Reflections on bumble bee sentience
... and the implications for the human supremacist worldview --- [Estimated reading time: 10 min.]
"Bees may feel pain", proclaims the headline of a recent article. They may. Merely responding to increasingly painful stimuli in a fashion akin to the response of us humans in a similar situation is not definite enough to be sure if they really experience pain. But they may.
To sum it up (if you didn't already read the article), scientists enclosed a bunch of bumble bees in a container that contained two food sources, one less concentrated one, and one with a higher concentration of sugar. The one with the higher concentration could only be accessed by crawling over an adjustable heating pad that, for the bees, felt comparable to walking barefoot on an asphalt road on a hot, sunny day. When the heat was still bearable, all bees preferred the more concentrated sugar solution, but after reaching a certain threshold they abandoned it for the one with the lower sugar content. This supposedly shows the (in the words of one academic commenter) "intellectually fascinating" ability of bees to withstand a certain amount of painful heat for a limited time, if they gain some benefit that makes it worthwhile. This, in turn, suggests to the researchers that bees might feel pain.
My first reaction to the study was - one eyebrow raised - duh!? Who doesn't feel pain? Do they really have to torture animals just to figure that out?
For me personally (someone who has devoured about every book there is on plant sentience, the entirety of which show beyond doubt that plants feel - and respond to - pain as well), it seems otherworldly to see people questioning the same attributes in fellow animals.
The article has been updated to clarify, probably after the usual outcry by animal rights activists, that the bees were "not injured" during the experiment - yet I have no restraint in calling experiments like that (or the other example where they electro-shocked hermit crabs until they left the safety of their shells) what they are: torture. Let's assume the following experimental setup: I lock you up in a sterile room with artificial lighting and suspend you from a chain in mid-air. I wait until you're thirsty, but I only give you water in one of those handle-less, cone-shaped paper cups, and the water is, furthermore, too unpleasantly hot to hold in your hand - it has the temperature of a cup of tea that, if picked up a minute too early, has to be put down immediately - but doesn't lead to second-degree burns. Wouldn't that classify as torture? Wouldn't that be, at the very least, extremely problematic sadistic behavior? What kind of a sociopath comes up with experiments like this?!
The article is, to be fair, one of the more progressive ones, but there are still droves of old, white men in the higher echelons of the ivory towers of Academia who fervently oppose any notion that might suggest that other animals are more like us than we previously assumed.
Daniel Quinn famously wrote:
The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler's mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe.
The old paradigm, the anthropocentric worldview, begets the destruction of all Life for the benefit of the singular, global, dominant culture (or, better, a tiny percentage of people in this culture).
"Previous research has shown honey bees and bumble bees are intelligent, innovative, creatures. They understand the concept of zero, can do simple math, and distinguish among human faces (and probably bee faces, too)," elaborates the author. So far, so good, but why use the word "probably" here? Isn't it plainly obvious that bees must be able to distinguish other bee faces? If we humans can identify faces, why wouldn't other animals be able to do the same? Our eyes are not exceptionally good when compared with other animals, and the mental equipment necessary to identify faces has been proven scientifically to exist in dogs and sheep. Hence, it's safe to assume that the ability to recognize faces is the norm, not the exception, among all animals.
But why was this ever in question?
Do non-human animals inhabit a different realm where everyone looks exactly alike, featureless and devoid of any individuality, like the Stormtroopers in Star Wars?
To be clear, from an objective perspective, identifying faces with the precision we humans exhibit is an incredible feature, given that the proportions and the position of eyes, nose, cheekbones, brows, etc. vary minutely from face to face; moreover, those proportions are massively distorted when we express different emotions. From the viewpoint of another species, all human faces might look more or less the same, just like for us humans all squirrel faces and bee faces look the same. Yet the more time we spend with animals, the more we realize that their faces are very different from each other as well. Everyone who lives in close proximity to dogs, cats, sheep, cows or even chicken, and sees different individuals of any given species regularly, can attest to this fact. We can extrapolate that, as you descent in scale, smaller animals have individually different faces as well, and if we would be able to shrink ourselves to the size of an ant (and spend some time among them without getting eaten), we might be shocked to realize that they, too, have faces very different from one another.
To question whether animals have the mental capabilities to distinguish between faces is a clear sign that you spend too much time with humans, and too little with other animals.
Nonetheless, skepticism remains.
Still, it remains unclear whether bees really feel what we call pain; the scientists point out that their study does not provide 'formal proof' of this ability. Given its subjective nature, 'proving that insects feel pain is probably impossible,' says Greg Neely, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Sydney. He has shown fruit flies’ nervous systems can experience chronic pain, but he doubts that insects have the neurological systems to allow pain to register as a complex emotion [Emphasis mine].
As so often with studies like this, animals have to suffer in order to produce the results desired by the researchers to prove stuff that's plainly obvious to anyone outside of the dominant culture of anthropocentrism.
Upon reading studies like this, I feel like I want to punch those scientists in the jaw, and when they start screaming I'll just say stuff like "Ultimately, we can't be sure if the scientist really feels pain or simply responds reflexively to an unpleasant or potentially threatening stimulus," and "although the scientist clearly showed a response, we have doubts that he has the neurological systems to allow pain to register as a complex emotion."
Anything to keep the vast gulf that allegedly separates us from other living beings as widely open as possible.
But the biggest surprise for me is to see, in turn, how surprising findings like the above are for most members of the dominant culture, and especially academic elites that are supposed to be intelligent, open thinkers.
My wife, who grew up in rural Thailand, surrounded by rice paddies and forests, was never indoctrinated with the kind of sick, twisted logic used by human supremacists to turn innocent children into mindless consumers (at best) or World Destroyers and Enemies of Life (at worst). Even as a young adult enrolled at a large university she wasn't exposed to the really nasty stuff, since she didn't study engineering, economics, "life" sciences [sic], philosophy, psychology, history, agriculture, or any of the countless other fields rife with human supremacist sentiments.
