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”