We must beg your indulgence and ask you to read the text below on bees. As a preemptive reward (a pre-ward?), we start with one beautiful picture:
Bees have some amazing qualities and characteristics. However, it may be the case that our assessment of bees as amazing is based as much on our lack of understanding as it is on the characteristics and behaviors of the bees themselves. For example, throughout the 20th century, scientists were unable to explain how bumble bees could fly because their wing size, shape, and speed was not enough to provide liftoff based on the laws of aerodynamics. Scientists have since claimed to have solved this embarrassing mystery, although the solution—that the wings were beating faster than previously thought—only introduced more questions (as if often the case in science) such as HOW their wings could beat so fast. In any case, it was not that the bees were performing some miraculous feat, it was that we were not able to understand their behavior.
Other examples of our lack of understanding are more than embarrassing but trivial failures of science. One of the most often-cited facts about bees (honeybees in particular), and that which is most intriguing to humans, is their apparent willingness to sting attackers even though this action results in immediate death for the bee. Surely this behavior is purely instinctual, right? What animal would knowingly, thoughtfully, with any kind of consideration of the costs and benefits, engage in such an action? Well, some of the most respected humans in history have performed acts of martyrdom, willingly enduring horrific deaths for causes they believed to be more important than their own lives. However, the same behavior among honeybees is assumed to be blindly instinctual, performed without thought of any kind, and just kind of sad for the dopey bee. When a human does it, we assign hero status but when a bee does it, we assume it is a trivial and instinctual accident of evolution.
This interpretation of the bees’ act of stinging has contributed to the perception that bees are exceedingly dangerous, aggressive, and unpredictable, and has caused humans to fear them beyond any rational justification. It seems as though any (nonhuman) animal that would instinctually engage in such an act must be a remorseless marauding killer and that if they could only THINK, they would not so willingly give their lives. As we meticulously plan for our futures and endlessly ponder each of the possible consequences of any action, an action with such morbid finality seems completely foreign to us. It is foreign to the nature of our thought processes, paralyzed as we are by fear of any decision with permanent consequences. It is incredible and amazing. Or is it?
Based on these kamikaze missions and other behaviors and qualities, most people would say yes, bees are amazing. However, that judgement is based on a particular assumption. That assumption is that bees are mindless drones (literally and figuratively), behaving solely on instinct. We assume that bees are not capable of anything close to rational thought. Their entire lives, we assume, are a series of instinctual reactions like our response to touching a hot stove. It wasn’t that long ago that people commonly held the belief that animals did not feel pain, that their cries and screams were mere instinctual reactions made to mimic what only we highly evolved humans could actually feel. Vivisections are still performed on all variety of mammals and other creatures, with technicians presumably noting with nervous curiosity how the animal cries sound almost human but proceeding nonetheless. But we don’t need to point to vivisectionists, as the suffering of animals barely registers as worthy of consideration for many people, particularly beyond those animals that we fetishize such as dogs, cats, baby seals, and dolphins. How else could we ask an animal to endure a life of confinement and misery followed by brutal death and dismemberment, all for a few moments of palate pleasure?
Obviously, a bee, whose brain is the size of a sesame seed, is not capable of composing a sonnet, solving complex analogy questions on the S.A.T., or recounting the crucial moments in the history of its species (although, come to think of it, neither can I). They do, however, save for retirement at a much higher rate than humans. Their thought process is obviously very different from ours. But my thought process is also different from my brother’s thought process, and from that of Descartes. There are both intraspecies and interspecies differences in the process of thinking and in the qualities of sentience, and there is no justification for believing that humans are the only animals capable of valuable thought. Real thought.
I would hesitate to conclude that even our human way of thinking, our most notable skill, is superior in all ways. Surely in some ways it is, but just as we are able to think in valuable ways that nonhuman animals cannot, they are able to think in ways that we cannot. For example, our thought process is intimately tied to our use of word-based language, but other animals may not be as bound to their language, or as deceived by it, as we are. On the other hand, there is little doubt that my dog understands many more words in English than the number of noises she makes that I can differentiate. She understands English far better than I understand dogspeak, despite the fact that I am from the species with the supposedly unsurpassed language abilities. Some animals can breathe under water while others fly though the air, skills that we can only dream about. Why would it be the case that they are superior to us in so many ways but that their thought process is always inferior? And we assume not just an inferior thought process, but that they don’t really have a meaningful thought process at all. How do we know this? How COULD we know it?
The point of all this is that the behaviors and characteristics of bees and other animals seem amazing at times, but only because we assume that they are nonthinking, instinct-driven automatons. If that assumption were true then yes, the selfless decisions of besieged bees, salmon swimming hundreds of miles upstream to the places of their birth, monarch butterflies flying thousands of miles back to a particular cave in Mexico to breed, and osprey returning from the Monterey Peninsula to the same nest they built in Montana…to meet the same mate they have not seen in six months, would all be amazing feats. However, this assumption is not justified, and every year new faculties are found among our animal friends, such as new research demonstrating empathy in rats. Research is unidirectional in this regard, always moving in the direction of understanding that animals are more like us and more cognitively able than previously thought, never the other way around. If we alter our assumption to fit the facts (rather than re-interpreting the facts to fit our assumption), we might conclude that animals think, and that they think in ways that are different from us but not inferior to us. Ultimately, this would lead us to conclude that they are perhaps not quite as amazing as previously thought, but that we have much more in common with them than we ever imagined.
Calling nonhuman animals amazing is a form of calling them different, and calling them different is necessary in order to treat them the way we do.
OK, you’ve been more than patient—here are your pictures of thoughtful, beautiful, unamazing bees.
The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.
The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?"
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.
Lisa: "Do we have any food that wasn't brutally slaughtered?"
Homer: "Well, I think the veal died of loneliness."
~Matt Groening, The Simpsons
Why should man expect his prayer for mercy to be heard by What is above him when he shows no mercy to what is under him?
The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.
~Henry David Thoreau