Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Bloomfield menagerie: paper wasp

I have been reading an anthology of articles and letters from Nature, a weekly British science journal which started in the Victorian age, and continues to serve as a major publication for scientists around the world.

Throughout the decades, Nature has continued to publish letters of all sorts, including a few that purport intelligence in beasts other than humans and the few others (dolphins, whales, primates) popularly accepted to have some level of intelligence.

Throughout school I was told over and over and over again not to anthropomorphize animal behavior. While my teachers (correctly) asserted that humans were animals, and that humans had some behavior similar to other mammals, one should not infer specifically human characteristics in animal behavior.

"Well, why not?"
"Because you are assuming the behavior reflects something human--that's anthropomorphizing!"

The circularity in the reasoning bothered me a bit, but teachers still carried the weight of authority, which I accepted.

In Nature, there have been all kinds of letters ascribing human characteristics inferred through observing behaviors of critters as varied as sea urchins, dung beetles, dogs, pigeons, and scorpions (credited with committing suicide to avoid life not worth living).

So here is my story--the observations are true, the inferences, of course, up for discussion. Since I have been on a Galileo kick, I will mention his take on using analogies in science.

Galileo was referring specifically to sunspots, and used clouds as an analogy to describe them. He was challenged on this, and Galileo explained why he used the analogy:

I do not assert on this account that the spots are clouds of the same material as ours, or aqueous vapors raised from the earth and attracted by the sun. I merely say that we have no knowledge of anything that more closely resembles them. Let them be vapors or exhalations then, or clouds, or fumes sent out from the sun's globe or attracted there from other places; I do not decide on this--and they may be any of a thoudand other things not perceived by us.

Galileo, "Letter on Sunspots," again quoted in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake, Anchor Books, New York, 1957, p. 100.

So here's my first in a series of observations of animal behavior that my teachers told me to interpret without relying on analogous human behavior. It occurred April 20, 2003, and I wrote down what I saw:

Today, I spent a good bit of a warm Easter afternoon watching a wasp make the third cell of her nest, creating paper walls from her mouth. I mentioned it to my wife; she reminded me of the wasp problems the summer before, so I decided to knock the nest out now, before the fish held a colony of wasps. I felt ridiculous caring about the work the wasp had already done.

When the wasp had gone to gather more water, I took the fish down off the fence post, and knocked off the new nest, as well as the larger nest left from last summer. I set the fish upside down on our patio table, a good 10 feet from where it had hung, and forgot about it. The little sadness I had felt for the wasp dissipated with a shake of my head, reprimanding myself for my silly sentimentality.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wrestling with a grape vine--I want it to go one way, it insists on following the sun. As I walked past the patio table, I noticed the lone wasp walking back and forth on the overturned fish. It looked frantic. It rapidly walked one way, then the other. It clearly was looking for the nest I had knocked off.

I called my wife--the wasp had clearly identified the fish as the home of its nest. My wife is rational, and a good empiricist--she keeps me sane. She could not understand why I got so agitated.

"Maybe it can smell the nest." The nest lay a good 15 feet away. I have a habit of saving wasp nests, shells, acorns, anything of interest not made by humans. "How do you know it's the same wasp?" she wondered.

I brought the tiny nest back to the iron fish. I laid it next to the wasp. A breeze blew the nest away. A moment later, the wasp left.

I was shaken. The wasp clearly recognized the fish, upside down on the table, more than 10 feet away from its original site. She clearly exhibited an increase in movements. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, the wasp was clearly distressed.

There is more to this world than I can ever hope to understand.

I'm not claiming that wasps "feel" what we do, far from it--but I would not be so quick to dismiss any and all animal behavior because it might, somehow, resemble human behavior.

It's not that we're not special--we are. But we're not the only things special in this universe.

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