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Friday, July 20, 2012

Do Wasps Have Free Will?

We found a new wasp species in the North Campus. The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneous, is an impressively large (approximately one inch long), and active solitary wasp. Although many see a wasp this large and brightly coloredthe orange and black combo usually tells us to "stay away"this wasp is not aggressive and is very rarely observed stinging. Solitary Hymenopterous insects (those in the order Hymenoptera, aka bees and wasps) are not prone to stinging the same way social species are. This is because they don't have a hive to protect.  

Great Golden Digger Wasp feeding on milkweed nectar

The Great Golden Digger Wasp is actually a beneficial insect in our gardens. Here's how: 
  • They are great hunters. Their scientific name ichneumoneous, is Greek for tracker.
  • Adults feed on nectar and are often seen foraging on flowers.
  • When a female is ready to lay eggs, she digs up to six nests in exposed soil.
  • When she is ready, she captures a cricket, grasshopper, or katydid (yay, pest control)! She paralyzes the insect by stinging it, and then takes it to the nest. 
  • When she gets back to the nest, she goes in to check that everything is okay. She then emerges and drags the paralyzed insect into the hole. There she lays one egg on each paralyzed insect.
  • The eggs hatch after two to three days and begin to feed on the paralyzed insect.
  • After a few weeks to many months (depending on the time of year the egg was laid and the weather) the larvae metamorphose into adults and carry on the life cycle.
Free Will Hunting
In the 1980s, cognitive scientists, Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, used these wasps' unthinking deterministic (aka pre-programmed) behaviors to illustrate the meaning of free will. As described above, female S. ichneumoneus, check their holes before dragging the paralyzed prey item into it. Scientists tested this behavior in a controlled environment by moving the prey item while the wasp was inside the nest. When the wasp emerged, she would relocate the prey, drag it back to the nest, and then check the nest again (even though she had already done it very recently). The experiment was repeated up to 40 times, and each time the wasp would re-check the nest. 

In Dennett's 1984 book, Elbow Room, he used this behavioral study as an analogy to the opposite of free will (coined sphexish by Hofstadter), i.e. futily repeating the same actions over and over again in a pre-programmed manner. In contrast, we humans have the ability to recognize futile behavior, exercise our free will to change something, and hopefully disontinue futile activities. YAY! He even coined the term antisphexishness, the state of free will.  Try dropping that one in your next conversation with an intellectual and see what happens!

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