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Animal Intelligence

The organization Edge hosts The World Question Center, which every year fields a question to "leading scientists, writers, and futurists." The question selected for 2005 was "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?"

One of the respondents, Alun Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of the publication New Scientist, addresses the topic of animal and insect consciousness.

Strangely, I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe that many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts like bees and butterflies.

I can't prove that they are, but I think in principle it will be provable one day and there's a lot to be gained about thinking about the worlds of these relatively simple creatures, both intellectually—and even poetically. I don't mean that they are conscious in even remotely the same way as humans are; if that were true the world would be a boring place. Rather the world is full of many overlapping alien consciousnesses.

Why do I think there might be multiple forms of conscious out there? Before becoming a journalist I spent 10 years and a couple of post-doctoral fellowships getting inside the sensory worlds of a variety of insects, including bees and cockroaches. I was inspired by A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, a slim out-of-print volume by Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944)....

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" of why the activity of our nervous system gives rise to our own "feelings"....

To think this way about simple creatures is not to fall into the anthropomorphic fallacy. Bees and spiders live in their own world in which I don't see human-like motives. Rather it is a kind of panpsychism, which I am quite happy to sign up to, at least until we know a lot more about the origin of consciousness. That may take me out of the company of quite a few scientists who would prefer to believe that a bee with a brain of only a million neurons must surely be a collection of instinctive reactions with some simple switching mechanism between them, rather have some central representation of what is going on that might be called consciousness. But it leaves me in the company of poets who wonder at the world of even lowly creatures.

"In this falling rain,
where are you off to

wrote the haiku poet Issa.

February 2, 2005 | Science | Permalink


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