Bumblebees Solve a 17th-Century Psychological Puzzle
February 21, 2020 4:47 PM   Subscribe

None of these tasks—and the performance of the bees—is a formal indicator of consciousness. In fact, nothing is,” Chittka said at his presentation at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Austin, Tex. “But all of these taken together, I think, nudge the probabilities in the right direction.”
posted by chappell, ambrose (5 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever these questions come up I think of foals, who, shortly after being born, stand up, walk, locate their mothers and begin to nurse. It was all there at the moment they were born. There was nothing to be learned whatsoever.

FWIW, I don't even believe that human children learn to walk. Walking is (almost entirely) innate and children walk as soon as they are physiologically able to do so. It's not so much learning as developing the physical maturity that allows the innate behavior to be manifested.

Is there an innate facility to model the world? It would be surprising if not, since it is so crucial to navigating successfully in the world! Is there a specific architecture in the visual cortex to process visual imagery into physical models? Convolutional neural networks point to "yes."

I would argue that humans don't give enough credence to innate behaviour because we're born physiologically immature and as a result we attribute to learning what is in fact maturation.

To be sure, my model probably starts to fade after the age of two or so when learning starts to be more dominant. But even so, I have a bit of sympathy for Chomsky's view of language development: there are almost certainly innate facilities and proclivities for language... simply because humans always manifest it and other animals (as far as we know!) do not.

As far as consciousness is concerned, my feeling is that it must be a spectrum. Creatures interact with the world with varying levels (and kinds!) of "awareness." This allows them to inhabit a world that includes the "future."

I've read of a contest where baseball batters were trying to hit softball pitches. They did terribly. Now as it happens, a baseball batter cannot see the ball he is hitting, at least not until after it is too late. The only way to hit a baseball is to "read" the pitch and swing for where you've learned the ball will go. The nervous system simply can't relay the image of the flying ball to the brain and then decide and then send signals to the swinging muscles in time to do it any other way. Trying to hit a (slower) softball pitch was a problem not because they couldn't see the ball (they probably couldn't) but because they couldn't read the pitch since they'd had no experience with these pitches.

The point of all of that is that mental models allow us to inhabit the near future instead of the recent past. That's a huge advantage! You get a jump on things. This is, IMO, the entire point of "intelligence" and it is by no means exclusive to humans. Animals of any complexity have it to a greater or lesser extent and some research suggests that plants do too.

As for "consciousness," my thinking is that it means the ability to model the mental states of other beings and incorporate that into a predictive model. There is compelling evidence that corvids have that ability. Perhaps "consciousness" as we understand it also means the understanding, implicitly, that our own minds are involved in these transactions, and hence self-awareness. But that is not really such a leap from what a crow can do.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:24 PM on February 21 [26 favorites]

Very cool, thanks for posting this :)
posted by some loser at 5:38 PM on February 21

The reference of the gag character name "Captain Molyneux" in Cloud Atlas
posted by thelonius at 5:42 PM on February 21

I said it on the Slack and I'll say it here too, thank God for colony collapse. We can teach moths to do the job.
posted by floam at 9:31 PM on February 21

I remember being surprised the first time I saw a diagram of a bee brain, in Carew's "Behavioral Neurobiology". The text in the textbook says,
...a brain consisting of approximately 950,000 neurons, most of which are extremely small and elaborate in structure.
It's a surprisingly complex brain designed to do complex things.
posted by clawsoon at 9:20 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

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