Are bees capable of thinking like humans? One new study speculates that honeybees are capable of understanding the concept of zero and, by extension, abstract thought.
In the study, which appears in Science, Australian and French researchers trained 10 honeybees to choose the smaller of two numbers by presenting them with pairs of cards, each with a different number of shapes on it. When the bees chose the card with fewer shapes, the researchers rewarded them with sugar water.
Then they put out new cards: one with a single black shape, the other blank. The bees chose the blank card 64 percent of the time. The researchers heralded that as proof that the insects comprehend nothingness as a numerical value, just like the numbers two or four. They call this “zero processing,” an ability once thought to belong only to humans, but also credited to monkeys and birds.
Since zero is an abstract concept that forms the basis of mathematics, researchers laud this finding as one that could have implications for artificial intelligence. Because bees have such tiny brains—just 1 million neurons as opposed to 100 billion neurons in a human—the ability to recognize zero may indicate that complex processing abilities aren’t necessary to do complex math.
However, bee cognition researcher Clint Perry is skeptical, noting that there could be other explanations for the bees’ behavior. “The more parsimonious explanation for the results is the bees were using ‘reward history’ to solve the task—that is, how often each type of stimulus was rewarded,” he told Smithsonian.
Neurosurgeon and intelligent design advocate Michael Egnor isn’t convinced either. “Abstract thought is an immaterial power of the soul, and only human beings have immaterial souls,” he wrote at Evolution News & Science Today. “Only human beings are capable of abstraction.” —A.J.