Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Free will and fruit flies And now hornets

If you have been following the recent findings on free will and fruit flies here and here, you'll enjoy Fred Reed's charming reflections on the behaviour of hornets (e.g., "A hornet has practically no brain, probably a few milligrams or some equally depressing amount. But consider what the dangerous little spike can do.") More seriously, he comments,
Today the language and modes of thought of computing dominate the biological sciences. One speaks of behavior as being genetically “programmed” or “hard-wired,” and of a brain’s “processing power,” of “integrating” information in “real time.” We are perhaps not always aware that we do this. When you think in terms of a particular scheme, you can begin seeing it where it isn’t, begin projecting it onto the world.

When I think of how the control of a hornet’s legs must work (except of course that it doesn’t have to work the way I believe it must), I think in terms of sensors of angle and force, of procedures to calculate this and that. Do hornets do it this way? Maybe not. Scientists as much as other people struggle to escape their preconceptions or, more usually, don’t struggle. Many don’t seem to know that they have preconceptions.

He also asks,
Now, add up all hornetary behavior, including a lot we haven’t touched on—communication between hornets, caring for the young, and so on—and ask how much more complex, if at all, is the behavior of whales, who have brains you could sleep in.

Actually, the relationship between brains and thinking (if the hornet thinks) isn't really very clear and I doubt whether computer analogies are really any help at all.

Brains are sites for thinking in those animals that have them. It doesn't follow that they are necessary for thinking. I am reminded of the claim that alligators cannot feel because they do not have a mammalian brain, and the response of a man who worked with alligators for years:
When I call alligators by making the grunting call of a young alligator it attracts alligators of all sizes. It is unclear if they are simply curious or if they will defend the young. It is akin to the alarm call a newborn calf will make where the entire herd will indeed come and defend the young one.

So perhaps the alligator uses something other than the mammalian brain to respond to the baby gator's alarm call? Clearly, we don't know the half of what we don't know.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

Labels: , , ,