Friday, June 15, 2018

Flatlanders Squinting At The Connectome


edge |  Because we use the word queen—the Egyptians use the word king—we have a misconception of the role of the queen in the society. The queen is usually the only reproductive in a honey bee colony. She’s specialized entirely to that reproductive role. It’s not that she’s any way directing the society; it’s more accurate to say that the behavior and activity of the queen is directed by the workers. The queen is essentially an egg-laying machine. She is fed unlimited high-protein, high-carbohydrate food by the nurse bees that tend to her. She is provided with an array of perfectly prepared cells to lay eggs in. She will lay as many eggs as she can, and the colony will raise as many of those eggs as they can in the course of the day. But the queen is not ruling the show. She only flies once in her life. She will leave the hive on a mating flight; she’ll be mated by up to twenty male bees, in the case of the honey bee, and then she stores that semen for the rest of her life. That is the role of the queen. She is the reproductive, but she is not the ruler of the colony.

Many societies have attached this sense of royalty, and I think that as much reflects that we see the order inside the honey bee society and we assume that there must be some sort of structure that maintains that order. We see this one individual who is bigger and we anthropomorphize that that somehow must be their leader. But no, there is no way that it’s appropriate to say that the queen has any leadership role in a honey bee society.

A honey bee queen would live these days two to three years, and it's getting shorter. It’s not that long ago that if you read the older books, they would report that queens would live up to seven years. We’re not seeing queens last that long now. It’s more common for queens to be replaced every two to three years. All the worker honey bees are female and the queen is female—it’s a matriarchal society.

An even more recent and exciting revolution happening now is this connectomic revolution, where we’re able to map in exquisite detail the connections of a part of the brain, and soon even an entire insect brain. It’s giving us absolute answers to questions that we would have debated even just a few years ago; for example, does the insect brain work as an integrated system? And because we now have a draft of a connectome for the full insect brain, we can absolutely answer that question. That completely changes not just the questions that we’re asking, but our capacity to answer questions. There’s a whole new generation of questions that become accessible.

When I say a connectome, what I mean is an absolute map of the neural connections in a brain. That’s not a trivial problem. It's okay at one level to, for example with a light microscope, get a sense of the structure of neurons, to reconstruct some neurons and see where they go, but knowing which neurons connect with other neurons requires another level of detail. You need electron microscopy to look at the synapses.

The main question I’m asking myself at the moment is about the nature of the animal mind, and how minds and conscious minds evolved. The perspective I’m taking on that is to try to examine the mind's mechanisms of behavior in organisms that are far simpler than ours.

I’ve got a particular focus on insects, specifically on the honey bee. For me, it remains a live question as to whether we can think of the honey bee as having any kind of mind, or if it's more appropriate to think of it as something more mechanistic, more robotic. I tend to lean towards thinking of the honey bee as being a conscious agent, certainly a cognitively effective agent. That’s the biggest question I’m exploring for myself.

There’s always been an interest in animals, natural history, and animal behavior. Insects have always had this particular point of tension because they are unusually inaccessible compared to so many other animals. When we look at things like mammals and dogs, we are so drawn to empathize with them that it tends to mask so much. When we’re looking at something like an insect, they’re doing so much, but their faces are completely expressionless and their bodies are completely alien to ours. They operate on a completely different scale. You cannot empathize or emote. It’s not immediately clear what they are, whether they’re an entity or whether they’re a mechanism.