A few months ago I became suddenly very fascinated by the question of whether or not we could ever attribute consciousness to a non-human. In the case of my story, the subject in question was a computer-generated little girl named Ada, but really it could have been about anything, an animal or a space alien or a hacked Roomba. The larger point is that no matter how hard we try we can only understand the world around us through our own context. Even then it is difficult. I don’t understand people who disagree with my beliefs, for example. And even though I should obviously know better, I can’t always wrap my mind around the idea that the people I see have internal lives that are kept secret from me, or that they even exist when they are outside of my frame of view.
I know that they exist, though, and that they have separate internal beings known only to themselves because I exist when they aren’t around, and I have thoughts, even complete carefully-constructed worlds, that nobody around me even suspects.
Because it is true with me, and I am human, I can assume it is true with them. But what about other things? Like bumblebees, for example?
In an experiment that I read about here and here–and was apparently widely reported on last fall, though I missed it until just this weekend–researches gave bumblebees something of a sugar buzz and then set them off in search of more sugar. The bees had already been trained to associate a certain smell with sugar, and another smell with boring old plain water; the container they faced now had an exactly even mix of the two smells. Depending on the bee’s point of view, the container was either half-interesting or half-not-worth-it.
An earlier experiment put the bees into a jar and shook it up and down like crazy. The researchers said they were simulating a bear attack or something. I suspect that at least a little part of them just wanted to mess with the bees. In any event, after the shaking, the bees were unhappy, and when presented with half-good/half-nothing container, they almost all decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. “Today has been such a crappy day,” the bees must have said to themselves, “I can just tell that that slightly good-smelling water is going to be a disappointment. I’m better of just sitting here.” That’s how I would feel, so it makes sense to me.
But back to the other, unshaken bees. Divided into two groups: a control group just hanging out, minding its beeswax, so to speak; and another group, given a hit of tasty sugar. Control group is released towards the container with the half-sweet/half-blah water, and a few of them decide “What the hell, I’ll bite,” and a few say, “Nah, B, I’m not feeling it.”
But the other group, the ones that had that sip of beenip, they were all like, “Nothing can go wrong today! More sugar!” and went whole hog for the half-sweet water.
We can’t get into the bees’ minds, but we can put them in situations that we’ve been in and then watch how they react. In this case, the bees seem to react the same way that the rest of us would under the circumstances. Which may not mean anything, but might just mean that bees are capable of becoming happy, which would imply that they have emotions. And real emotions would mean consciousness.
Which would mean that we can’t be cavalier about killing them anymore.
Not that we typically kill bees. Or at least, I don’t. They are, after all, among our more adorable insects, and besides, haven’t they already suffered enough? But the implications for other insects could be huge. And for the rest of life, as well. Though it is in keeping with our steadily expanding understanding of the complexity of our world and our ever-diminishing importance in it.
A number of religions–I won’t pick on any specific ones–declared for centuries that animals don’t have souls. Sometimes this was interpreted to mean that they didn’t have feelings, either. It seems bizarre for anyone to look at an animal and think that way, but then I remember that until very recently there was a large group of people who felt that dark-skinned humans didn’t have souls, either. Or women, for that matter.
We live in far more enlightened–and much more beautiful–times. That the bees buzzing about my garden are having secret inner lives is a wondrous thing, far more wonderful than the idea that we sit at the center of the universe and this that we see is all that there is. Far from diminishing humanity, it points out the great responsibilies that we have to this world and possibly others.
So hurray, I say, to the happy little bees and their fiendish addictions to sugar water. I’m sure that in their own little way they are cheering back.
Of course, this does nothing to change my feelings towards mosquitos, which are heartless bastards that deserve the electroshock death that I give them whenever they buzz into my house.