This week, I read about a fascinating study about bumblebees carried out by Dr. Andy Gardner of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Gardner studies Darwinian adaptation, which to date has been believed to occur at the level of the individual organism.
Gardner, on the other hand, has been studying whether there is such a thing as group adaptation and ‘super organisms’ — where a particular species of animals operates only as a collective — so much so it can be seen to exist as a single organism in its own right.
Recently, Gardiner and his colleagues from Edinburgh and also Oxford University, put together the first theory of group adaptation after using mathematical models to examine what is known as ‘swarm behavior’ to see how individual animals act in relation to the group.
A model community
With some animals, they believe, what appears to be swarming is simply each individual jostling to get to the middle of the group to evade predators.
Bees and ants, on the other hand, are different. Both operate what could be considered a model community. In this instance, individuals continuously act selflessly and are willing to sacrifice and even die if necessary to protect the colony.
One example, he says, is the policing that goes on in hives. Any egg not laid by the queen is destroyed by worker bees, to ensure that only the queen's offspring survive. In that sense, the entire community is united in a common purpose. In countless other ways, bees will happily die in order to aid the community in some way.
Gardner’s view is that the group dynamic carries on because the bees within any particular colony are mostly relatives of each other and so are simply hardwired by a biological evolutionary imperative – to ensure that queen survives in order to pass on their genes.
But is that the only reason?
To the scientific community, an animal is still perceived as nothing much more than a robot with an array of chemical processes, without the ability to register much more than the crudest pain or fear—certainly none of the more complicated human cognition or feelings such as excitement, boredom, annoyance, anger or suspicion.
A variation of this theme is the suggestion that animals have a kind of ‘animal consciousness’ that is far less sophisticated than ours.
As one beekeeper put it recently, summing up the prevailing view: “I have found the bee to be a charming, complex but not terribly smart little machine.”
Only Charles Darwin, ironically, maintained that animals have sophisticated emotions — a theory that, unlike his views on evolution, never caught fire. Mark S. Blumberg, of the University of Iowa, and Greta Sokoloff, of Indiana University in Bloomington, number among the most vocal proponents of the behaviorist view, claiming that the idea that animals process emotion is pure fiction and ‘anthropomorphic’.
However, a recent study of insect intelligence being carried out by Dr. Nigel Raine at Queen Mary, University of London, shows that bees are highly intelligent – as intelligent as rats and pigeons, for instance - capable of extraordinary feats of navigation, making use of trigonometry and landmark recognition.
In fact, the London research now shows a hierarchy of intelligence, with some bees innately more clever than others, and able to learn memory tasks and retain information far more quickly.
Dr. Raine’s research conclusively demonstrates that bees show the ability to learn with great nuance, discerning complex patterns, shapes, colors, textures and scents. Raine has also discovered that they can even recognize human faces and make complex calculations about food supplies.
Random acts of self-sacrifice
Although bees may have evolved to be unselfish in the extreme, this may be less of an anomaly than we think. Copious evidence in neuroscience and biology demonstrates that a drive for cooperation and partnership, even sacrifice, rather than selfishness and naked survival, is fundamental to the biological makeup of all living things. Far from being born to be “robot survival machines” shaped by the survival imperative of their genes, both animals and human beings are hardwired for empathy and altruism.
Animal champions such as Jeffrey Masson have amassed hundreds of astonishing cases demonstrating that animals routinely engage in what Gloria Steinem once referred to as ‘random acts’ of self-sacrifice, compassion, courage and generosity toward members of their own species, members of other species and even toward humans, often to their own detriment.
Although Masson’s work has been discounted as anecdotal, the hundreds of individual case studies from him and other scientists compound into a convincing argument that animals are capable of extraordinary self-sacrifice.
Animals routinely evidence moments in which they put aside the most fundamental drive of all: the need to eat. In innumerable instances, Masson and McCarthy have discovered instances where animals have shared food or ensured that weaker individuals in a pack or herd be fed, even if it means giving up their own food. This occurs even in species like red foxes, known for jealously guarding their own catch.
Evolved beyond conflict
Rather than mindless drones, following in step, it could be that bees are highly intelligent creatures that have somehow evolved to avoid conflict for the sake of the whole.
Nevertheless, a ‘superorganism’ —with as advanced a social organization as bees or ants — is quite rare, and can only exist when the international conflict within a social group has been eliminated or suppressed.
That is why, says Dr. Gardner, “we cannot use this term, for example, to describe human societies.”
This evidence about bee intelligence and behavior particularly interests me because bees, as you may know, are disappearing in great numbers. All over the developed world, honey bees are disappearing, suffering from what scientists term Colony Collapse Disorder, where the entire community mysteriously just disappears.
There is no evidence of dead bodies lying around – just an inexplicably empty hive that has been left behind.
Can it be that bees collectively decide that it is wise to up sticks and go because they are smart enough to figure out that their environment is electrically and chemically polluted?
So tell me that’s the decision of a dumb animal.