash it all, it won't be you or me who make it! It will be some smart-ass young person, coming out of nowhere, who didn't accept all our baloney, incremental puffed up claims of paradigm shifting discovery.

Whether there are 'aura' like quantum phenomena to explain internal self-awareness, or something else: something now being blamed on multiple universes, or entanglement, or dark matter, something is not right.

The idea of emergence of self-awareness from many factors interacting seems too simplistic and perhaps too much a case of physics-envy.

I wonder whether there is anything truly probabilistic in fundamental causation and, if there is, if that doesn't point to basic flaws in the kinds of theories we are inventing.

Of course the whole questions of what probability is, why mathematics 'is', and so on may be in the same realm of the ultra-beyond-us at the moment....