Masters of their fates?

Sentience is the present participle of the Latin verb sentire –‘to feel’- but what is it? What does it imply? Consciousness? Thought? Or merely some form of awareness of the surroundings, however indistinct and vague? Is avoidance of a noxious stimulus enough to establish sentience, or does it have to involve an understanding that it is harmful?

How about pain itself, then? What kind of a nervous system can feel pain -not just avoid damage, you understand, but feel it? Because surely feeling pain assumes some sort of an I who perceives it as pain rather than simply moves away reflexively… Are we back to consciousness again?

I suppose it’s easy to posit sentience in something like a dog, or a wary squirrel in whose eyes one can easily see that there is something/someone behind them looking out at the world. It’s more difficult as you move down the phylogenetic chain (if one even can, or should, assign direction or rank to changing phyla): easier with, say, lizards or crocodiles; more difficult with flies and mosquitoes; and impossible -for me, at least- with, oh, tapeworms or amoebae and their ilk.

Yes, and then there are the plants which react to stimuli, often in a purposive fashion -what do we do with them? What constitutes a feeling of pain -especially since they do not have what most of us would consider a nervous system (although their root structures and associated symbiotic fungal networks might qualify). Do plants feel some sort of proto-pain -and if they do, so what? The buck, if I may be allowed to paraphrase the sign on the previous American president Harry Truman’s desk, has to stop somewhere

So where do we draw the line with sentience? Is it entirely subjective (ours, at any rate)? Should it be confined to those things we would not think of stepping on or swatting? Or is it enough to be alive to merit consideration -different from a rock, for example?

I don’t know why I worry about such things, but I obviously do -especially when I come across essays like the one in Aeon written by Brandon Keim. https://aeon.co/essays/do-cyborg-cockroaches-dream-of-electric-trash

It was entitled I, cockroach, and delved into whether insects felt pain, or were conscious. The question occurred to him after reading about Backyard Brains, ‘a Kickstarter-funded neuroscience education company.’ The company’s flagship product is apparently RoboRoach, a ‘bundle of Bluetooth signal-processing microelectronics that’s glued to the back of a living cockroach and wired into the stumps of its cut-off antennae. Cockroaches use their antennae to detect objects; they react to electrical pulses sent through these nerves as though they have bumped into something, allowing children to remote‑control them with smartphones.’

I have to admit that I am appalled at this -although I suppose I would think little of swatting a cockroach crawling across the kitchen floor. The difference, I suspect, is somewhat akin to what Keim discusses: using a living creature as a tool in what might be -for the cockroach, at any rate- similar to some higher being wiring us up for whatever questionable purpose to change and study our behaviour and -who knows?- maybe change our reality. It’s hard not to sound overly anthropomorphic in describing my feelings about this, but there you have it.

‘A note on the company’s website does reassure customers that, though it’s unknown if insects feel pain, anaesthesia is used during procedures on cockroaches, and also on earthworms and grasshoppers involved in other experiments.’ But as I’ve already mentioned, and as Keim discusses, ‘You can’t experience pain unless there’s a you — a sense of self, an interior dialogue beyond the interplay of stimulus and involuntary response, elevating mechanics to consciousness. [And] such sentience is quite unlikely in a bug, says Backyard Brains.’ Really?

Even the likes of Darwin wondered about cognitive states in ‘lower’ creatures. In his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881), he describes in great detail ‘how earthworms plug the entrance to their burrows with precisely chosen and arranged leaf fragments, and how instinct alone doesn’t plausibly explain that. ‘One alternative alone is left, namely, that worms, although standing low in the scale of organisation, possess some degree of intelligence.’

And no, as the more observant of my readers will no doubt have noted, worms are not cockroaches. Then how about honey bees as insect stand-ins for roaches? How about their waggle dances: ‘the complicated sequence of gestures by which honeybees convey the location and quality of food to hive-mates’? As Keim notes, ‘scientists have assembled a portrait of extraordinary cognitive richness, so rich that honeybees now serve as model organisms for understanding the neurobiology of basic cognition. Honeybees have a sense of time and of space; they have both short- and long-term memories. These memories combine sight and smell, and are available to bees independent of their immediate environments. In other words, they have internal representations of their worlds. They can learn to recognise patterns, and also concepts: above and below, same or different. They have simple emotions and beliefs, and apply those memories and concepts to their decisions. They likely recognise individuals.’

In fact, ‘Cognition is only one facet of mental activity, and not a stand-in for rich inner experience, but underlying honeybee cognition is [a] small but sophisticated brain, with structures that effectively perform similar functions as the mammalian cortex and thalamus — systems considered fundamental to human consciousness.’

I don’t want to take this too far. Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, in his 1974 essay What is it like to be a bat? argued that ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.” (A fascinating paper, by the way, and well worth the read). But, coming back to cockroaches, as Keim writes, ‘The nature of their consciousness is difficult to ascertain, but we can at least imagine that it feels like something to be a bee or a cockroach or a cricket. That something is intertwined with their life histories, modes of perception, and neurological organisation’ -however impoverished that something might seem in comparison to our own perceptions. Indeed, maybe it would be something like our state of awareness in doing ‘mindless’ tasks like walking down stairs, or picking up a cup of coffee -both purposive, and yet likely unremarked consciously…

There’s even some evidence that cockroaches have a richer social life than most of us might have imagined. According to ethologist Mathieu Lihoreau in his 2012 article for the journal Insectes Sociaux, ‘one can think of them as living in herds. Groups decide collectively on where to feed and shelter, and there’s evidence of sophisticated communication, via chemical signals rather than dances. When kept in isolation, individual roaches develop behavioural disorders; they possess rich spatial memories, which they use to navigate; and they might even recognise group members on an individual basis.’

