Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Can Bees Imitate?

I have been thinking a great deal about the evolution of memes, and wondering in particular about just how big a brain has to be in order to support memetic replication. Humans aren’t the only animals that imitate, after all. Many birds are notorious mimics, and not in the way a viceroy butterfly just happens to resemble a monarch butterfly without ever observing monarchs. The viceroy looks like a monarch because predators avoided eating its ancestors who resembled the very yucky-tasting monarch, and the more close the resemblance, the more likely there’d be uneaten offspring. In contrast, birds genuinely imitate, producing sounds that are actually copies of the sounds the birds hear; if the bird hears a different sound, it produces that sound instead. A parrot might hear a sound, imitate that sound and be heard by another parrot, who in turn might imitate it, and so on; the imitated sound then can replicate as a meme.

But birds have pretty advanced brains in the grand scheme of things, and parrots and crows in particular are remarkably clever animals. What about something much smaller? While pondering this question, I remembered the humble honey bee and its remarkable waggle dance.

When a foraging worker ant finds a good source of food, it can leave a scent trail on the way home so that other workers can quickly find that source and better exploit it. Bees, however, fly through the air, which tends to move around and carry away scent trails, so they need another way of communicating the location of resources to their hive. They do this by way of a special dance they perform when they return home laden with food. The dance indicates a vector: the direction to the food source (relative to the position of the sun) and the distance. Other bees observing this dance then know to fly this far in this direction to find the food and bring back more for the hive.

So what we have here is an ability to communicate. Information is transmitted from one tiny bee brain to another, and manifests itself in behavior to the benefit of the hive. These are really, really tiny brains we’re talking about here, but they still demonstrate the basic mechanical ability to formulate, transmit, and replicate behavior. Bee One does the dance communicating vector A and distance B, and a little while later, after observing this dance, Bee Two does a dance communicating the same vector and distance.

But is this actually memetic? That is, is this truly an instance of imitation?

I don’t know, but I suspect not.  I think that if this happens, it's because Bee Two is reporting its own visit to the same food source, not because it is repeating the first bee's report. I expect the bee brain has two distinct registers for storing these vectors, one for navigating to the food site and one for directing the waggle dance, and these registers are isolated from each other; the navigation register can only be loaded by observing the waggle dance, and the dance register can only be loaded by actually flying back to the hive. I predict that a bee cannot watch another bee perform the dance and then turn around and imitate the same dance for a latecomer who missed the original performance.

Why do I think this? Because there is no evolutionary advantage to imitation here, and indeed considerable disadvantage.

First of all, the waggle dance is analog, not digital, which means that with every replication there is a loss of fidelity. Bees indicate direction relative to the current position of the sun by the angle of the straight run in the middle of the figure eight relative to the vertical. (The dance is performed on a vertical surface, a wall in the hive.)

Now, the angle is accurate enough to get the observer near enough to find the target, but it’s probably not much more precise than that. A bee observing the dance may also misread the direction by a few degrees, and then misjudge a crosswind, but still get within spotting range. Also, since the direction is pegged to the current position of the sun, the bee has to adjust for the passage of time, which it does very well but that’s another area for error to creep in. If a bee were to watch and then imitate the dance, all these distortions would multiply, so that the information content of the dance would soon become unreliable; the hive would waste time and energy sending workers to the wrong place.

Even if the copied dance were perfectly accurate, an imitated dance would allow another problem common to internet chain letters: the propagation of messages long after the information within is outdated. If it were possible for a bee to repeat a second or third hand report, other bees might still be following those directions even though the food source in question had been depleted. It makes much more sense to have each and every performance of the waggle dance be a first-hand report.

I would be delighted to learn that bees are capable of supporting memes. Their brains are big enough to do so, but I predict that as a matter of fact they do not. And that is the falsifiable prediction of my theory. If there are any entomologists or apiologists out there who have actually observed one bee imitate another bee’s waggle dance, I would love to be proven wrong.  


