I heard it on NPR, so it must be true: scientists trained bees to play a golf-like game in which the bee pushed a ball into a little hole in order to get a sugar-water reward. The trained bees then demonstrated before novice bees, who not only learned from them but quickly figured out ways to put the ball in the hole more efficiently than the trained bees.
Half a century ago Jane Goodall showed that chimpanzees used twigs to get tasty termites out of their mounds. Instances of tool use further “down” the evolutionary scale, among monkeys, birds, and even octopuses, soon followed.
One by one, the flags that once marked us as unique are going up in flames as animal behaviorists show that, when given appropriate tools such as computers, certain primates can use language, albeit in a rudimentary way. And if you paint a dot on the face of a monkey, an elephant, a dolphin, a magpie, or even an ant, and then stand them in front of a mirror, they will touch the paint spot, thus demonstrating a kind of self-awareness.
And now bees, despite their tiny brains, have shown that they can readily learn, and improve on, behaviors that in the wild are totally outside their repertoire.What are we supposed to do with all this information? Fret and feel guilty, obviously.
I can’t spray soapy water on the ants on my kitchen counter without feeling like some vengeful deity massacring innocent beings. And what about my nemesis, those mouse-sized, appalling wolf spiders that come into my warm house in the fall, hoping in their little spider hearts that this year I’ll let them hang out in a corner of the mud room? Am I a monster for going after them with a broom?
How can I justify anything but the strictest veganism when I know that eating eggs (even ones from free-range hens) and dairy is predicated on the sacrifice of male chickens and calves? Yet even vegans must think twice before sitting down to dinner, now that it has been revealed that trees communicate with each other, warning of dangers such as invasive insects. Mother trees, bless their hearts, do their best to protect and nourish their little saplings. If trees are sentient, what about other plants? How does a lettuce feel as it is yanked out of its native soil?
I don’t know where this will end, and perhaps some human-made disaster will close this chapter in the development of our consciousness. But one outcome is that, albeit slowly, our treatment of animals is improving.
Many years ago, before the advent of PETA, I worked for a few months in a respected laboratory where, with the goal of curing cancer, thousands of mice, hamsters, and rats were subjected to great suffering. Today those conditions would be unthinkable, and a place like that would be closed down.
Every spring, in Vermont, when the moon is in a certain phase and the salamanders march to their breeding grounds, hundreds of people spend the night at designated spots on country roads, acting as crossing guards for the amphibians.
Not so long ago, in both rich and poor neighborhoods , dogs and cats used to run loose, breeding, fighting, and getting run over. Leash laws and spay/neuter programs have rendered the lifestyle of our pets far less “natural” than in the old days, but as a result they live longer, healthier lives. It used to be that you never heard of a cat living into her late teens, but I now personally know of several.
Not a moment too soon, we humans are beginning to abandon our cherished spot at the top of the evolutionary scale. As science demonstrates that sentience and cognition are more widely distributed than we ever imagined, the great chain of being is morphing into a circle, a dance that Brother Wolf and Brother Rabbit (and even Sister Spider) can join in, along with us.