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Termites -- tiny, blind creatures less than 1/10th of an inch in size-- build towering 20-foot-high structures equipped with wells and waste dumps, gardens and nurseries, and even complicated systems of air ducts and ventilation shafts for climate control. Hummingbirds fashion hammock nests from bits of bark, lichen, and downy moss woven together with spiderweb silk. Beavers, those master engineers of the rodent world, construct underwater lodges and ingeniously designed dams and canals to control the water flow of the rivers, streams, and lakes where they reside. And countless other species of animals produce webs, hives, cocoons, burrows, lairs, nests, and even tools that, especially given the size and nature of the builders, are marvels of construction and design. (Consider, for example, that on a human scale, the 20-foot tower of a termite would be the equivalent of nearly three miles high, far surpassing our tallest skyscraper.)
But how do animals build? What cognitive resources do they use to accomplish their tasks, and to what extent, if any, does animal building behavior reflect planning and awareness? James and Carol Gould's Animal Architects, a fascinating, illuminating, and thoroughly accessible exploration of the types of structures built by animals from arthropods to mammals, aims to discover what these remarkable constructions might tell us about the minds of their builders. "Mental activity is, by its nature, private," as the Goulds note; "what goes on in the brain has to be inferred" (271). But as Animal Architects shows, a close look at building behavior across a range of species gives us compelling evidence that there may be more going on in the animal mind than is often assumed.
Many ethologists have been content to think of animal building behaviors as purely hardwired, working under the assumption, only recently challenged, that instinct and learning are incompatible. But although it is certainly true that for most creatures instinct directs the building process-- think, for example, of the characteristic nests of each bird species, which even novice nest-makers reliably produce without experience or practice -- the Goulds argue that "simply categorizing behavior as innate or learned doesn't really tell us very much, and distracts us from the goal of understanding animal minds" (67). Since "intelligent behavior can involve orchestrating innate components," we need to ask how different cognitive strategies-- including innate and learned motor programs, sensory and cognitive mapping skills, and, in some cases, even insight and creativity -- work together to allow animal architects to produce the structures distinctive of their species.
Consider, for example, the corolla spider in the desert of Namibia, which collects quartz stones two to three times its body weight and carefully arranges them at the entrance of its burrow to construct an ingenious hunting tool for detecting the vibrations from approaching prey. In its ability to respond flexibly to problems of design and contingencies of environment, the Goulds suggest, the corolla spider seems to demonstrate goal-directed behavior that builds on but also goes beyond the innate cues of ordinary programming.
Consider also the caddisfly, a small insect closely related to moths, which weaves an underwater cocoon in its larval stage. Our "deep and automatic prejudice against worm-like body plans" (42) notwithstanding, the construction habits of the caddisfly larva strongly suggest that it has in its mental repertoire not just an array of innate programs for executing specific, preordained steps in the building process, but also some ability to use mental mapping to conceive of its end-goal, and thus to find alternative solutions to a problem. As with many examples of insect and spider construction, argue the Goulds, such behavior may be better explained "by inferring a basic cognitive mapping capacity, combined with an adequate ability to learn and remember, rather than resorting to explanations that require elaborate programming capable of anticipating every conceivable contingency" (54-55).
One way that researchers test for mapping skills and goal-directed behavior is to observe the ways that an animal responds when its building process is interrupted or some completed portion of its structure is damaged. While many animals-- including the caddisfly's not-too-distant relative, the palisade moth-- are stymied by such interventions and respond with rote, stereotyped patterns of behavior that often defeat the purpose of their construction, caddisfly larvae choose a surprising variety of flexible and sensible ways to repair their structures, suggesting that they have some "map-like idea of the finished product" that frees them from "blind, compulsive reliance on task-directed responses," as the Goulds put it (39).
Unlike the caddisfly larva, the palisade moth seems to depend simply on hardwired programming when it builds. Other members of its genus build nothing at all. What explains such differences among closely related species? How does building behavior evolve in the first place, and what drives the emergence of new building patterns and more complex and flexible cognitive abilities?
Interestingly, the challenges that a species encounters in its ecological niche are often a better predictor of intellectual aptitude than phylogeny, the Goulds argue. Building behavior evolves to solve basic problems of survival -- food, safety, reproduction -- and the needs of a species depend on the demands of its habitat. Hence the "degree of neural sophistication available to an animal," they suggest, "ought to be related to the challenge of its niche, and to the complexity of the brain that has evolved to solve the problems the species faces" (2).
For most moths -- solitary insects with no regular feeding place or specific home base to return to -- the need for mapping ability and spatial awareness simply does not occur. But for social insects like termites and honey bees, which must coordinate their efforts with tens of thousands of other colony members to launch large-scale cooperative building and foraging projects, not even the basic cognitive mapping skills of the humble caddisfly larva will suffice. Thus in terms of the intellectual resources they bring to bear on their building projects, social insects "represent the apex of invertebrate evolution" (75). Honey bees, for example, have the most extensive memory capacity of any insect, a dance communication system so complex that it is considered a language, and, most remarkably for a half-inch insect with a pin-sized brain, the ability to form concepts and to recognize rotated images -- a skill once included on human intelligence tests. Indeed, both honey bees and termites display an "intellectual wherewithal that [seems] well beyond the capacity of most vertebrates" (99). Since niche selects for cognitive potential, "this inversion of our phylogenetic expectations should not surprise us," the Goulds note; after all, "social insects need to be smarter than solitary, slow-moving tree sloths" (99).
While niche selects for cognitive potential, enabling the emergence of new building strategies, whatever new cognitive abilities and more advanced construction behaviors develop may, in turn, help to broaden a species' niche. Thus the Goulds argue that building behavior seems to be at the center of a positive feedback loop driving the evolution of intelligence in animals: more cognitive flexibility permits a species to enjoy a broader niche, which in turn selects for more cognitive equipment and greater intellectual flexibility for exploiting the increased opportunities of an expanded range of habitats.
With a wide sweep of masterfully explained examples, Animal Architects traces this evolution in mental complexity from the simple, largely rote building patterns of solitary insects to the creative and sophisticated construction strategies of beavers, whose remarkable feats of engineering and architecture suggest full-fledged problem-solving skills and a capacity for genuine planning, insight, and innovation. Finally, in the last chapter, the authors offer some reflections on what animal architects might tell us about our own species -- "the ultimate inheritors of a drive hundreds of millions of years old to build, and thus take charge of the immediate surroundings" (299).
© 2008 Elisabeth Herschbach
Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.
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