  1. You, who have no faith in God, have a faith in evolution that is astonishing. It leads you to imaginings far beyond the scope of science and involves you with intricacies of thought very much like the reported monks who debated how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. Their reasoning sounded theological, and yours sounds scientific, but neither are either. Worship is the proper response to wonder. Jehovah God has done wondrous things.

  2. Nonsense. I have lots of faith in God; I just don't believe He exists. Belief is a tentative, fragile thing, which can and SHOULD be changed when new evidence shows it to be mistaken. What I have done here is to make a prediction, to spell out exactly the kind of evidence it would take to change my belief: if some apiarist somewhere reports that in fact, honeybees DO imitate each other's waggle dances, then I will have to change my mind. And I'll be glad to do so; it's good exercise.

    But what you are asking me to do is literally stupid. I don't mean that pejoratively, but objectively; you are telling me that I ought not to inquire and seek to understand wonderful and mysterious things, but fall down on my knees and praise God for them. I call this stupid because it is a deliberate, willful rejection of the opportunity to learn, an explicit choice to remain ignorant. That is as objective and fair a definition of "stupid" as I think it possible to formulate.

  3. You are not called to abandon intense study and praise God. You are called to channel the wonder that comes from your study to praise the One who deserves the credit for what He has done. It is not wonder that you lack, but the appropriate response. To say how lucky we are to have all this is silly. It is not luck. The God who made you and sustains you every day, the God who will bring you to account fpr all you have done with His world, prompts you to give Him the glory that He deserves. Not to do so is wicked. To do so is joy.

  4. I put forward an idea about how bees communicate, and an experiment suggested by that idea. And your response is to compare my questioning to medieval theologians' speculations about angels and pins?

    This is a concrete question about bees. You can go watch a beehive, and get actual results. There is nothing metaphysically speculative about it. You are just objecting to the fact that I made reference to the concept of evolution in my discussion, but if you'd devoted any thought to understanding what I'd written at all, you'd realize that my idea here doesn't actually require one to consider natural selection at all. You can reframe the question as creationistically as you like: "I think God in His wisdom made bees so they couldn't imitate each other's waggle dances, in order to better ensure the prosperity of the hive which could otherwise lose too many workers to following bad vectors to food. Of course, I could be wrong and God might have made an even more ingenious solution. Has anyone ever observed a bee imitating another bee's waggle dance?"

    Would the question be more to your liking phrased that way? Or are you rather, as I suspect, totally uninterested in anything other than getting me to accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour?

    If so, then please go away. I am not exactly unwilling to be convinced, but you have long since exhausted any hope I had that you might have something persuasive to say about it.

  5. Jesus must be at the center of all your thinking on any subject or you will neither understand nor profit from anything you think. Our minds are given us that we may worship the God who made us and calls us to Himself. I am like a gadfly to you, but not for much longer.

  6. So, we might have a solution to the problem of colony collapse disorder, if only those entomologists would think more about Jesus and less about bees?

    Look, if you want to convince me that your way of thinking about things is better than mine, you probably should give me some examples of how you get better results by placing Jesus at the center. Not in terms of personal happiness or sense of fulfilment, because I don't deny that maybe you're happier or more fulfilled than I am. I mean in terms of understanding objective, impersonal things about the world. SHOW me how Jesus makes you better able to explain the behaviour of bees, or recognize prime numbers, or safely drive a car, or accurately predict stock prices, or prevent cancer, or devise a more efficient solar cell. Give me some example of how Jesus makes you smarter, and maybe I'll have some reason to believe that Jesus will make me smarter, too.

    Until then, I can only conclude that you don't address these non-Jesus topics because you have no better insights to offer than I do.

  7. In John 3 Nicodemus could not see what being born-again was, and could not imagine how it could accomplish anything of value. He needed to be born-again to see, and his learning stood in the way. Yours does, too, in the most obvious and sad way. You will accept new ideas only if they fit into the way of thinking you have deterimined to be correct. But your way of thinking is wrong, and you will never find truth in the place you think you are seeking it. If you can be philosophical about being wrong, and can even pride yourself on the nobility of being wrong, then there really is no hope for you, unless you are born-again. Cut the knot.! Go to God for help! Seek Him whilst He may be found! The blind person doesn't know what he is missing. But Jesus can enable the blind to see.

