Insect Minds

orbweaver-spider.JPGOne of the most reviled views in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ view that animals are mere machines. The relevant texts are a trifle ambiguous, but he does seem to say that animals have no conscious life whatsoever. Your cat jumps off the couch and approaches his food because of signals in his brain, but without visual images or sensations of hunger. If it would give you pleasure to kick the cat, there’s no reason to hold back, so far as any feelings of pain are concerned.

I’ve always considered this staggeringly absurd. So it came as a surprise when I realized, a while back, that I’ve always been a bit of a Cartesian myself. I’ve always regarded insects and spiders (and especially cockroaches) as little mechanical creatures without conscious awareness.

I started seeing them differently all because of the film Microcosmos, which uses microcameras to capture the world of insects, spiders and other small creatures (you tube clip). In the movie, you can watch a beetle astutely roll a ball of dung up a hill; leaf ants carrying bits of leaves back to the colony; aphids being milked by ants, all super close-up.

Descartes’ view of cats seems so daft because their basic body plan and behavior are so similar to ours it’s a huge strain to think they don’t have any of our mental life whatever. But what we discover when we look at insects close-up is not so terribly un-catlike. Even the body plan of these invertebrates is not utterly alien.

Animal scientists are understandably wary of anthropomorphism. They don’t want to project human characteristics where they don’t belong. But the primatologist Franz DeWaal warns against the opposite tendency—anthropodenial. It really does seem to injure our human pride to suppose that animals are very much like us, to the point that we begrudge them too much.

In the case of insects there are further biases at work. Not only are insects “just animals” but they’re (eww!) insects. I confess that I used to find insects so repellant that I actually thought entomologists must be rather strange people. I have since repented, and the world of insects strikes me as utterly fascinating. (And I’d love to meet a good entomologist.)

So are insects conscious? I can’t say no or yes. It’s a further question how primitive or sophisticated that awareness might be, if it exists. Does the spider think—in the sense of having intelligence or insight? There’s a very sober but open-minded discussion of the question by two animal biologists (James and Carol Gould) in the new book Animal Architects.

The traditional idea about spiders (and all other animals) is that they are completely instinct-bound. That by no means implies they lack awareness—we do instinctive things with awareness all the time. But it does imply “without thought.” It turns out, though, that animals build webs, nests, dams, bowers, etc., with much more flexibility and adaptiveness than you’d expect. And that suggests an element of intelligence.

For example, you might be surprised to know, spider webs don’t all have the same number of radii. They are built to fit the specific niche. Also, when they are damaged, spiders repair them not in a rote way, but exactly as needed.

What is it like to be a spider? I don’t know. But I’m going to stop assuming there’s nothing at all that it’s like—as if the spider were a machine. I’m going to stop being a Cartesian. Now what about plants…?

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