Sphex

A question that arises at the outset is: "What kinds of objects have concepts stored inside them, and what kinds do not?" One of my favorite passages that opens this question wide is in Dean Wooldridge's book Mechanical Man: The Physical Basis of Intelligent Life, and it runs this way:

– When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. In due course, the eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket, which has not decayed, having been kept in the wasp equivalent of a deepfreeze. To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness—until more details are examined.

For example, the wasp's routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inches while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and reenter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated forty times, with the same result. –

One can make the obvious remark that perhaps not the wasp but the experimenter was the one in the rut—but humor aside, this is a rather shocking revelation of the mechanical underpinning, in a living creature, of what looks like quite reflective behavior.

There seems to be something supremely unconscious about the wasp's behavior here, something totally opposite to what we feel we are all about, particularly when we talk about our own consciousness. I propose to call the quality here portrayed sphexishness, and its opposite antisphexishness (a vexish word to pronounce!), and then I propose that consciousness is simply the possession of antisphexishness to the highest possible degree. [Douglas R. Hofstadter]