To Be a Bee
“The Edge Annual Question—2005: What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?” in Edge (Jan. 4, 2005), www.edge.org.
When it comes to many-legged critters, we humans are apt to squash first and ask existential questions later—if at all. But that’s a mistake, claims Alun Anderson, editor in chief of New Scientist, arguing that insects possess consciousness. That isn’t to say that the common cockroach is wondering how to make the next car payment or pondering the validity of string theory, but it is to say that it is capable of suffering and even dying simply from stress.
Anderson, a former biologist who conducted extensive studies of insects, proposes this theory in answer to a question the Edge Foundation put to 120 notables in the science world: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”
In one experiment, Anderson examined how honeybees navigated his laboratory to find hidden sugar. Bees learned the features in the room and showed confusion if objects were moved while they were absent. They were also easily distracted—by floral scents, sudden movements, and certain patterns, particularly flowerlike ones—except when gorging on sugar.
Anderson writes: “To make sense of this ever changing behavior, with its shifting focus of attention, I always found it simplest to figure out what was happening by imagining the sensory world of the bee, with its eye extraordinarily sensitive to flicker and colors we can’t see, as a ‘visual screen’ in the same way I can sit back and ‘see’ my own visual screen of everything happening around me, with sights and sounds coming in and out of prominence. The objects in the bee’s world have significances or ‘meaning’ quite different from our own, which is why its attention is drawn to things we would barely perceive.
“That’s what I mean by consciousness—the feeling of ‘seeing’ the world and its associations. For the bee, it is the feeling of being a bee. I don’t mean that a bee is self-conscious or spends time thinking about itself. But of course the problem of why the bee has its own ‘feeling’ is the same incomprehensible ‘hard problem’ as why the activity of our nervous system gives rise to our own ‘feelings.’”
Many scientists remain skeptical that a bee with a brain of only a million neurons is much more than a simple collection of instinctive mechanisms. But 10 years spent studying the world from a bug’s-eye view convinced Anderson that “the world is full of many overlapping alien consciousnesses.”