[Excerpt] The Sphex Within You

Excerpt From: Keith Stanovitch, Robot’s Rebellion
Content Summary: 400 words, 2 min read

Consider the behavior of the digger wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus.  The female Sphex does a host of amazing things in preparation for her eggs.  

  1. After digging a burrow, she flies off looking for a cricket.
  2. When she finds one, she stings it in a way that paralyzes it but does not kill it.  
  3. She brings it back to the burrow and sets it just outside at the threshold
  4. Then she goes inside to make sure things are safe inside the burrow.  
  5. If they are, she then goes back outside and drags in the paralyzed cricket.  
  6. She then lays her eggs inside the burrow, seals it up, and flies away.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket which has not decayed because it was paralyzed rather than killed.

All of this seems to be a rather complex and impressive performance put on by the Sphex – a real exercise of animal intelligence.  It seems so, that is, until we learn that virtually every step of the wasp’s behavior was choreographed by rigid and inflexible preprogrammed responses to specific stimuli in the Sphex environment.

Consider, for example, the wasp’s pattern of putting the paralyzed cricket on the threshold of the burrow, checking the burrow, and then dragging the cricket inside.  Scientists have uncovered the rigidity of these behaviors by moving the cricket a few inches away from the threshold while the wasp is inside checking the burrow.  When she comes out, the wasp will not now drag the cricket in.  Instead, she will take the cricket to the threshold and go in again to check the burrow.  If the cricket is again moved an inch or so away from the threshold, the Sphex will again not drag the cricket inside, but will once more drag it to the threshold and for the third time go in to inspect the burrow.  Indeed, in one experiment where the investigators persisted, the wasp checked the burrow forty times and still not drag the cricket straight in.  These fixed action patterns dictated a certain sequence of behaviors triggered by a particular set of stimuli, and any deviation from this was not tolerated.

Ethologists often feel unnerved while observing insects and other lower animals: all that bustling activity, but there’s nobody home!

Let’s call this unnerving property sphexishness.  These simple, rigid routines that underpin the complexity of the surface behavior of simple creatures spawns in us a worrying thought:

What makes you sure you’re not sphexish – at least a little bit?

Modern theories of cognition all propose, in one way or another, that in fact we all are a little bit sphexish.  In fact, many of these theories, in emphasizing the pervasiveness of unconscious processing and the rarity and difficulty of analytic processing, are in effect proposing that our default mode of processing is sphexish.

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