  8. No better insight on bees, then?

  9. No, but bees don't matter as much as your soul.

  10. You said, "Jesus must be at the center of all your thinking on any subject or you will neither understand nor profit from anything you think." I ask for an example of how placing Jesus at the center has helped you to understand any subject better, and you completely failed to rise to that challenge.

    So consider the alternative proposal: "Jesus must NOT be at the center of your thinking on any subject or you will neither understand nor profit from anything you think." Based on the evidence so far, including the fact that I have actually said things about bees that might be empirically tested, and you have refused to provide ANY insight, useful or useless, which claim do you think an impartial observer is likely to find more plausible?

  11. Everything exists for the glory of God--to display His wisdom and power, His beauty and creativity. If we have not come to admire Him though everything we examine, we have not seen it for what it it. His hand in the lives of human beings is a display of His wisdom, His love, His power to understand and direct the human heart. His hand in history is an occasion to admire His wonderful control and power over all that He has made. If we study things entirely in and of themselves, we miss the purpose for which they exist and the end that they are accomplishing. It brings us to admire the watch, but not even think about the watchmaker. If we do so, we have not known the watch. Cause and purpose must be a part of everything we consider if we are to understand anything. And Jesus is the centre of all. Paul makes this very clear in Colossians chapter one. and Ephesians one. Jesus Christ pulls all the Old testament together, as well. Jesus Christ is the standard by which everything else is judged. To study and examine what He has made as though He did not exist makes all our study of nothing worth.
    This is why Paul says that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world. The alternative to seeing Christ in everything is not knowing anything truly.

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  13. When I'm out shopping for a watch, I am looking for something that will accurately tell me what time it is. THAT is its purpose. I don't particularly care if it glorifies its maker, except insofar as it does so by being a really good watch. But in any event, I have to assess the watch by how well it performs its timekeeping function, which means I should probably try to learn something about how it works.

    So here I am, looking at the machinery inside the case, marvelling at it, trying to figure out how it works, and asking you and others to help me with insights as to what this part might do. And you sagely announce that it glorifies the Watchmaker.

    Thanks, but that's a worse-than-useless observation, even if it IS true. Whether or not it glorifies any watchmaker, the question I am asking here is HOW IT WORKS. Your answer short-circuits the whole inquiry.

  14. How it works is a very interesting question, and it has received enough attention to have transformed our world with convenient wonders. But our inquiriy, and even the comforts we have received do not really satisfy us unless they are related to the One who made them all. His purpose in making them is to lead us to a relationship with Himself that is the design of His making us oursleves. Meaningless creatures that simply consume the wonders around us is a bleak and empty picuture. If we actually find in all of this the reason and purpose for ourselves, then the wonder of the world we observe will have reached its goal. You fall very far short, and you will never be happy if you miss what you were created to enjoy. Jesus calls us through this morass to a life in Him that fulfills what we were made to experience. He said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

  15. I am actively, passionately exploring this wonderfully intricate and subtle world, and you INTERRUPT my inquiries to tell me why my life is bleak and empty.

    I am not offended at your rudeness. Rather, I am astonished at how you can so brazenly miss the evidence right in front of you that I am not "missing what I was created to enjoy". How can you claim to appreciate God's creation when you won't even look at it? How can you presume to tell me how I should or shouldn't look at it?

  16. One thing I like about you is that you look at this wonderful world and appreciate its beauty. So, why never give thanks to the One who made it? Why have to pretend that He does not exist? You were not meant to occupy the pinnacle. The purpose for which you were given the eyes to see beauty was thatyou might worship the One Great Artist. Missing that, the rest is just indulgence and consumption, pointless, and,ultimately barren and empty. When the ability to see, hear, taste, touch, feel this wonderful world is gradually or more suddenly removed, your conclusion will be Solomon's--"Vanity, vanity, all is but a striving after wind." And, of course, at the very end there will be the dreadful realization that you have spent all of God's gifts to please yourself and sought only to diminish His glory. You have spent your useful life on the wrong side pursuing the wrong goals. Regret, shame, loss, abandoment, condemnation, judgment and despair are what I fear for you, and the reason I point you to Christ.

