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Bees with Feelings? A Darwinist Winces

Photo credit: Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

At his blog, Darwinian evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne gives the question some thought. Lars Chittka, Queen Mary University sensory ecologist and author of The Mind of a Bee (Princeton University Press, 2022), argues that bees “feel and think” — a point he developed last year at Scientific American. Chittka offers,

The conventional wisdom about insects has been that they are automatons — unthinking, unfeeling creatures whose behavior is entirely hardwired. But in the 1990s researchers began making startling discoveries about insect minds. It’s not just the bees. Some species of wasps recognize their nest mates’ faces and acquire impressive social skills. For example, they can infer the fighting strengths of other wasps relative to their own just by watching other wasps fight among themselves. Ants rescue nest mates buried under rubble, digging away only over trapped (and thus invisible) body parts, inferring the body dimension from those parts that are visible above the surface. Flies immersed in virtual reality display attention and awareness of the passing of time. Locusts can visually estimate rung distances when walking on a ladder and then plan their step width accordingly (even when the target is hidden from sight after the movement is initiated).


And Coyne responds,

All of these responses, of course, could come from computers programmed to learn from experience, which is exactly what we and other animals are. Natural selection has endowed us with a neuronal network that will make us behave in ways to further our reproduction (or, sometimes, that of our group — like an ant colony). We can program computers to do this, too: robots that avoid aversive stimuli and gravitate towards good ones. And clearly we behave in such a way that furthers our reproduction, of which survival is one component. But do insects experience the world, with its pleasures and pains, by having qualia similar to ours?


Then It Gets Interesting

Coyne, quoting Chittka further on bee life, argues that Darwinian natural selection can explain it all:

To me, this really shows nothing more than that animals are attracted to adaptive stimuli and repelled by harmful ones, with the addition of being able to balance harms versus advantages. (This is like the “flight distance” of animals, with some individuals able to give more weight to attractive stimuli. That’s probably how cats got domesticated!) But it doesn’t tell us whether animals are feeling the pain or attraction the way we do.

And we should remember that even protozoans show avoidance of some external stimuli and can be induced by electrical shocks to avoid light. 


He is willing to listen to Chittka about the bees but draws the line at feelings in one-celled protozoa.

Chittka responds to the type of argument Coyne is making: “Critics could argue that each of the behaviors described earlier could also be programmed into a nonconscious robot. But nature cannot afford to generate beings that just pretend to be sentient.”

And Coyne, his Darwinian instincts aroused, responds,

My interpretation is this: he’s saying that natural selection cannot produce organisms that act as if they’re sentient unless they really are sentient. And I cannot see any support for that, for we already know that protozoans act as if they experience qualia, but almost certainly don’t. And saying “pretend to be sentient” is pretty anthropormorphic! It implies, for example, that programmed robots that do what bees do are “pretending to be sentient” when in fact we know they are NOT sentient.


The Conflict Between Naturalism and Panpsychism

The conflict of views is instructive because Coyne is trying to maintain a naturalist perspective (nature is all there is) in a science world that now accommodates panpsychism (everything is conscious). Note: No claim is made here that Chittka himself holds panpsychist views, only that his findings adapt well to them.

At first sight, the two points of view might not seem clearly at odds. What if we said, “Nature is all there is and all life forms are conscious to some extent. Sentient consciousness, for example, is widespread among animals.” That’s logically coherent and supported by evidence but it creates a serious problem for naturalists.

Most naturalist philosophers of mind have held that human consciousness — maddeningly mysterious — is an illusion, something to be explained away. Tufts University’s Daniel Dennett (1942–2024) was perhaps the best known exponent of that view. In a naturalist frame, animal consciousness, including sentient bee consciousness, must likewise eventually be explained away. But panpsychism makes consciousness an aspect of all life forms, which means that it must be considered real.

The problem with accepting consciousness as real is that it is also immaterial. Immaterial human consciousness involves reason and moral choice. But animal consciousness, if real, is just as immaterial even if it involves only pleasure and pain, anger, desire, and fear. The physical substances active in the nervous system of, say, a dog mediate the feelings of the minimal canine self that experiences them. The chemistry is not itself the feelings.

Thus, with animal consciousness, not just with human consciousness, naturalism and panpsychism are slowly drifting towards conflict.