Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sphexy Beast...

I know, there are digger wasps and there are digger wasps, and surely you're not the kind that gets made a fool of by deep thinkers like Drs. Dennett and Hofstadter. Or are you?

The North American Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) is a cosmopolitan predator that stings and paralyzes prey insects. Sphex is a robust sphecid, frequent on flowers and very active. Head and thorax have golden hair. Abdomen black with orange/red on first segment. When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp builds a burrow and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. The eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket. To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness, until more details are examined.

For example, the Wasp's routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inchies while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and re-enter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated forty times, always with the same result.

Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter dubbed this "hidden" robotic behavior as Sphexishness, and they freaked lots of people out in the 60's, causing them to think that perhaps all of these desires and perceptions of free will were just an elaborate ruse - that, in fact, we too were sphexy beasts inhabiting a system where no one ever moves our cricket so as to keep the illusion of free will alive. (Sly hobgoblins rule the universe!)... Actually, these philosophers were saying quite the opposite, that people are much more complex than Sphex, and that we have the ability to spot futile behavior. Of course, most people were too busy exhibiting futile behavior to pick up on this...


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