  17. Once upon a time, a father left presents for his two daughters, whom he knew very well. To the first, who valued more than anything the feeling of being loved, he gave an empty box, nicely wrapped with colorful wrapping paper and a big red ribbon with a card. To the second, who loved puzzles, he gave a simple unmarked crate, in which there was an elaborate and intricate device, and no instruction manual.

    The first daughter squealed with delight upon seeing the brightly-wrapped box on the table, and immediately started to write a thank-you note. "Dear Father," it read. "Thank you for the lovely gift. It's just what I've always wanted!" As the father predicted, she could not bring herself to ruin the beautiful wrapping job, and so the gift remained immaculate and unspoiled.

    The second daughter opened her plain package. She gasped in awe at the beauty of what lay within, though she was not quite sure what it was at first. It had many complex parts, and she immediately set to work trying to make sense of it.

    "Come look at this!" she said to her sister. "Isn't this fascinating? I wonder what this part does?"

    The first sister finished writing her thank-you card before looking over, and harumpfed in disgust. "How can you be so ungrateful to our father who gave us these gifts? Do you not appreciate what he's done for us?"

    Anonymous, I do not doubt that you are grateful for what you have been given, but please don't presume to know that we were given the same gifts for the same reasons. I'm OPENING my gift, and my appreciation of it is known by myself and (if He exists) its Giver, and no one else's business. See to your own soul, and stop worrying about mine.

  18. Your "thanks for nothing" parable may be the thing you regret most if you ever come to see what you are saying. You are very proud of your appreciation of what you see, but to see it and not to thank the One who made it is a very bad thing. It presupposes a God who is a monster. I suppose it is a good thing not to believe in that one, but not to believe in the true and living God is not right. You have reduced the concept of God to something you can understand and then rejected it because you are bigger than the figment of your imagination. The proper response is humbling before a God who is infinitely bigger than we are. Someone should call you to that, lest you remain wise in your own eyes.

  19. You are missing the point of the parable. It is not to suggest that the second daughter is the more appreciative, but that the father knew both his daughters and what would truly make them happy. The first one needs to hear (and say) "I love you", and that's what the paper and ribbons mean to her. It doesn't matter what's inside the box, because she's not going to open it anyway. The present isn't nothing; it IS the wrapping, and the message that carries. It was the perfect gift for the first daughter. The second daughter, in contrast, isn't really much of a hug-person; she doesn't go in for showy displays of affection. But the elaborate puzzle in the simple package was exactly the right gift to make her happy.

    The point of the parable is that the Father loves each of his daughters for who and what they are, and knew what to give them. I don't want your present, and you don't want mine.

  20. That is a pretty good interpretation of that parable. It fits with the concept that our enjoyment is all that matters to God, and that is a widely-held perspective nowadays. But it is not true. His glory is the reason that He created all these things, and enjoying them without reference to Him is something He calls idolatry. The most important thing in any human being's life is a relationship of love and trust and thankfulness with the God Who has made him in His image. To be able to enjoy all that He has given and pride oneself in denying that He exists is a higher crime than adultery and perversion. Romans 1:21-22 speaks to this specifically. In the providence and grace of God, my pointing you to this passage could be a wake-up call. May it be so, for His glory, and for your eternal good!

  21. Idolatry! You have a radically different concept of the word if you think it refers only to enjoyment! An idol is something one WORSHIPS in place of God, not merely something one enjoys. Indeed, the very idea of "enjoying" an idol is bizarre.

    But that's just how I understand the concept of idolatry. Obviously I'm not God, so if you tell me that God considers enjoyment of anything without reference to Him as idolatry, I guess I'll have to take it up with....

    ...well, with YOU. It isn't God who says this is idolatry. It's you who purport to speak for God, to borrow divine authority for your own pronouncements. Stop it. You aren't God, and you don't get to speak for Him. You don't know the purpose I was put here for, and you don't know what does and doesn't glorify God. You have your views about all these things, and that's fine, but your views are not privileged and authoritative, and if you were half as pious as you think you are, you would not presume to speak this way.