Her experience of the world was (and continues to be) based on a variety of animist folk beliefs (predating the arrival of Buddhism) attributing human-like characteristics and behaviors to non-humans, and informed by simply observing other life forms - and if you really look, there is not the slightest doubt about animal consciousness and sentience. It is just so plainly obvious that animals and even plants are like us: they lead purposeful lives, with dreams, hopes, worries, fears, ambitions and goals; they metabolize, they eat, breathe, sleep, reproduce and play, just like us.
When I tell her about things like this study, it really becomes obvious how laughable the dominant worldview is. To someone who's never been immersed in the mechanistic Cartesian worldview that dominates Western thought, it is utterly unsurprising that insects can feel pain, or that animals have complex feelings and thoughts, just like ourselves. How could it be otherwise?
To make sense of experiments like the one described above, one first has to understand why it is that scientists feel the need to "prove" that insects can feel pain in the first place - and I really struggled trying to explain those underlying reasons to my wife! It just seems so redundant to prove this, and so quaint that some people simply won't believe that all animals have thoughts and feelings - an opinion based on the delusions of a small circle of rich, alienated white men four centuries ago!
If you try to explain all this to someone outside of the dominant culture, it makes you realize just how ridiculous the dominant worldview really is: it (baselessly!) presupposes that "complex emotions" (whatever that even means!) are exclusively human phenomena, and that other animals are more like mindless automatons, robots that reflexively respond to stimuli without ever being consciously aware of the why and how.
The whole concept of the mechanistic worldview presupposes that there is nothing - or at least nothing of importance - happening in non-human animals' minds, because their brains are "less complex" than ours, or some such. Just like we don't have to consciously inhale and exhale every breath, "animals" unconsciously follow scents to food sources, automatically build nests and burrows, and perfunctorily find partners to mate and raise offspring with, all the while thinking nothing at all (or, like some human supremacists visualize it, mentally repeating simple concepts like "food, food, food, food" or "sex, sex, sex" over and over again).
How strange that sounds like if you really think about it!
Just a few years after I started to transcend anthropocentrism myself, it seems unbelievable to me that an entire culture unquestioningly accepts that there is a vast schism in the way humans experience the world - as opposed to non-humans - and that only we humans experience the totality of emotions. It just doesn't make much sense, and the more you contemplate it, the more time you actually spend with other animals (without holding supremacist biases), the stranger it seems. The mental gymnastics required to cling to our perceived exceptionality is staggering. It involves ignoring what everyone can readily observe with their own eyes, and replacing direct experience with (profoundly unscientific) unquestioned assumptions, circular logic, and quasi-mystical concepts that are, upon closer inspection, not even related to the subject. How arduous the attempts to explain what makes us humans so special!
After the remarkable observation by Daniel Quinn that I quoted above, he continues to say:
But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The [members of the dominant culture] are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.
“Wouldn't it be nice to discover that there is intelligent life out there,” people sometimes ask, “just to know that we are not alone in the universe?”
How alienated does one have to be to believe that humans are alone, the only intelligent creature in a complex but ultimately lifeless clockwork of pre-programmed automatons blindly following whatever instincts their genes have equipped them with. How profoundly disconnected from the rest of Nature does one have to be to believe that, when comparing ourselves to other animals, differences outweigh the similarities!
The DNA of our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, is over 97 percent identical to our own! Where is this supposed chasm that separates us from the rest of the living world? We share about 90 percent of our own DNA with cats, and about 60 percent with bananas, for Earth's sake!
Most of our genes contain basic information on how to produce the staggering variety of proteins we need in order to be alive in this world, to build and maintain our bodies and to metabolize. Of course, every living being needs this information, otherwise it simply wouldn't exist. To merely stay alive from moment to moment is the result of an unfathomably complex symphony of billions of processes that all take place simultaneously within our bodies, without us even having to spend the slightest bit of attention to it. And those processes are, if not always the same, at the very least similar to each other among all animals, plants, bacteria and fungi (people always forget fungi!).
We have never been alone. Life is all around us. Intelligent life. We don't need "scientific proof" to know that, and to adapt our own behavior accordingly when interacting with the non-human world. All we have to do is let go of the harmful bias this culture imposes on our thinking, and open our eyes to what really happens around us. Only the presence of both sentience and consciousness can explain the behaviors expressed by our non-human relatives. Only if you presuppose that other animals (and plants!) have emotions, feelings, wishes, dreams, ambitions, goals and desires does the world finally make sense. And soon you'll find that you completely forgot how it is to see the world differently.
The circle of "proven" sentience has been drawn ever wider around us humans in light of the scientific discoveries of recent decades, and the trend is so obvious that it would make more sense to shift our baseline assumption:
All living beings are conscious, they all have free will, and they all share an astoundingly rich emotional world of complex feelings, just like us.
Since Western culture prides itself on descending from a long line of intellectual tradition, dating back all the way to ancient Greece, let's use that much-famed logic to put an end to this outdated discussion with a good old Aristotelian syllogism:
Premise A: Humans are animals.
Premise B: Humans can feel pain.
Conclusion: Therefore, animals can feel pain.
It really is that simple!
You’ve probably heard about the Earth Species Project, dedicated to decoding animal communication, using “AI as a Rosetta Stone to translate the languages of other species to - hopefully - expand human consciousness, empathy, and awareness of the other beings we share this planet with.”
I wonder if all this science regarding non-human sentience is simply scientists trying to make the human public to care more about something other than themselves. Although I find the idea of the project interesting I doubt any of these things will make a difference in how people perceive the world.