Lesson #4 from an insect – insanity
‘Tis been over 2-1/2 years since last I improved your grey matter with a staggering insect factoid. So let’s make up for lost time and cut to the chase, capisce?
(OPTIONAL BACKSTORY: for why I know things you don’t about insects, read here. If you could give two shits where I come up with this scintillating dreck, read on.)
It’s time to play……………
We begin with the oft-repeated-but-wrongly-attributed-not-quite-legal-and-ultimately-incorrect definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Yes, I enjoy the irony of that last paragraph, but seeing how we’re not prosecuting anyone—let alone anyone copping an insanity plea—this flawed-yet-generally-accepted definition will do just fine for today’s lesson.
CONTESTANT #1: the female Sphex wasp!
This sphexy arthropod, also known as a digger wasp, displays a damn cool, seemingly intelligent behavior pattern—only to have it thwarted by the simplest of ruses.
Respectfully, I’ll let Dr. Dean Woolridge, in his book The Machinery of the Brain, explain this waspy behavior pattern, so as to prevent plagiarism charges:
When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it…. 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 then 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….The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated 40 times…with the same result. (82)
40 times! Crazy, right? Some might even call it insane.
So let’s put it to the test… Does this behavior pattern fit the criteria of:
A) doing the same thing over and over again? FUCK YES
B) doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? SHIT NO
See, unlike people, insects have no expectations. Because unlike people, insects are not self-aware. Their behaviors betray a seeming lack of consciousness, no matter how outwardly thoughtful they may appear.
At our next klatch we can shoot the breeze on insect brains, but know this for now: every single insect behavior pattern, no matter how sophisticated, is genetically pre-programmed—or sphexish, as eponymously coined by Pulitzer-prizefighter Dr. Douglas Hofstadter.
Sphexishness is the inability to adapt behavior to novel circumstance. In the long run, this incapacity for rational thought serves insects beautifully (politicians, not so much). Insects are terrific at what they do, way more efficient and purposeful than humans could ever hope to be with their behaviors—if in the context of what’s right.
In their natural environments, insects’ hard-wired behaviors enable them to survive and function quite flawlessly. As for humans, let’s just say there’s this:
Of course, if placed in a setting out of context—say, in a human-infested city—insects will perform their sphexishly proficient behaviors anyway, often with less than optimal results. Exempli gratia, termites. Termites have no ulterior motives when they feed on your foyer; they’re merely carrying out their designed purpose to feed off and disintegrate dead wood, only in the alien environs of urban society.
Moths, too. Moths are neither insane nor suicidal when they kamikaze into your halogen lights and Jesus candles. They don’t need your light to see or keep warm, since they’re generally nocturnal. Rather, moths are phototropic—meaning their characteristic flight patterns are superseded by an involuntarily pull towards light. In nature, this tropism contributes to their well-being—perhaps to find an open glade at night in which to find a mate (although this tactic never seems to work for me).
Think about it. Halogen lights and candle flames are hardly nature-induced phenomena. They are human borne; if they were naturally occurring, moths would have fluttered their way into extinction ages ago.
Humans, on the other hand, are antisphexish. We have no real excuse when it comes to doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We have the capacity for rational thought. Or so it would seem.
Take CONTESTANT #2: Lindsey Lohan! Some might say this coke-jawed vixen is prison-tropic.
Or how about CONTESTANT #3: Godawful human-borne movie franchises that never should have existed in the first place, let alone over and over and over again.
Totally fucking insane.
And why do you think Vegas is so damn profitable?
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, that’s why.
Seems our much-ballyhooed antisphexishness, for all its impressiveness, has gotten in the way of our species’s survival.
Whilst I abhor the notion of eugenics entirely as a way to solve our problems (my tribesmen did endure a Holocaust due to it), you gotta admit evolution plays a marginal role—at best—in our actions.
People get so preoccupied with what we could do over and over again, that we don’t stop to think if we should.
How interesting and tragically self-destructive that human nature, on the whole, rewards and propagates monstrosity, is it not?
And all the more tragic when you consider our potential.
Annoyingly long story short, are we better than insects? I think the overwhelming short answer is hell no, not in terms of the planet’s functioning and survival.
But I’m not just some nerdy misanthrope. Of course humans are better than insects, in our minds. We have to be.
Why? Because we’re insane.