Bees understand the concept of 0 – I am still trying to figure it all out

My quote of the week is actually just an entire poem – I pasted it at the bottom because it is best read after digesting the fact honeybees are smarter than we are.

In one of the most interesting articles I have read in recent memory, not only can honeybee’s be taught basic arithmetic, but they can even grasp the concept of 0 on a semi-sophisticated level. According to Scarlett Howard, the scientist behind the original study, “this is the first evidence showing that an insect brain can understand the concept of zero, and has implications for our understanding of how complex number processing evolved.” I’ll explain the jist, but please read the full piece.

From their work, bees were proven to grasp the third of four increasingly complex understandings of the number (yes, number) zero. The four stages are as follows:

  1. The absence of something – this, the most basic understanding, could be demonstrated as, “this apple tree has no apples on it.”
  2. Nothingness as a behavioral category, Howard calls it. An example being darkness. Darkness is a category opposed to the “something” that is light.
  3. The third level, which honeybees managed to comprehend in a matter of hours during Howard’s study, is the numerical value of 0 – the idea that it belongs in a series of numbers (0<1<2)
  4. The last stage regards 0 as it’s used in modern calculations – 1-1=0

The article is worth the 5 minutes it takes to read. It makes me think about how we too infrequently question the minds of “beasts” and hold humanity on a pedestal of the only creatures on Earth with any sense. I got the same feeling reading about the lingual sophistication of prairie dogs or watching the wildly unsettling documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins

Our own propensity to put humans above all else tends to go unquestioned, and while obviously I am not doubting the impressiveness of sociological imagination, maybe the complexity of thought shouldn’t be the standard for what makes a species truly special. If the real winners are the survivors, alligators have us beat – or if population size is the indicator of territorial domination, we can’t even begin to compete with ants. And why shouldn’t dogs and cats take the throne if we spend so much of our lives working so that we can enjoy the last few as leisure-time, our pets spend 24-7 sleeping or playing – they use us as housemaids – and found a species willing to not only feed and clean-up after them, but to get them advanced medical care and behind the ear scratches WHENEVER needed? Why define success as the ability to think more critically than other species? It often does little more than make us question/argue/fight/murder/exterminate each other based on idealogical differences – should we consider ourselves the winners because we can destroy the planet more thoroughly than other member-species of the exclusive club of life.

Seems to me – that makes us the losers.

I’ll put Howard’s quote that sent me on that diatribe down here, I don’t want to rewrite the above to fit it in there – hopefully all 3 of you reading will forgive me. “Interestingly, while it took centuries for the concept of zero to be fully understood and utilized in human culture, honeybees have learnt to apply previous number knowledge to demonstrate an understanding of zero within a day when presented with training to promote numerical cognition.”

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I first read this poem in 6th grade English class, it wasn’t until my teacher used the word irony 600 times that I began to understand the meaning the of the poem. Further proof of the fact that maybe we humans are in fact dumb – it might also just be indication that I alone am dumb. At first read, I took this as a sad poem about how entire civilizations are lost to the sands of time (or the desert in more literal cases) not a scathing review of the human desire for power and domination over vast kingdoms and how time doesn’t seem to care about the achievements of the rich and mighty. (The biggest businesses! The best bombs!)

Look upon my blog, ye mighty, and despair! 

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