Jonathan BirchNobel Conference 59

Jonathan Birch

Jonathan Birch

Professor of Philosophy, London School of Economics and Political Science

The Minds of Insects and Why They Matter

When an ant or a bee defends its colony or hive, what is it doing? Can we explain its actions as “helping” its kin? If so, does “helping” imply that that individual ant or bee possesses a sense of selfhood or of motivation? Textbook explanations of evolutionary theory would categorically demur from such a description. On this account, words like “decision,” “choose,” “act,” “feel,” and “want” have no place in the lexicon of evolutionary biology.

And that’s where the work of philosopher Jonathan Birch’s work begins. Can we, he asks, find a more subtle language for describing and explaining the actions of biological organisms, from the smallest multicellular beings through to the development of human culture, that lends to evolution a broader grammar of consciousness and selfhood…and therefore of cooperation and altruism? 

A thread that weaves its way throughout Birch’s thought is his interest in the ways we theorize and explain the actions and motivations of biological organisms. Since his days as an undergraduate, Birch has been interested in the “explanation gap” or “explanation paradox” in the biological sciences. When we attempt to explain a biological occurrence, we habitually use language (often quite unconsciously) that assigns motive to the agents being described. So, for instance, we describe the ant as “helping” its colony mates, as if the ant was actively choosing that action. But the principles underlying evolutionary theory preclude any such motivation. How then can we explain what animals are doing, and how they are interacting, if evolutionary theory seems to bar the ascription of motivation? 

In attempting to develop an answer to this, Birch focuses his attention on the writings of biological theorist W.D. Hamilton (1936-2000), whose theories about animal social behavior created a language in which to discuss choice, relationship, and kinship across the animal world. Birch uses Hamilton’s work in order to explore “relatedness”: how do different biological organisms (from multicellular microbes to human beings) influence the selection pressures they face? And how, over time, will they respond to them? 

In a sense, we could say that Birch’s work points us to the most fundamental question in all philosophy and ethics: not, are we alone in the universe, but are we alone here on Earth? Emphatically, Birch thinks not. From patterns of social evolution and kinship to gradations of consciousness, humans live in and among a biological world teeming with relation, purpose, and motivation. What we need, he argues, are the right theories to help us recognize it, and an array of scientific tools to help us measure and see it. 

Jonathan Birch is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics (LSE), specializing in the philosophy of the biological sciences. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge.

His talk: What is it like to be an insect? There are serious limitations on our ability to imagine what it's like, because an insect's sensory world is very different from ours (for example, they cannot see red, but they can see UV). However, we can gain some insight by studying their behaviour in laboratory conditions. This talk will pick out some highlights from the last few decades of insect cognition research, focusing on bees and their capacities to learn, remember, solve puzzles, play, and (possibly) feel pain. I will then ask: what are the ethical implications of this research? One message seems to be that insects should not be ignored in discussions of animal welfare. We should err on the side of caution, taking steps to protect them where we realistically can.