Things Of Which To Be Aware

NOTE: I should mention that this is rather much different than my usual sort of post. It’s quite the ADHD ramble, pulling together all sorts of odd bits and bobs and things that tickled my brain this morning. After this I’ll return you to the regularly-scheduled blog posts.


Did you know that honeybees can learn to identify pictures of human faces? Some researchers, Adrian G. Dyer, Christa Neumeyer, and Lars Chittka, were able to train honeybees to cue to photographs of specific people as sources for nectar rewards.

For someone who has studied insect behavior and who has prosopagnosia (face-blindness, or the inability to recognise people just from facial features), this is fascinating. The bees could learn with better than 80% accuracy, which is more than I can do (described here). That is rather humbling. Of course, we might point out that the bees were only learning to cue to repeated flat pictures – in real life, humans are trying to cue to moving humans seen from a variety of perspectives. ::sigh::

There’s not tons of research done on insect cognition, unlike cognition in large mammals including elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins. Smear a bit of paint on one of those mammals, show them their reflection in a mirror, and the critter will stop, look, and then use their reflection to inspect their bodies, including touching the paint if they can reach it (as Larry Niven has pointed out in his science fiction stories, dolphins are notoriously handicapped by having short limbs – which similar problem Mat Fraser has humorously described in Ouch! podcasts; we all have issues).

I understand that when I look in a mirror and see a face, that it’s probably my face. But if cues like hair and glasses are removed from photos, I probably could not pick out my own face from a set of photos of other humans. In fact, I have been known to catch sight of myself in an unexpected mirror (such as wall tiles at a mall) and have not recognised that I was indeed seeing myself – I thought that someone was wearing clothes similar to mine. I am however, self-aware, although you may have to take my assertion of that as proof that I am aware of both the concept of self-awareness and of my own identity. (grin)

Bees probably aren’t self-aware, but if they were, it would not be self-awareness of the same scale as that of a mammal – even thought they can learn and can communicate, the brains of bees just aren’t that complex, and are mostly devoted to sensory processing. They are very tiny animals after all.

So here we have these self-aware animals: Mat Fraser, elephants et al. Then over on another part of the planet we have Deepak Chopra, who is also a self-aware animal, but seems to be in over his head, cognitively speaking:

“The entire universe is experienced only through consciousness, and even though consciousness is invisible and non-material, it’s the elephant in the room so far as evolutionary theory is concerned.”

Boy howdy. Chopra, in his masses of abstruse nonsensical verbiage, is anti-evolutionary and asserting that only metaphysical explanations could bring about the universe. I’d hate to be the one to break it to him (the ensuing argument would likely be so absurd that I’d want to again take up banging my head on the wall in frustration) but the universe is NOT “experienced only through consciousness”.

Animals, whether or not they are self-aware, are all conscious of their individual Umwelts, or subjective sensory worlds. So too are plants, which respond to sensory inputs of light, gravity, and touch-pressure, but plants are not conscious organisms – they do not really respond to music etc. Plants experience the universe, but not through consciousness. Chopra’s figurative elephant needs to give him a good whack with an evolutionary biology textbook.

If you want something of which to be aware, then don’t believe everything you read, even if there are lots of important-sounding buzzwords.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some evolution humor that’s better written than Chopra, check out this satirical piece at the Onion: “Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution”



  1. qw88nb88 said,

    8 December 2006 at 23:19

    Okay, I looked over the article copy to look for the answers to your questions:

    “Do the bees respond to the same picture in different places?”
    Yes, the pictures were rotated in their placement at the various feeding stations so the bees were not associating picture position with the food rewards.

    “Do the bees that recognize a given picture of a person have any reaction to a similar picture of the same person?”
    The bees were apparently trained to specific photos of particular people — as I mentioned they did not have to generalise their recognition to the same person in different perspectives. So in this regard, the bees’ human-facial recognition is not the same level as most peoples. (I can often –but not always– recognise a commonly-used photograph of a famous person; for me it depends upon the person having a distinctive characteristic.)

    “Most importantly, do the bees have the same reaction if a DIFFERENT PERSON places the picture — since it would be very easy to assume that the bees were not responding to visual cues at all, but to odors from the sweat glands of the person placing the picture, etc.”
    An excellent consideration! I could not find this addressed in the article, although it may have been controlled for.

    “I also question what they are responding to.”
    This is an excellent question. In your example, the road sign is a particular signifier — it has a human cultural meaning beyond the script written upon it (we have cultural definitions of what a “sign” is and what a “road” is and what the combination of “sign + road” can mean). I’m guessing that this was one of the reasons that they used a distractor composed of computer-drawn geometric shapes representing a face as one of the distractors — they didn’t want to bees to just associate “artificial picture = food”. In the bee study, the bees had been trained to associate particular black and white photographs with sugar solution. In everyday life, bees do not associate B&W photos of human faces with any particular signifieds. Honeybees are very visual animals (they can see into the ultraviolet realm, but not into the red or infrared) so B&W photos meant that the bees would be cueing to the patterns of contrast in the photos, rather than particular colors.


  2. 7 December 2006 at 19:41

    Since I came here from the SkepCirc, I have to be a little skeptical bout the bee story — using the term properly, questioning, not automatically doubting. Do the bees respond to the same picture in different places? Do the bees that recognize a given picture of a person have any reaction to a similar picture of the same person? Most importantly, do the bees have the same reaction if a DIFFERENT PERSON places the picture — since it would be very easy to assume that the bees were not responding to visual cues at all, but to odors from the sweat glands of the person placing the picture, etc.
    I also question what they are responding to. Imagine, for example that I was driving along the backroads in India (not that I travel outside the country, or even NYC, nor do I even drive), and saw a traffic sign in Devengari script. I might be able to ‘understand that sign’ without being able to read the script because I know that sign in that placement almost certainly means a particular thing.
    Not having read the original article, I’m not sure which if these were controlled for. The abstract says that various distractions were controlled for, but gives no details.

  3. 2 December 2006 at 23:23

    Even I have to admit that post of mine was total pants :)

  4. David N. Andrews MEd (12-2006) said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:44

    Larry, look what u did :P

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:43

    I thought ’twas right on Target.

  6. David N. Andrews MEd (12-2006) said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:36

    Heh heh….

    Sears me to the bone, so it does!

  7. qw88nb88 said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:36

    Now David, if ye can’t behave, we’ll have to give you the Boots.

  8. David N. Andrews MEd (12-2006) said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:35

    Oh shit…. Shop talk!

    Sorry… I’ll get me coat :P

  9. qw88nb88 said,

    2 December 2006 at 22:34

    Marxism or Spencerism, Larry? I just can’t go around buying ideas like that around here.

  10. 2 December 2006 at 19:50

    Bah Humbug

    Bishop Berkeley says I

    Evolution cannot exist because I have never experienced it through my senses, nor will my consciousness permit to construct it.

    I don’t accept authority just because it is there, because it can disappear just as soon when I am not there :)

    Some people make an article of faith out of nineteenth century ideas, be that Marxism, or Spencerism.

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