For centuries, philosophers pondered over the origin of consciousness, and whether or not the capacity for objectivite thought and self-awareness is shared by other animals. Evolutionary biologists typically refer to primate evolution in order to trace the development of consciousness with some degree of accuracy. Considering that humans, as well as their close hominid ancestors, are relatively new additions to the animal kingdom, it is generally believed that consciousness emerged relatively late over the course of evolutionary history. However, current research suggests that consciousness may have found it roots in some of earth’s earliest social animals. The first socially oriented animals to emerge on the planet came in the form of insects, like termites, ants and bees. One group of researchers believe that the social behavior of bees demonstrates their capacity for conscious experience. This research is groundbreaking, as it pushes the evolutionary origins of consciousness back 100 million years, or even as far back as the Cambrian era, around 500 million years ago.
Unlike non-social insects, bees have the ability to coordinate complicated group activities in order to survive as a colony. According to the American zoologist and one of the researchers on the recent study, Donald Griffin, these group activities represent one of the earliest expressions of consciously oriented behavior in animals. When foraging, bees must respond properly to the particular social cues demonstrated by their fellow colony members in order to properly contribute to the foraging effort. This shows that bees learn, comprehend and make use of a sort of language. For example, many honey bee species perform different dancing routines in order to communicate the precise location of food sources. Experiments that entailed the computer imaging of the brain and nervous system of bees showed that they are able to spontaneously know how to act after visually witnessing a particular dance. This is notable, as other social insect species, like termites, perform complicated social duties in a more mechanized fashion that is dependent on pheromone signalling. However, the signalling mechanism that prompts bees into performing certain social acts cannot be readily observed as entities, as pheromones can be; instead, bees are making decisions consciously in order to coordinate group activities that promote the health of their colony.
Do you believe that bees are capable of some semblance of conscious awareness?