Finalist #14 In The Book Review Contest (cw: insect pics)
Some people really really don't like seeing images of spiders, and so I would recommend hiding it behind a like, spoiler tag. Or, if that's not possible, remove it and just have a link to it.
I'm sorry but it just can't be helped; it's just got to be said: To bee or not to bee? That is the question.
> Does that mean bees feel emotions? If they feel emotions, would that mean bees have conscious states?
I see no reason to doubt that bees feel emotions and are conscious. Obviously, I can't prove that, but I can't prove that about my fellow humans, either. It simply seems to be the best explanation.
Consciousness is orthogonal to intelligence, which I would measure operationally.
I loved this. Is that rational?
I always thought that before we try emulating human intelligence, we should try studying and emulating insects. They are far, far simpler (and hence potentially easier to understand and emulate than higher animals) but still capable of astonishingly complex behavior. And in many practical applications insect intelligence would be more than sufficient. Think of self driving cars or autonomous delivery systems: putting an equivalent of a bee brain to steer your car would be amazing.
I know a colony of mrówki (Polish ants) that are in fact quite intelligent. We share information during the months in which the mrówki are active.
I have often wondered about alien life. If we ever met one, would we recognize a space alien as "intelligent" or even as alive st all?
I realize this isn't a problem for everyone, but the style of this was very distracting. I could practically feel the unnecessary unrelated meme pics every third paragraph break. And the unexpected spider prominently on display immediately when loading the page, while relevant I guess, didn't exactly give me a warm fuzzy feeling to start reading with.
What is it like to bee?
I have read several of the great bee books (like Honeybee Democracy), and the topic gets better and more remarkable as one moves along. Thank you for this review. I loved it. I suspect that most readers will stop in the middle, but for those who continue, the end material is the best of all.
You left out the fact that the scientific study of bees is called "melittology".
"There is no such book for humans because chapter 37 will be blank."
So, if we or any entity ever learns to predict humans in this way, our entire species ceases to have ever been conscious?
Hard to ask if things are conscious when no one can define consciousness in a coherent purely materialist way. Just like free will, people hallucinate that there must be consciousness as a result of the instinct to reify the nonexistent center of a cluster of correlated factors described by words. But there's nothing at the center of the meaning cloud the word "consciousness" points to, just a blank space at the weighted average center point of n-dimensional space where the subconcepts we associate with consciousness cluster around. The question is meaningless because the concept being asked about is incoherent.
Still, I'd read a book about bee neurology, seems like a cool topic of study. The review was written in a funny and punchy way, although there were times I was confused about exactly what the book was claiming or what had happened in one experiment or another. I wanted a deeper exploration of e.g. wtf is going on with bee dances, and whether/why they don't matter?
There seems to be an endnote that doesn't link to anything. François2
Great! I bought the book. Thank you. I loved all of it. (and got to learn several new words)
Oh and Humblebees, this is so pooh bear (A.A. Milne) that I'm calling them that from now on... bring back humblebee!
How well do the "bee intelligence" studies replicate? Any researcher of "bee intelligence" would be _highly_ motivated to find patterns that don't actually exist and ascribe higher level of intelligence to bees, because their own career depends on it.
It's kind of like that story about chimpanzees learning sign language, where there was a famous study showing that they can supposedly learn dozens of signs, but it failed to replicate. So by default I'd assume that the book is sorta bogus.
I thought I knew a thing or two about bees, but there was a lot of new stuff for me in this review. So thanks for that!
Regarding bees in space -- "The bees got rid of the slight angle downwards - there’s no gravity in space, and thus no need for the angle." -- Surely a bigger reason is that there is no 'down' in space so they couldn't build downwards even if they wanted to just for fun.
And last but not least: the parallels between the bees' honeycomb building behavior as described in the review and the way that bioelectric fields control morphogenesis in multicellular organisms (see Michael Levin et al, and/or videos such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5VI0u5_12k ) are striking! I suspect that there's some very interesting work that might be done in this area!
I loved the joky style. It gave my younger son another reason to be interested in biology as a career: the chance that you might spend your days in the lab making robot spiders fight bumblebees.
Erik Hoel, is that you? Excellent review; best so far.
The hexagonal shape is highly useful, but bees may "just" build them round and then physics take over: the wax gets cooler and snaps into form. As in lava-stones: https://www.geologyin.com/2015/10/mystery-solved-how-these-rocks-got.html
A quick (relatively) and fun (absolutely) read. I liked the overall tone. I have two main criticisms.
