We Are Not Alone

animal behavior Feb 27, 2017

The questions of whether or not other animals are sentient, and what
“sentience” really means, have been with us for a long time.

I spent a lot of time reading studying animal behavior, via independent reading, online courses, and classes. Most of this information doesn’t cross over into what consciousness is. When you focus on behavior, then you pretty much stick with inputs, outputs, and consequences. This constraint is a best practice; a critical technique when it comes to solving problems. Focus on what is right in front of you and what you need to know.

Dog pulls on leash. Dog gets where she wants to go. Stop letting her get where she wants unless she doesn’t pull.

Moreover, many respected behaviorists and ethologists will argue not just that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether or not animals are sentient and that we should assume not because we have no evidence.

They’ll argue this vigorously. Passionately. Vociferously.

Even though I have cut back my dog training to one or two classes a week (and am considering stopping that to focus on writing), I’m still a bit of a behavior geek. So this article on Ars Technica about training bees captured my attention.

I’ll embed the video here.

Is this evidence of sentience? Not necessarily. It’s a very sophisticated set of problem-solving skills. Bees seem to be able to model other bee’s behavior, and they appear to be able to take what they’ve learned and then adapt it to new situations.

These skills make sense in a creature whose primary task is to find stuff and bring it back.

What’s fascinating, to me at least, is how much sophistication is packed into a bee’s brain. I’ve been reading about brain-to-body size ratios (Corvids are a good example of that one), encephalization quotients, and a host of other measures in mammals and even cetaceans, but never any mention of insects before.

And, of course, there’s the whole question of what is consciousness? Does it exist, or is it just an artifact of a sophisticated input/output system? We already know that people can be “fooled” with a complex piece of code, are we just fooling ourselves about our selves?

For a long time, sentient animals and robots were the stuff of fantasy. More than a handful of religions need humans to be unique. If they’re not, then a lot of their built-in assumptions start to fall apart. These assumptions restrained research for a long time. A willingness to set them aside, as well as more sophisticated technology, is starting to show us that we’re not as unique as we think.

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