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Can Insects Be Conscious? Let’s Look at Bees First

Denyse O'Leary
Photo credit: Tanner Smida, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Honeybee scientist Andrew Barron and philosopher Colin Klein, both then at Macquarie University in Australia, argue that bees have some form of consciousness. Let’s look at what they have to say.

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Barron broached the question of bee consciousness with Klein, who was highly skeptical at first. But Barron pointed out that at least one key theory holds that

…the core of human consciousness is not our impressive neocortex, but our much more primitive midbrain. This simple structure synthesizes sensory data into a unified, egocentric point of view that lets us navigate our world. Insects, Barron and Klein now argue, have midbrain-like structures, including a “central complex,” that seem to allow bugs to similarly model themselves as they move through space.

ABIGAIL TUCKER, “DO INSECTS HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS?” AT SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE (JULY 2016)

The dialogue resulted in an open-access paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It is important to qualify what “consciousness” means when we are talking about bees:

While the human midbrain and the insect brain may even be evolutionarily related, an insect’s inner life is obviously more basic than our own. Accordingly, bugs feel something like hunger and pain, and “perhaps very simple analogs of anger,” but no grief or jealousy. “They plan, but don’t imagine,” Klein says.

ABIGAIL TUCKER, “DO INSECTS HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS?” AT SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE (JULY 2016)

Barron and Klein also wrote an essay at The Conversation, clarifying their view and arguing that insects can shed light on the origin of consciousness:

It is worth clarifying what we mean when we talk about insect consciousness, since the term consciousness carries a lot of baggage. Everyone agrees that bees can take in environmental information and perform impressive computations on it.

We want to know something more: whether insects can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective. In philosophical jargon, this is sometimes called “phenomenal consciousness”.

Rocks, plants and robots don’t have this. Metaphorically speaking, they are dark inside. Conversely, most of us think that a dog running for its dinner isn’t just a little guided missile. It smells its food, wants to eat and sees the world around it as it runs.

Each of these feel a certain way to us, and they feel like something for the dog too. If that is right, then dogs are conscious, at least in the minimal sense. 

COLIN KLEIN, ANDREW BARRON, “WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE A BEE: INSECTS CAN TEACH US ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF CONSCIOUSNESS” AT THE CONVERSATION (APRIL 18, 2016)

And they posit that, in this sense, bees have consciousness centered in their midbrain.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.