In research published in the journal Science, Australian and French researchers tested whether honey bees can rank numerical quantities and understand that zero belongs at the lower end of a sequence of numbers.
Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said the number zero was the backbone of modern maths and technological advancements.
“Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn’t come easily — it takes children a few years to learn,” Dyer said.
But bee brains have fewer than 1 million neurons — compared with the 86,000 million neurons of a human brain — and little was known about how insect brains would cope with being tested on such an important numeric skill.
When Howard periodically tested the bees with an image that contained no elements versus an image that had one or more, the bees understood that the set of zero was the lower number — despite never having been exposed to an “empty set.”
“It is relatively easy for neurons to respond to stimuli such as light or the presence of an object but how do we, or even an insect, understand what nothing is? Paper. (paywall) – Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer, Aurore Avarguès-Weber et al. Numerical ordering of zero in honeybees. Science, 2018 DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4975 More.
Actually, the bees do not understand what “nothing” is. They only understand that the image is not of interest to them. Any life form that must acquire energy can understand that.
As Michael Egnor notes at ENST:
It’s important to understand what is meant by “abstract.” Abstract thought is thought about concepts removed entirely from particulars. Abstract thought is thought about universals. For example, contemplation of mercy or justice or nutrition or logic or imaginary numbers is abstract thought.
In the bee experiment, the researchers trained the bees to seek out white cards with fewer rather than more black circles (by rewarding them) and ultimately the bees sought out cards with no black circles. This doesn’t mean the bees understood the concept of zero, or that the bees understood any mathematics at all.
All animal vision (including human vision) depends on edge detection: neurons in the visual cortex respond actively to transitions of contrast in the visual field caused by edges. Cards with more black circles have more (and more complex) edges, and the bees were trained to associate less edges with food. No edges at all (zero) is less edges than some edges, so the bees select the “zero” card because they associate it with food. This is all sensus communis — the comparison of patterns with more or less edges and the association with food. There is no abstract thought here — no “concept of zero.” More.
If life forms needed to understand abstract thought, they probably wouldn’t be able to feed themselves. They must attend to practical matters or die.
So why these impositions on the public except for a desire to move the dilemmas round human consciousness off the table by pretending that uniquely human intelligence is some kind of universal? One wonders whether panpsychism (everything is conscious) will continue to make converts in science for the same reason.
Questions: What exactly is the “intelligence” being measured? And why is animal intelligence not more closely tied to animals’ presumed evolutionary history? Also, why is the bar set where it (really and truly) is, at genuine abstract thought and the language that expresses it?
See also: Animals take turns when communicating? Who would have imagined that? That’s what “communication” *is.* Questions: What exactly is the “intelligence” being measured? And why is animal intelligence not more closely tied to presumed evolutionary history? Also, why is the bar set where it (really and truly) is, at genuine abstract thought and the language that expresses it?
Not only that but … pigeons understand probabilities! In short, the pigeon does not do any abstract thinking and therefore works only with remembered outcomes. This is one of those circumstances where greater intelligence can be a handicap.
Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for a reward, pass on skill
Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?
At Quartz: Materialists are converting to panpsychism