Maybe the famous English biologist J.B.S. Haldane got it right when, in 1927, he wrote that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose’. Then again, I suspect we tend to view things as peculiar or even alien if we feel no connection to them -feel that, as humans, we are not really a part of their world. But remember the words of Gloucester as he stumbles around the moor after being blinded by Regan and Cornwall in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport‘.

Who’s world are we in, exactly…?

A thousand times goodnight

Am I working against the grain? Or is it just that I’m getting older? Unable to assimilate new situations quickly enough to form a useful opinion? I’d rather think of it as the wisdom of Age, but, of course, I would think that, wouldn’t I? And yet, the realization that first impressions are often premature impressions is something only acquired through experience, I suppose, because it’s difficult to shed the initial suspicion that you may have discovered something really important.

I’m pretty sure I have never formed friends like that -friendship (as opposed to acquaintanceship) is acquired slowly, and over time. And as to something akin to ‘love at first sight’, I can only say that for those kinds of feelings to last -at least on my part- they have to be reciprocated. That, too, takes time. ‘Attraction at first sight’ is another thing altogether, though -it is more superficial, and probably less demanding. Love is a deep -dare I say, spiritual– thing, whereas I think attraction sits more tenuously on the rather slippery surface of our attention.

Still, I recognize that as the years slowly thicken around me, they may have dampened the restless partner-seeking vibrissae to which younger, thinner skin is so exposed. I’m not sure that I am completely disqualified, but at least my muffled needs have allowed me time to reflect before deciding -to breathe, before seeking to envelop…

And yet, I remain curious, if not vicariously attracted to the issue of first impressions, so I just had to read the BBC story that promised to unwrap it like a bedtime story from long ago: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190401-is-there-such-a-thing-as-love-at-first-sight

In an essay for BBC by William Park, he writes that ‘There is evidence that we are able to make an assessment of someone’s attractiveness in the blink of an eye, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those assessments are accurate… It takes less than 1/10th of a second to form an assessment of someone’s face. These first impressions predict all kinds of important characteristics, not just attractiveness.’ And, ‘These impressions we make in a split second are not random; they tend to be shared by the majority of the people surveyed. But it doesn’t necessarily make them correct. “A first impression could be misleading,” says professor Alexander Todorov [an academic at Princeton University]… “We only make first impressions about strangers. So naturally they are superficial.”’

‘Whether our predictions are accurate or not, we make them quickly and we stick to them. Even if we are given more time than 1/10th of a second to judge the attractiveness of a face, we are unlikely to arrive at a different conclusion… There are three universal qualities that people infer from a face: attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Attractiveness is a mating cue, trustworthiness implies useful social characteristics, like being able to care for children, and assessing dominance is useful to avoid conflict.’

So far, so good, I suppose -if a bit reductionist. But the essay goes on to suggest that we prejudge facial photos using the same categories and ‘portraits taken from a low angle are more likely to be judged as dominant, which is positive for men and negative for women. Whereas the reverse is seen in portraits taken from a high angle.’ -so, my first clue as to what kind of picture to put on a dating site, I guess. But there is a catch: ‘In dating apps, it is a case of love at second sight. When asked to rate the attractiveness of potential partners, if the preceding face was attractive you are more likely to rate the next face as attractive and vice versa.’

Well, that confirms my suspicion that online first impressions are such stuff as dreams are made on. ‘First impressions are rapid but shallow and mutable if you have better information.’ You have to talk to somebody, engage with them to sustain something more than a passing interest. And then, of course, it is no longer a ‘first’ impression. But, I’m only reiterating what Todorov  believes: ‘“The only way to tell whether two people will really like each other – they have to talk. People don’t make good predictions for compatibility without talking,” says Professor Todorov.’

Uhmm… I have to say that I began to lose interest at that point. I began to wonder, as I pointed out earlier, whether the essay was more about attraction, than love. It’s easy to get them mixed up in the soup of hormones in which we swim. In many ways, the article was a ‘how to’ for the young and restless. I was more intrigued by something  Park points out in the dying embers of his article when he quotes a professor of psychology from California State University, Los Angeles, Karen Wu. ‘Wu studies dating behaviours in Asian-American communities who put a different emphasis on certain values… “Western cultures value individual goals more than group goals. Collectivistic cultures might value niceness more because you’re interested in group benefits rather than individual benefits.”

In other words, ‘Considering this, it is a miracle that we ever find someone who is as attracted to us as we are to them. The conversation your potential partner had directly before meeting you, their general mood, their cultural background, the angle at which they are looking at you, whether they deem themselves to be more popular than you – all these factors could influence whether you hit it off seems endless.’

So, is it any wonder that Age seems like a vacation at the cottage? No compulsion to drive somewhere, and then get up the next day and drive someplace else. No need to worry about the angle from which you take your selfies, or whether the next individual who wanders past is judging you by the standards of the person with whom they last talked.

These all seem like minor things in the bigger picture, and yet they loom large in the quest for partnership, I suppose. Attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance -is that what we’re expected -okay, designed– to glean from the first glance without even needing to break the ice with a smile or a kind word? Biologic atavisms, if you ask me… although I am seldom canvassed for that kind of opinion anymore. I’m not sure why.