“Noble nature”…?

20161231_184514Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”

– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)

Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.

However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »

Clever little Keas…

Intelligence can be defined as the ability to solve novel problems.  In other words, many examples of “animal intelligence” wouldn’t count because of the limited range of situations within which they are able to act.  Examples might include squirrels caching nuts and finding them again or the ability of drongos to mimic the alarm calls of meerkats to scare them off and steal their food.  A true demonstration of intelligence requires that an animal be able to solve a problem with which it has no familiarity.  The kea is an example of an animal that has a remarkable capacity to do just this (h/t Jerry Coyne):