First, it didn't make its thesis clear. I think it was using a book about bee intelligence as a springboard for considering AI consciousness. But it lacked enough discussion of what "intelligence" and "consciousness" are, and especially the sorts of entities that they can apply to. (Are individual bees intelligent, or is their intelligent behavior the result of interactions as a hive, and is therefore the hive the source of "intelligence"? And what does that say about humans and tribes and cities and civilizations and the Internet? And about AIs?) The mention of "consciousness" without an attempt at a definition particular bugs me, although that may just be a pet peeve.
Second, the humor interfered with the content. I liked the humor, as humor, and while I think the amount was on the high side, on reflection it seems within tolerances, and it wasn't the amount itself that caused problems. Rather, the problem was the times where there was a paragraph that seemed to be leading to a point, and then the last sentence or two was a joke, and then the next paragraph moved on and picked up a new thread as if the point had been made. Leaving me wondering where it was going, and creating a disjointed feeling throughout the review. And maybe I'm sensitive to this because I suspect I do too much of it myself, and so I'm, well, not strictly hypocritical, but close enough. If I weren't trying to write mini-reviews of all the reviews to aid in my later voting (and to try to get myself to pay more attention and think more rigorously about the subjects), I might not even mention it. But then, it did interfere with my comprehension, so.
I'm not entirely sure what the book was about, other than lots of anecdotes about bee brains and the cool things they can do. There are some pop-sci type books that are basically a survey of a field at a point in time, and maybe this is one. Maybe the author wasn't trying to force a message onto data that is as yet too incomplete to sustain the load. That'd be nice, for a change.
Overall, it put me in mind of a long article that I recently read, about the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) and how it was forming trans-continental ethno-nationalist super-colonies.
"You know squirrels bury nuts so they can dig them up later. Well, some people did a very cruel experiment. They put a squirrel, given some nuts or something (I don’t know how they set up the experiment), on a concrete floor. The squirrel did exactly the same behavior with its hind legs with the nuts and put the nuts there and so on. Even though it was having no effect whatsoever. We see the point of scrabbling with your hind legs and then nudging the nuts over there and so on, but it doesn’t. It’s just a program being enacted by its genes."
"You know humans reproduce sexually so they can pass on their genes. Well some alien scientists did a very cruel experiment. They put a human (who wanted to have sex) in front of some fake images of an attractive partner. The human did exactly the same behaviour -- looking at the images, getting aroused and so on. Even though it was having no effect whatsoever. We see the point of sexual arousal and so on, but it doesn’t. It’s just a program being enacted by its genes."
My point is, I don't think we have a leg to stand on. Lots of our behaviour comes from evolution just programming vague 'drives' into us, which we then turn to our own ends. Even if squirrels just act out 'burying nuts' on a concrete floor, that doesn't mean they are mindless. Maybe their little squirrel minds just get a kick out of scrabbling at the floor and placing a nut there, and they are acting perfectly rationally given the drive that evolution has installed. Yes, it's not actually achieving the goal, but nor are we when we look at porn, eat junk food, etc. Are we mindless?
Found the numerous stretched attempts at wordplay humour to be...well...a buzzkill, distacting from the actual content of the review. Which wasn't the easiest juice squeeze, either; I kept wavering between thinking the central theme was cognition in bees specifically, or the meta-question of how to define consciousness writ large, as illustrated by bees. (And how much of each was book vs. review-of-book.) Arbitrary-seeming anecdotes and tangents further undermine focus, such as the overdetermined obligatory what the refrance to AI. Also feels like there's a missing paragraph(s) or something, the ending is just kinda abrupt.
I dunno, it mostly just felt like reading a draft in need of further editing. Potentially good material that could be tightened up into a solid review, probably.
"Note that there are lessons for specialisation and other forms of social organisation here - if you are more sensitive to noxious smells, you spend more time fanning, and you get better at it. This may cement differences in job allocation. Small differences in preference become permanent differences between individuals. This sort of thing probably happens in humans - ..."
This strikes me as super interesting. I am currently reading the WEIRD-book, and there is a very similar passage in the development of the Big 5 personality traits, which are seemingly only found in actually WEIRD or WEIRD-like populations. In more "primitive" tribes, where people are generalists, the Big 5 do not emerge at all. Instead fewer, down to even just two traits are detectable, and they don't necessarily line up with any Big5.
Expressed differently: Big5 intercorrelations are a spectrum, and the WEIRD populations have the clearest distinction between them. The resulting individual specialisation is supposed to be one of the major factors of success of The West, enabled in the first place by a social order that does not rely anymore on kinship relations. Instead, people are encouraged to specialize and partake in voluntary associations of their own choosing, competing in smaller groups or even just for themselves.
I want to chime in that I liked the jokes. I am often too serious myself and therefore I appreciate it very much when others author introduces some victimless shenanigans. For me, those jokes are independent of the content quality. Who doesn't like puns anyway?
