Another PSA announcement: If anyone’s trying to email me, I’m not ignoring you. I haven’t got email for going on 4 days now. Alleged attempts by Dreamhost (the ISP that hosts rifters.com) to fix the problem have so far succeeded in changing its status from from “Everything’s pretty much cool, just a bit of leftover email congestion for a couple of users” to “critical problems, no estimated fix time, you’re hosed, we’ve disabled comments on the status update page, and we won’t even pretend to answer any follow-up queries.” So I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to even read any emails, much less respond to them.
In the meantime though, have a look at this expanded Director’s Cut edition of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.
The study looks almost perfect, if ridiculously low-tech: the kind of thing an undergrad might do with a budget of $3.50. All you need is a mirror, a piece of Plexiglas, and a bunch of ants.
Oh, and blue paint. The whole thing comes down to blue paint.
Start with the Plexiglas. Put Ant A on one side, Ant B on the other. Ant A shows no reaction to its buddy at all. So far so good.
Stick it in front of a mirror. Now it pays attention. Goes up to the glass, taps its reflection, shows interest it never showed with the real ant on the other side of the plexi. Interesting.
Maybe it’s reacting to something in the mirror, some chemical in the silver backing perhaps. So put a dot of blue paint on its head and put it in front of the mirror again. This time it checks out its reflection and starts grooming its head, as if to get rid of that weird-ass dot that just appeared there. It never tries to groom its reflection, which is where it actually saw the paint.
This is starting to get creepy.
Okay, um, maybe it could just feel the paint up there. Maybe it itched or something. So try a speck of brown, ant-coloured paint, something that won’t be visually obvious in reflection.
Put a speck of blue paint on the back of the head, where the ant can’t see it in a mirror. No grooming.
I’m not one to jump to conclusions, but I’m having a hard time interpreting these results in any way other than: ants recognize themselves in mirrors. Which means they pass a test frequently used as an index of self-awareness, a test that even some higher primates fail.
The stats seem sound, generally returning P-values of less than 0.001 (for the statistical neophytes in the crowd, that means the odds of getting those results by random chance are less than 1 in 1000). But the remarkable thing is, the researchers didn’t even do stats on most of their results. They couldn’t do stats, because there was no variation in the data. All the face-painted ants groomed their faces once they saw themselves in a mirror; none of the unpainted ones did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean data in a behavioural study before.
What is this simple-yet-profound experiment, this rock-solid research with the batshit crazy results? Why, it’s “Are ants capable of self recognition?“, by Marie-Claire Cammaerts and Roger Cammaerts. Where will you find it? In the Journal of Science, a publication whose website veritably screams JunkWoo. The title bar on its website looks like a banner ad for generic penis pills. Just below that you’ll see, for some reason, a stock photo of a smiling dude in safety goggles and a yellow hard hat. “Instruction to Author” is either a typo or a tacit admission that every paper in the journal is written by the same person under different pen names. Even the journal’s name seems designed to encourage confusion with more respectable platforms (“the journal, Science?” “American Journal of Science?” “Journal of Science Education?”) while simultaneously discouraging investigation into its actual pedigree. (Google the phrase “Journal of Science”: you’ll get 67,000,000 hits. I scrolled through the first 300 and couldn’t find a single link to the actual journal.)
The Cammaerts are not flakes. They’re well-published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. I don’t know what they’re doing in the Journal of Science, unless they lost a drunken bet at a party somewhere. Or maybe their results are just so incredible that no one else would publish them.
I’m thinking maybe it’s that second thing. If you go to Wikipedia’s page on “Mirror Test”, pull back the curtain and read the backstage discussion, you’ll see editors and commenters stating that they “flat out don’t believe those results”, even while others praise the methodology that produced them. The idea that ants can self-recognize just opens too big a can of worms.
And yet, Cammaerts and Cammaerts are not entirely alone. Way back in 2010, writing in the top-of-the-line Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Björn Brems described research suggesting that fruit flies have Free Will. It wasn’t “free will” in the classic sense— it basically amounted to any behaviour complex enough to make you unpredictable to predators— but as anyone conversant with the literature will tell you, that’s pretty much the only kind of free will we humans can lay claim to as well (albeit with more bells and whistles). And just this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ran a piece called “What Insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness“, by Andrew Barrona and Colin Klein.
Barrona and Klein argue that vertebrate consciousness is seated in the midbrain, which acquires information about both the organism’s internal state and its external environment. It integrates these into a model that generates behavioural goals— if your internal state is too hot then move somewhere cooler, that sort of thing— and relays those goals to the motor system. The midbrain contains all the elements necessary to sense, navigate, and survive in a given environment. Barrona and Klein argue that such integration is the root of consciousness, and point out insect brain structures serving the same functions; they conclude that insects should experience comparable levels of awareness. (Nematodes, lacking comparable structures, would not.)
It’s important not to go off the deep end here. There’s a huge difference between consciousness and self-awareness, between sentience and sapience (and a belated thankyou to Leonid Korogodski for hammering that difference home to me many years ago); an organism can have conscious experiences without consciously reflecting on their own existence. And the Mirror Test has always struck me as a questionable metric for self-awareness anyway (for one thing, it’s easy to envision an algorithm that recognizes the self without being aware of the self). But the traditional view of insects as mere computer programs wrapped in chitin, utterly deterministic in their behaviour, appears to be wrong. Stimulus A does not always provoke Response B, as you’d expect from purely deterministic reflexes; sometimes the insect is focused on other input, sometimes it can be distracted. We are learning that insects pay attention to things. It seems increasingly likely that their experiences are conscious ones, to at least some extent. Consciousness may be far more ancient, far more widespread than we ever suspected.
Which means that suffering is, too, by the same token.
I’m not sure why, but I bet that explains a lot.