Thursday, June 26, 2014

Smart as can bee; leafcutter bees, another example

A week or so ago we blogged about a paper on bee navigation and other aspects of animal behavior, and whether such behavior can be said to be evidence of 'intelligence'.  We mused about the word, and whether ideas about whether animals other than ourselves are 'intelligent' or 'sentient' or--the real big Prize, 'conscious'.  That post generated quite a lot of interest.

It's perhaps a definitional issue, beautifully suited to endless debate and a guarantee of no solution.  But one thing is for sure, we think:  what the little old bee-brain guys are doing is quite complex.

In the interim, we read this beautiful and fascinating post by Hollis Marriot on her blog, "In The Company of Plants and Rocks."  Hollis is, we think it's right to say, truly a naturalist (though a professional botanist) who lives and works in Wyoming and blogs about botany, geology, nature, her travels, and more.  She's a beautiful writer, photographer and observer of the world.  The question this particular post raises is similar to ours about bee navigation or the problem-solving talents of crows.  In this case, she describes how solitary leaf-cutter bees cut a disk from nearby leaves, curl it up, tuck it under their legs like an architect carrying building blue-prints, and hie back home.  Home to a leaf-cutter bee is likely to be a crevice in an old piece of wood.  They build a dozen or so cells inside their crevice, lay an egg in each one and seal it with one of the leafy disks they've harvested a short distance away.

Leafcutter bee: Wikipedia

Now just think about any of these acts this behavior requires: finding an appropriate leaf (is it by some taste-test as well as size and so on?), then knowing how to cut a circular disk (without using a compass to inscribe it first!), then how to roll it up and tuck it between (well, among) their legs, and so on.  This is complex behavior and cannot entirely be pre-programmed.  That's because no a priori program can know where the tasty, cushiony leaves will be, nor how to fold them up, and so on.  It must look, smell, hear or whatever around its environment, resolve various images such as the trees and leaves, often when both it and they are moving, assess them, know how to work directed aeronautics of its wings and halteres to get there, and its many appendages to land its complex mouth and jaws to carve.  And then how to do the apparently simple thing of tucking it in amongst six (count 'em!) legs, then adjust its aeronautics so it can still fly properly back home.

To me, this is mental behavior, and whether or not you want to say it involves 'thinking' is basically a semantic question.  I personally would call it intelligent, far less robotic than, say, how amoebas mechanically and purely biochemically flow pseudopods towards food or respond to light.  It involves neurons, sensory systems, limbs and so on that use many of the same genes we use for the same systems.  Just because it's not doing full-blown trigonometry, what it is doing is still complex.

This is what leads me to think those who are being too restrictive about what counts as intelligence, as we discussed last week, are minimizing a very important, and fascinating question:  How can DNA and its coded products possibly achieve such feats?  This is not a mystical question, nor any invocation of mind-matter dualism immaterialism.  It's simply a willingness to acknowledge that our understanding of brain function, and the translation of linear codes to 4-dimensional actions, is at present elaborate in data-detail and paltry in substance.

From this point of view, none of us should be making pronouncements about what is 'genetic' and what 'must be' programmed and what 'environmental'.   This is another illustration of clear knowledge that should make us much more humble about what we claim to be knowledge--about bees, much less human behavior.


Hollis said...

wow, Ken, thanks for the very kind description! Much appreciated.

Sush said...

Great article!