    All of us are foolish and say foolish things, you and me included. It is the very nature of foolishness not to recognize that one is being foolish. I do not know when I speak foolishly and when I speak wisely, but I would never wish to put my foolish words in God's mouth. Why are you, who claim to believe God actually exists, so much more willing to do so?

  22. Part of the design with which we are made is that we aacknowledge and declare the greatness of the God who is. The Maker is not honored when His creatures deny His existence. We are the ones who look foolish. But it is worse than foolish,and the consequences last a long time beyond our earthly life. God has called the Christian both to declare the reality of what he has experienced and to urge others to seek the Lord, lest they perish. You may discover the error of what I say by comparing it with what is clearly written in the Bible. Speaking contrary to His word is foolishness. It is good that you acknowledge the possibility of your speaking foolishness. But you retain the authority to decide what is foolish, There is a standard by which men will be judged, and a significant part of it has been revealed in the Book our Maker gave us. It is confirmed by the One He sent to come to earth to live and die for us. Jesus' resurrection is the supreme evidence that what He came to live, to die to rise for is compelling truth. Surrender of our usurped authority is crucial. Jesus said, "If any man will come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. He that will save his life will lose it, but he that will lose his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it." Lose your life, Tom, and find it again in Christ.

  23. If you were speaking on behalf of a living, breathing person, saying that Hank likes this and Hank hates that and Hank wants me to read this book and Hank is disappointed when I don't send him a birthday card, then the fact that Hank himself might interrupt and say, "Actually, no, it's cool. I don't need birthday cards," would cause you to show a little more care in making such pronouncements. Now, I realize you believe that God is every bit as much a living, breathing person as any of us, but even you must acknowledge that He doesn't generally pop by personally to set the record straight when His views are misrepresented. Yet because you believe so completely in His existence, you take the fact that He hasn't smacked you upside the head for spouting foolishness in His name as evidence that you're on the right track.

    Maybe God really DOES endorse what you say, but when I see countless other people claiming to speak on God's behalf and contradicting one another and you as well, and God never steps in to correct any of them, I conclude that it's possible to speak very wrongly and very confidently about what God really wants. So maybe I don't know what God wants, but I see no reason whatsoever to believe that you do.

  24. But you can bring God Himself into the equation. Come to Him and ask Him to show you. The blind man cannot be argued into sight, but if there is someone who can give him sight, he can go to that person and ask for help. You can ask God for help. He is able to show you in such a way that you will then be able to sort out all the conflicting views. You are trying to do something that cannot be done apart from help from the Holy Spirit. So ask Him to help you.

  25. In short, then, you're claiming to speak with divine guidance. The Holy Spirit has helped you to avoid error in all your pronouncements.

    You still miss this crucial link. It's not the Holy Spirit I'm disputing here. It's your claim to be guided by it. I see you as mistaken and deluded, and unwilling or unable to reflect upon your error, because you misattribute your thoughts to God whom you feel obliged not to question. Occasionally you make noises about being humble before God, but you do not appear to know where to draw the boundary between what God says and what YOU say.

    What I am trying to do is come to terms with my finitude and my capacity for error. If there is a Holy Spirit, I take it to be the essence of Truth, of Absolute Reality, and I strive after its guidance with earnest humility. As I try to understand how bees communicate and evolve, I am always trying to hear and correctly interpret the voice of this Holy Spirit. But it never gives me a certain absolute answer, and I am resigned to live with my doubts.

  26. The Holy Spirit is a person. You cannot know a person by figuring them out as an abstract idea. You meet them, get to know them, relate to them, learn to like them, and become friends with them. God concdescending to become that to His creature, Man, is the astonishing message of the gospel. Than such an One should take our sins upon Himself and pay our penalty is a reality that goes on astonishing. You can't treat persons like things and hope to know them. You end up only knowing yourself, and not understanding what you know. Jesus says, "Come to Me."