High “cognitive competence” in strange places

Why neural complexity and behavioral bravura may not always go together

A guest essay by R. Chandrasoma


Potter Wasp

It is commonly supposed that large brains (and associated nervous systems) are the natural correlate of a behavioural repertory that impresses us with the depth of its complexity and the wonderful appropriateness of its patterns of action. It is fashionable to argue that man’s greatness is chiefly due to the large and complex brain that he has the good fortune to have as a wonderful evolutionary bequeathal. Can it be that there are puzzles and difficulties in affirming the truth of this general supposition? The Walrus (admittedly a large and beefy creature) has a brain that is almost as large as the human brain – but is not renowned for its intelligence. Indeed, some of our extinct relatives among the ‘hominins’ may have possessed brains superior in mass and complexity to our own – as it seems to be the case with that enigmatic Cro-Magnon Man that lived and died without the sound and fury that marks our presence on Planet Earth. The lowly Echidna (a Monotreme mammal) has a frontal cortex (of the brain) that is deemed by experts to approach the complexity found in our own brains. It is not illogical to suppose that high cognitive performance is a supererogatory feature of brain development and is, hence, not closely tied to the fine architecture of the nervous system. The fact that very large hominin brains inhabited the bodies of rude savages for hundreds of thousands of years is surely suggestive of the thesis that mysteries abound as to genesis of high-performing cognitive systems that appeared sporadically in the course of animal evolution. While the Vertebrate case of spectacular encephalization has attracted a great deal of attention, it is argued below that the greater mystery is how miniscule brains in the Insects acted as a functional platform for astonishing feats of complex behavior.

Let us use the term ‘cognitive performance’ to denote an estimate of the artfulness and complexity of behavior in a species seeking to achieve goals common to all life. It is an elementary observation that some kinds of animals survive and reproduce without fuss and ado while others use astonishing stratagems to do much the same thing. A chameleon capturing a fly uses greater art and resource than a gecko doing the same job. We must suppose that more ‘brain power’ is used by the chameleon – that its ‘cognitive performance’ has an excellence that surpasses that of the gecko. The point at issue – or more picturesquely, the bone of contention – is the relationship between neural organization and cognitive competence. Is it indubitably the case that high and superlative cognitive performance goes hand in hand with what may vulgarly be called expanding brains? A famous contemporary philosopher (Thomas Metzinger) remarking on the neurobiological complexity that underlies conscious subjectivity in Man has this surprising aside –

‘You could imagine animals that work like insects – just like robots that have no coherent model of the world as a whole’. While in no way impugning or looking askance at Dr Metzinger wonderful speculations on human subjectivity and conscious states in general, it appears that there are some Insects – the Eumenine wasps, in particular –that have a way ‘acting in the world’ that is as impressive as the conscious acts of such celebrated champions in the business as Homo sapiens. Let us have a brief apercu of the cognitive activity of that strangely neglected ‘engineer’ in the natural world – the Potter Wasp (Eumenes sp.).  It has to accomplish the following – build ‘piecewise’ a well-turned ‘pot’ or nest of packed clay with about six chambers within. This ‘nest’ is at least a few hundred times more massive than the Insect itself. The positioning of the ‘pot’ is quite mysterious as electrical fitting inside households are greatly favoured as the ‘anchor’ for the nest. The Wasps I observed entered houses and rooms with remarkable persistence and dodged all attempts to shoo the insects away. The ‘pot’ has well-finished internal chambers and can be best described as a complex nurturing apparatus for the progeny to be. A few words about navigational skills must be mentioned at this point. The ‘clay’ for the ‘brooding artifact’ must be obtained from a site miles away – as the ‘nest’ is in a dense urban site with clay-bearing formations nowhere is sight. The feat of navigation is most extraordinary as this insignificant flying machine has to fight its way to the nest amidst the thunder and confusion of the metropolis. How this is done is quite a mystery. That it is done repeatedly and masterfully is surely a sign that something more than ‘robotic’ or machine behaviour is involved. Let us turn to the provisioning. That a great many animals store food for future use is perhaps a trivial fact of nature. Squirrels do it –so do bears. But the case of an organism with the foresight to provision things – food and lodging marvelously and ingeniously contrived – for a generation yet to be born is most remarkable and is matched, perhaps, by our species alone outside the Insecta. Returning to the Potter Wasp, the ingenuity and artifice involved in this ‘mothering’ shows foresight that is rooted in some kind of ‘anoetic awareness’. The wasp seeks a large green catapillar which it subdues with a paralyzing injection and transports this ‘heavy’ object across a sea of confused things and events to that nest or pot that we spoke of earlier. Reflect on the size of the carrier, the huge burden (relative to the size of the ‘transporter’) and the seeming absence of landmarks in a maze far too complex to be mapped by a finite machine system – surely there is an element of the mysterious and inexplicable here.

Let us finish describing the saga of the Wasp and its pot-nest. The caterpillar-prey is precisely lodged in the designated chambers, eggs are deposited and the work finished. It is the mystery and challenge of the ‘cognitive performance’ involved in this great feat of Insectan engineering that is glossed over by most naturalists and strangely overlooked by those who speak of ‘instinct’ and ‘chain-reflexes’ or ‘Markov chains’ in neural processing.

