I shall conclude this long account of the leaf cutting ants with an instance of their reasoning powers. A nest was made near one of our tramways, and to get to the trees the ants had to cross the rails over which the wagons were continually passing and repassing. Every time they came along, a number of ants were crushed to death. They persevered in crossing for several days, but at last set to work and tunneled under each rail. One day when the wagons were not running, I stopped up the tunnels with stones; but although great numbers carrying leaves were thus cut off from the nest, they would not cross the rails but set to work making fresh tunnels underneath them.
[Thomas Belt, The Naturalist in Nicaragua, 1874]
Thomas Belt (1832-1878) was an English naturalist who spent much of his life in mining enterprises in Australia, Nova Scotia, and in Nicaragua. The tramways referred to were carrying ore.
I found this fascinating passage in Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind, quoted by Sir Charles Symonds (1890-1978), an English neurologist, in a commentary chapter in Penfield’s book called “Reflections.” Symonds included this quote in a context of in which he argues that what looks like the mind is anchored even in such lowly creatures as the ant. Symonds goes on to quote W.H. Thorpe (1902-1986), an English zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist:
If we can see purposive behavior in animals or man, we have provisional grounds for believing that there is within the organism some sort of expectancy of the future, which entails or implies a capacity for ideation, an integration of ideas about past and future, and a temporal organization of ideas.
[W.H. Thorpe, in Brain and Conscious Experience, J.C. Eccles, editor.]
To this Symonds adds: “I know nothing about the nervous system of the ant, but it would seem that it contains a prototype of the anatomical substrata of mind.”
Penfield himself, then, in the last chapter of The Mystery of the Mind, comments on these quotes as follows:
The beautiful story of Belt’s leaf-cutting ants that you [Symonds] have retold seems, to me, to show clearly that there is self-awareness in the ant. The ant who carries his leaf to the rail and stops, finding the hole closed underneath the rail, must be aware of himself and his predicament if he begins to make a new hole.
[Penfield, p. 105-106]
This sort of an exchange tells me that science, through some minority of its representatives, is on the edges of a recognition of something against which all manner of orthodoxies, ancient as well as new, strain in horror. Conscious man is bad enough. Conscious animals? Please, please…