> whether they become pollen or nectar foragers
I thought the bees themselves only wanted the nectar, and that pollen was an incidental the flowers stuck on them after attracting them with nectar.
Nice review! I actually gave a speech on this recently. In Chittka’s lab, a study was done to try and see if bees would play with small wooden balls when there was seemingly no real incentive to do so, and it was found that they did, which I think is another point for consciousness/emotion. Of course, there’s always the conversation of “was this really play” and whatnot, but the researchers I’d say justify it pretty well. I’m glad to see the topic getting some attention here!
This was an interesting, fun and informative read. Kudos to the writer!
Re: "Bees exist in that great hinterland of consciousness"
Also plants, somewhat:
Bees exist in that great hinterland of consciousness, Your brain is not the root of cognition.
--Nautilus, March 7, 2023
Also there's a book "The Hidden Life of Trees" which Tim Urban is reading per Twitter.
Based on the one following quote I recommend it(and could someone review as I am backlogged). : )
“If a tree falls in the forest there are other trees listening.”
The squirrel study is the German paper 'Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenaues 1963. "Angeborenes und Erworbenes im Verhalten einiger Säuger". _Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie_, volume 20, pg705-754' https://gwern.net/doc/psychology/animal/1963-eibleibesfeldt.pdf
I found it by the obvious Google Scholar search of "squirrel burying instinct experiment concrete floor", where the 6th hit (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4899-4656-0_12) has the highlighted excerpt "the squirrels were capable of 'burying' a nut on the bare floor in the"; while not specifying 'concrete', this is clearly very relevant, and looking at it in Libgen, it is clearly the relevant research, and the date is correct for Deutsch to be very distantly recalling it. It cites 'Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1963', which gave me conniptions as nothing whatsoever was mentioning it and the one other citation simply failed to actually give a reference for what 'Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1963' *was* and even the E-E GS profile wasn't turning up anything relevant for '1963', until I went back to the original hit and specifically downloaded its endnote/reference section and realized that there was nothing in GS because it was a *German-language* paper. I can't read German, but the paper does have photos of squirrels & nuts, so I assume it's the right one.
1) A large fraction of these bee experiments won't replicate. Some of the bee stories always struck me as unlikely wishful thinking by researchers doing poor quality work.
2) The tool use video doesn't show the bee pulling the rope; to me, it looks like the bee is attempting to climb the flower under the glass, and doesn't realize the effect is pulling the flower. You can see the bee desperately trying to reach under the glass instead of stepping back and pulling the rope as a human would.
3) Brain waves correlate to the brain being active, not to consciousness. Nobody doubts bees have a brain.
It's very interesting to understand what bees can and cannot do, what they can and cannot learn. But whenever I read about it, I get the strong sense that the source I'm reading is biased in the bees' favor. Does the book report examples of trivial-sounding things bees cannot do? Those must exist, right? Why do sources never report them?
(For example, I once read an assessment of Terence Tao's mathematical abilities at age 8. The person assessing was very impressed and gave examples of what Tao could do at that age. But importantly, he also gave a couple of examples of easy-ish things Tao could NOT do at that age -- and that made it seem a lot more trustworthy. I want the analogous thing for bees.)
Your last question suggests to me that you are Irish. Or, rather, I ID the construction, "Riddle me this." as a very Irish rhetorical device indeed:
"Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’"
- Seamus Heaney, "A Casualty"
So. Am I far from the mark or no?
Hands down my favorite review thus far. A stronger contender may yet emerge from those as yet unposted but otherwise I've found my vote.
I greatly enjoyed this review, and absolutely loved the puns and humor. I may very well end up voting for this one!
CW for crab spider was very justified.
I really loved all the puns
Re: waggle dance, bee differences and the false certainty of Big Data
"the 2008 financial crisis arose after people placed unquestioning faith in mathematically neat models of an artificially simple reality. Big data carries with it the promise of certainty, but in truth it usually provides a huge amount of information about a narrow field of knowledge.
There is a parallel in the behaviour of bees, which do not make the most of the system they have evolved to collect nectar and pollen. Although they have an efficient way of communicating about the direction of reliable food sources, the waggle dance, a significant proportion of the hive seems to ignore it altogether and journeys off at random. In the short term, the hive would be better off if all bees slavishly followed the waggle dance, and for a time this random behaviour baffled scientists, who wondered why 20 million years of bee evolution had not enforced a greater level of behavioural compliance. However, what they discovered was fascinating: without these rogue bees, the hive would get stuck in what complexity theorists call ‘a local maximum’; they would be so efficient at collecting food from known sources that, once these existing sources of food dried up, they wouldn’t know where to go next and the hive would starve to death. So the rogue bees are, in a sense, the hive’s research and development function, and their inefficiency pays off handsomely when they discover a fresh source of food. It is precisely because they do not concentrate exclusively on short-term efficiency that bees have survived so many million years.”