Let us quote once more a’ dictum’ attributed to Professot Metzinger. ‘One difference seems to be that everything that is conscious is something you can attend to – you cannot direct your attention to unconscious things – its just impossible’. This cannot be an uncontestable truism if what we have said about the Potter Wasp are robust statements of facts. Recall, first, that the nervous system of this wonderful insect has a few hundred thousand neurons at most and its mass relative to body-mass is greatly inferior to that seen in Vertebrates. Indeed, the ‘neuro-somatic’ mass of the ‘engineer’ relative to the complexity of the overall operation is the most astonishing aspect of the story we have told. ( Social Inscts – for example the Termites – do build mighty and complex things but this is an achievement that depends on the networking of vast numbers of relatively simple agents and the emergence of a kind of holistic ‘architectonic intelligence’ that is not well understood.) Given this stark fact – of the negligibility of the neuronal apparatus and the unspectacular nature of its bodily organization – we can (reasonably) rule out representational perceptual strategies in ‘dealing with the world’. It is true that the wasps have wonderful eyes and manipulative mouthparts of astonishing flexibility but it is clearly not the case that these advanced insects ‘picture the world’  – that they have a ‘global workspace’ that engages the attention of a ‘perceiver’. Recall that we used the phrase ‘cognitive performance’ to demote the complexity of the behavioural strategies used by an organism to fulfill the ‘programmes of life’. In the context of what we have said about the Potter Wasp, it appears – a conclusion forced on us despite our natural sympathy for our own way of doing things – that nervous functionalism as conventionally understood is only a ‘part player’ in the evolution of adaptive behavior of a most refined kind. Indeed, this same challenge faces us when re-viewing well-known ‘cognitive feats’ among the vertebrates. A Serval (an African hunting cat) leaps into the air to catch a flying bird that ducks and dodges to avoid death but is foiled by the high-speed responses of the leaping cat. In this instance the sensori-motor performances is superlative – but where is the ‘ego-machine’ that is deemed essential for complex tasks? The writer happened to watch (on Television)  the Badminton Final at the recently held Olympics. The two players performed astonishing feats of ‘acrobatics’ that bore a close similarity to the leaping dynamics of the forest cat. Here was an instance of a world-beating cognitive performance that did not involve the ‘I’ and the pictured reality that we ordinarily associate with ‘mentality’. We mention this case to underline the fact that cognitive achievement can be a catenation of bodily acts that we misconstrue as the execution of ‘orders’ given by a brain or nervous system. The ‘intelligence is a whole-body’ expression and it is – arguably – wrong to suppose the body (as a whole) ‘performs’  through the dynamic study of representations in the brain. That there are pale ‘efference copies‘ of these fantastic doings that are reflected upon after the event does not reduce one whit the mystery.

It is this model of non-representational holistic intelligence that will be most useful in dealing with the extraordinary achievements of these ‘stunt-men’ of the animal world.  (It may be not out of place at this point to remark parenthetically on this neglected area of  ‘mood-directed anoetic performance’ in humans – a phenomenon quite outside our current paradigms of cognitive understanding.)

What is at the root of the paradox of the curious and the insignificant doing great things?  Perhaps it is the belief that complex tasks require complex sensory flows and high speed processing by the equivalent of a symbolic machine – some variant of a Turing machine. The recent attempts to ‘emulate’ neurocortical processing in the rat  (the Geneva Brain Project) makes this assumption and we see huge computer systems running at high speed doing ‘work’ that the living counterpart manages in a most economical and unostentatious manner. The error here – if it be so called – is the underlying assumption that problems are solved by some imitation of symbolic calculation on data extracted from the environment. The possibility that the body as a whole ‘resonates’ to match a world in flux is ill-understood and ignored.

Pursuing this idea, suppose we treat the body as a tightly knit dynamical system and the ‘environment’ as a more diffuse but equally complex system. Then the dynamics of system interaction lead to modifications of an adaptive nature in both parties in this wonderful collaboration. Evolving nervous systems in higher organisms must be seen as devices that ‘refine’ and ‘shape’ this interaction but it  is perhaps a mistake to think that ‘worlds come into being’ through high-level nervous activity. A tubicolous Polychaete Worm builds a complex calcareous tube in dealing with its special world. This is an istance of complexity-generation without a ‘knower’. The ‘Potter-Wasp runs through a repertory of complex acts as a response to internal and external triggers while the ‘World’ collaborates to produce a strange but marvelously adaptive artifact. Let us add a few words on complexity – while individual acts can be simple, the ‘sysntax and semantics’ of repeated acts can lead to a constructive language that is very complex indeed. The life of the Wasp illustrates this truism. Let us conclude by noting that the physics of our day has no true handle on how complexity arises in nature. While ‘disorder’ and ‘entropy’ are great mathematical sports, we have no theory to illuminate the remarkable fact that great complexity arises through the acts of ‘insignificant’ systems exemplified by the countless manifestations of life on our Planet.

NB: The remarks of Prof. Metzinger are taken from a Science Podcast Interview conducted by Dr Ginger Campbell.  I have not had the good luck to read Dr Metzinger’s  seminal works and I apologize if I have misconstrued  his true meaning.


One Response to High “cognitive competence” in strange places

  1. insomniac says:

    This is where our cultural belief that we are separate from Nature shows. Suppose we treat the body and the environment as one “tightly knit dynamical system”. Then our interaction with the environment becomes a process that involves the “cognitive performance” of the environment as well. In this view, size of the nervous system is not so important. =-)

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