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How human are insects, and does it matter?

Lars Chittka

Queen Mary University of London, UK

In 1900, Buttel-Reepen asked whether honeybees are mere reflex machines - and emphatically denied that claim. Over the last century, we have seen a fundamental change in perspective on the learning capacities of insects, and there a now several credible lines of evidence that insects are capable of cognitive feats that had previously been ascribed only to "higher" vertebrates. Ultimately, the similarity in cognitive processing output despite huge differences in size of nervous systems might help answer the question of the minimum necessary circuitry for complex tasks such as categorisation, counting, and concept learning. Cynics might observe, however, that the simple copying of concepts from vertebrate cognitive psychology, and the finding that "insects can do it, too" generates plenty of press coverage, but is perhaps in itself neither intellectually challenging nor scientifically insightful (beyond the identification of evolutionary convergence). In fact, one might argue that some of the most exciting discoveries about unique insect behaviours would never have been made, had this approach been used throughout. Would von Frisch ever have discovered the bee "dance language" if he had deliberately set out to find a form of "language" in the animal kingdom? Probably not - and in fact the question of definition (whether this symbolic communication warrants the term "dance" or in fact a "language") is perhaps secondary to the fascination with the uniqueness of this communication system.  Rather than searching for amusing similarities with humans, it is more promising to launch into the unknown and strive for genuinely novel discoveries. This is more risky, but also potentially more rewarding.