--Rory Sutherland, Alchemy, 2021
I didn't see the relevance of Molyneux's problem, which is about blind humans who just became sighted. I imagine *sighted* humans can feel something and then recognize it. Locke's point (and Molyneux's) was that newly sighted humans haven't yet learned to associate the two senses adequately.
To be relevant, one would have to run the test with bees that had until recently been blind their whole lives, which I imagine would be hard for reasons similar to why it's hard in humans.
I question whether bees are ineffective waggle dance communicators outside of Asia(where they evolved). If they can adapt to zero gravity and get work done why not a different terrestrial environment? I realize this comparison may be apples and oranges but given what we know Bees can do...
Funny review :) I come away with the impression that we've done many interesting tests on bees, and it's not the lack of tests that's the problem, but the lack of understanding of what 'consciousness' even is, and how we should test for it. Maybe it isn't even a coherent concept?
Look forward to reading more from this author when the names are revealed!
The discussion of how it's hard to show an animal can't do something reminds me a lot of LLMs
That bit about squirrels reminds me of the sphex wasps:
"The standard story has it that the female Sphex wasp will paralyze a cricket, take it to her burrow, go in to check that all is well and then come back out to drag the cricket in. So far that might sound pretty intelligent. However, if an experimenter moves the cricket a few inches while the wasp is inside, then when she emerges she will move the cricket back into place in front of the burrow and go in to check again rather than just take the cricket in directly. And she will (again, so the standard story goes) repeat this ritual over and over if the experimenter keeps moving the cricket."
FWIW, I liked the humorous style and this is my favorite so far, although I agree that the jokes were on the high side and there were some I didn't get (e.g. Therabee and Francoise2). I also had no problem with the spider image. I was surprised to learn that so many people here can't stand looking at spider photos, since that would have never occurred to me as a problem.
Bought the book before I finished reading the intro, excellent book review
Hm. The types of qualitative analysis I am familiar with are methods of assessing text or behavior. What I am talking about are my own introspective experiences when I am in the presence of my wife. I suppose I could make videos of my behavior toward my wife and subject that to analysis, but I am not sure that would allow me or anyone else to meaningfully describe my emotions any better than I do just by feeling them.
Similarly for the color orange. You are familiar with the mental experiment involving someone who has never seen color collecting all the objective evidence they can about what color is?
Amazing writeup if pun-ishing.
The complexity in actual behavior exhibited by bees - in reaction to people being dicks - shows just how much capability that evolution has built even for the humble bee. To think that this level of complexity can be replicated from conception to design to training set to execution, then evaluated over millions of generations reproducing in a wide variety of environments with the most brutal and objective testing imaginable - reality - just shows how naive the AGI folks predicting success in a mere decade (or ten) are.
The writing style did throw me off. The topic is extremely interesting to me, I expected reading about what the book conveys on it. The prose really threw me off. I had to re-read at a couple of spots to leave out the joke and figure out what you are actually saying. IMO, it comes off as trying too hard to write like Scott does. I imagine a ChatGPT writing prompt of " Write a review for this book in the style of Scott Alexander incorporating jokes in the prose for which he is famous for "
FWIW, I got sufficiently frustrated to actually go read the book instead of finishing the review.
(The spider is kinda cute, loved it)
Happy to have learned more things about bees, and when the authors are revealed I'd like to know if there's a blog where I can read more article by this person.
For people wanting even more fun facts about bees: female bees have twice as many chromosomes as male bees (haplodiploidy).
This one just buzzes from pun to pun. I have half a mind to record an audio version for fun.
A very interesting and informative review, but also incredibly annoying. So many things could have been deleted to make the review better. To sum up, the reviewer should have avoided facetiousness, puns, supposedly clever remarks, and irrelevant references. Here are some things that should not have been there:
"I remember when I was randomly attacked by robotic crab spiders for a day, and I didn’t enjoy it much. The bees shared my opinion.
So I suppose we owe a small debt to that nasty parasite, and also to Nosema.
... if they spend enough time on Duolingo ...
If you’re planning on moving your bee colony to Thailand, have them brush up on their cha-cha-cha. But sadly, the hallowed bee dances in old Bavarian halls have basically no function.
I remember friends at school who displayed a similar ability before they were about to enter an exam hall.
... or a Mexican wave.
Here’s a ridiculous diagram of this [delete 'ridiculous'; it's a fine diagram]"