Asking a lone wasp dragging a cricket across a paddock how she finds her way home won't elicit much response. Interrogating a honeybee about why she's doing this task now, while she was engaged in something entirely different a short time ago will net you little information. The Goulds, however, delve into some of the motivations behind animal behaviour. In this easily accessible volume, they provide some interesting and challenging answers to the question of how animal minds work. In doing so, they overturn some long held misconceptions - most notably the one that declares only humans have broken the bonds of innately determined behaviours.
This is highly speculative material, but the proposals are well thought out and amply supported by the workers cited. The underlying proposal is simple: the other animals are only slightly more prompted by innate drives than we are. Categorizing the behavior of other animals as "just intuition" is demonstrably fallacious. Whether we label it "reasoning power" or "cognitive ability" is irrelevant. The point is that even that solitary wasp is confronted with the need to make decisions that will take her from a fixed path. She can, and does, survey changed conditions in order to achieve a desired goal. She is not fixed in her responses and can adapt using her mental resources efficiently.
The authors use various forms of "mappings" to explain how variations of cognitive capacity and ability are found in nature. That solitary wasp, for instance, needs to locate the burrow where she's left her egg. Somehow, tucked in her miniscule brain, there's record of landmarks around that tiny hole in the soil, allowing her to move with confidence. Shift the landmarks - a stone or twig - and she's confused. Her Local Area cognitive map has become unreliable. Yet, if she's typical, she'll have other nests - each with their own landmarks to tax her mental map. Moving up the cognitive ladder, there are wasp groups who build nests of mud or paper. They must perform a sequence of operations in the construction process to ensure the nest is the proper shape, weight and balance. From this start, the Goulds demonstrate how animal constructions reflect cognitive abilities requiring decision-making and adaptive variations. From the complexities of spiders building webs, birds constructing an extensive variety of nests and beavers' wide-area engineering projects, "animal architects" refute our common belief that "instinct" is the central controlling factor.
The Goulds propose that cognitive mapping can be shown to advance from the individual and its surroundings, through various levels of complex reasoning needed to complete the organism's task to complete a goal. It's important to note that these are in no way predictable, hence, innately driven, steps. Adjustments must be made for local conditions. When those adjustments mean interacting with co-workers in different ways, then the group must make decisions. The authors use bees as a significant example. Too often classified as a "socialist" species, the Goulds demonstrate honeybees are the finest example of free enterprise in Nature. Individuals must shift roles as conditions change, with each bee making independent decisions on a course of action. The steps involved require the insect to sift through several available options, using mental processes the authors describe as "Tiers". Sets of Tiers may include Local Area Mapping, Social Mapping - which likely includes Hierarchical Mapping of status, and the ultimate, Network Mapping where many forms are brought together to complete one or several tasks.
This book is awarded five stars with some reluctance. Although the ideas themselves are well presented and supported by good examples, a glance at the "Readings" for each chapter gives one pause. The list suggests that little on these topics has been published during the past generation - except their own, of course. The authors deal with many forms of life, with insects predominating. Yet, their only reference to Edward O. Wilson is a single work. John Alcock's studies don't appear, nor do those of Bert Hölldobler, Thomas Eisner, Bernd Heinrich or other workers. None of those researchers' efforts would challenge the Goulds' proposals and their omission is an enigma. Instead, there are long renditions of the pioneers in various related fields. Valuable, but necessarily incomplete. Even so, this work is too innovative and challenging to ignore or dismiss lightly. Cognition, whether human or other animal, is a significant field, growing rapidly. The authors list many topics requiring further study. One can only hope this book will inspire younger readers to take them up and help resolve them. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]