Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.
Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.
Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.
The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.
(The New Scientist article is soon to disappear behind a “paywall.”)
Robson’s article is full of references to studies, both new and old, and I won’t replicate his work with a complete summary. But even the highlights of the research that he cites provide an impressive list of apiary mental skills — all with a brain “the size of a grass seed and … not made for thinking.” And we’re not even talking about the “superorganism” or “hive mind” of Robson’s and my titles. We’re talking here about the mental skills of individual bees, which is even more remarkable given the general belief that a single bee is a profoundly limited creature. Robson notes the old Latin proverb “una apis, nulla apis” — “one bee is no bee.”
Starting with the iconic “waggle dance” (which has at least five variations, depending on whether you want to find food or a new nest site, or whatever else), increasingly sophisticated research shows that bees can count, at least up to four. They can tell a Monet from a Picasso. They can read symbols. They can solve problems by distinguishing above/below, right/left, and even same/different. Some of these abilities go beyond what can be accomplished by all but the very smartest animals.
Responding to chemical signals and prompts from their environments, worker bees perform about 60 separate behaviours, from guard duty to housekeeping to mutual grooming. That’s twice as many as have been identified in rabbits, and even more than have been attributed to a complex worker like the beaver.
Of course, many zoologists still believe that bees don’t really “think,” that their behaviour is not flexible thought but hard-wired instinct. But it’s getting harder and harder to hold onto that view in the face of all of the emerging evidence.
Impressively, recent research shows that bees can combine concepts, successfully distinguishing between objects based on both colour and spatial arrangement — and after just thirty trials. Similar tasks have taken some primates as many as several thousand attempts. And on labyrinth tests, bees have shown an ability to apply abstract directional cues differently in different labyrinths, suggesting that bees may be able to recognized and adjust to context.
What’s more, bees may deserve to be added to the very short list of primates and dolphins cable of metacognition, the ability to think about what you’re thinking. If this is true, the humble bee may be on the threshold of true consciousness. In a test at Macquarie University in Australia, researchers trained bees to tell different images apart, in tests of more or less difficulty. In a later experiment, the bees had the chance to avoid a difficult test rather than risk making an incorrect choice. The bee subjects avoided more difficult than easy tests, and they spent more time solving the difficult tests they did try. It seems that the bees could determine in advance which trials were easy for them, and which were hard. As one expert commented on the study, “This performance would certainly be taken as evidence for metacognition if the study was done with vertebrate subjects.”
If true, how is this possible in the bee’s tiny brain? One answer may be linked to the fact that bees’ abilities are limited in scale. Bees can count, but only to four. They can combine concepts, after a fashion, but only two at once. They have very limited memories. And they can’t “parallel process,” forcing them to consider alternatives one at a time in series, rather than all at once or in bunches.
This limited activity requires many fewer neural connections than does a more wide-ranging cognition, and it may be that the bee’s one million neurons are linked efficiently thanks to the relative simplicity of the tasks they must perform, compared with the billions of neurons and trillions of connections common in our brains.
So even in the light of the bee’s surprising mental skills, the assessment of uniqueness at the start of this post seems to be correct.
We are unique to the extent to which our brains have extended the basics of neural activity. And we are not unique when we consider that even a bee with a brain the size of a grass seed is able to perform a remarkable range of basic neural functions, functions that are quantitatively but not qualitatively different from our own.
At least, not as different as we often like to think.