Thursday, June 07, 2007

Brain or No Brain?

Life on Earth is both fascinating and amazingly diverse and complex. We understand from our grammar school classes that there are two primary forms of life - plant and animal - and that it is the animal kingdom where all the brains reside. But not all animals are so blessed with such organs. Understand, first, that when I talk about brains, I'm not talking about those little bundles of nerve strands that make it possible for some creatures (like worms) to perform simple stimulus-response activities. I mean they gotta have the ability to build things. They should be able to hunt and kill, or dig little ditches to hide out in. They should be able to think on the fly - not react in some pre-programmed, automated way.

So which animals make the grade and which ones have failed life's intellectual test? Could you pick them out if they were shown to you?

We'll begin with the lowly, yet in many ways still noble, ant. Now, there are several species of ants to choose from, but we'll just stick with one of the littlest ones around: the sugar ant. Surely, this tiny creature that raids our counter tops could not possibly have a brain encased within that itsy-bitsy little cranium of his.

Or could he? Interestingly, it has been estimated that ants may well have the same processing power as a Macintosh II computer.

Has anyone ever seen the 1954 movie "Them"?

Let's move on, now, to the common starfish (actually 1,800 species). Starfish are predatory sea creatures who prowl the seafloor in search of clams, mussels, and oysters. Surely, the ability to hunt down food must mean that a brain is plotting out the strategy.

But such is not the case. Starfish passed on the line for brains...

Bird brains are often referenced when it's time to ridicule another person's intellect. But it would be a bit more appropriate to taunt someone with the cry, "Don't be a gecko brain!" Because the truth is, bird brains weight about 10 times as much as a reptile of the same weight, and only slightly less than a similar-sized mammal.

A Norwegian study done in 2005 concluded that lobsters and other invertebrates did not have the capacity to feel pain, lending some truth perhaps to the old adage, "No brain, no pain." The study found that the nervous system of such creatures was not developed enough to feel pain, and that any reaction to, say, boiling water, was merely a stimulus-response escape mechanism.

Needless to say, the PETA folks were not amused. PETA's Karin Robertson said of the study, "This is exactly like the tobacco industry claiming that smoking doesn't cause cancer." PETA has used a "lobsters in boiling water" analogy as an example of animal cruelty in their ad campaigns, making the assertion, "If we had to drop live pigs or chickens into scalding water, chances are that few of us would eat them.."

Umm, actually, it wouldn't matter to me.

Moving on to the human-animal comparison, I've often found it amusing how some people will try to convince themselves, and others, that animals are perfectly intelligent creatures - if only in ways that we mere humans are entirely incapable of understanding. In the 1980s, dolphin and whale activism was huge. It got to the point where I winced every time I heard some dolphin worshipping nymphet explain to her dunderhead carnivorous friends that "dolphins are intelligent beings - they can echo locate!" Yeah, well, so can bats, kiddo, but they're not exactly famous for their cave paintings. And then there was Star Trek IV, where the crew bravely rescued those two helpless whales - one of which was an expectant mother! - from those thoughtless, uncaring humans of the 20th Century. They took the whales "back to the future" so that they could communicate with a super-intelligent alien race that was wreaking havoc on Earth - because it couldn't comprehend human civilization! Of course, Spock - a mere vulcan (vulcans must be "mere" since they're friends with us dummy humans) - had no problem at all communicating with both the humans and the whales.

What... ever!


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