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Wasps can reason? Science media say yes, researchers no

Media stories explicitly claim that wasps use logical reasoning, which researchers disavow

And the bigger story is always what they are missing.

A science media release walloped through the other day, announcing “Paper wasps capable of behavior that resembles logical reasoning.”

The release did not say that the wasps were “capable of logical reasoning” but only that they were “capable of behavior that resembles logical reasoning.” Many wasps followed a behavior pattern to solve a problem that a human might solve by individual reasoning.

paper wasps/© Floki, Adobe Stock

When geese migrate, for example, they don’t study the historic climate patterns and decide on migration as the best response. They are guided by natural signals within and without, signals that do not require an individual goose to study anything; only to heed and follow the signals.

The researchers clearly dissociate themselves from a claim that wasps reason. “We’re not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem…” But the media ignored the hint, as they might be expected to do. For example, in a search on “paper wasps + logical reasoning,” these items appeared in the Top Ten:

Paper Wasps are Capable of Logical Thinking, Suggests New Study
(Sci News, May 9, 2019)

Never underestimate a wasp — new study shows they’re smarter than we thought (CNN, May 8, 2019)

Wasps Are Capable of Basic Logical Reasoning, Study Finds (VICE, May 8, 2019)

Wasps Just Became The First Known Insects Who Can Reason Using Logic (ScienceAlert, May 10, 2019)


Paper wasps recognize each other, have long memories, & display logical reasoning (Treehugger, May 8, 2019)

So all of these stories explicitly avow what the researchers explicitly disavow, that the wasps used logical reasoning.

To underscore, many people who write for science media seem to believe that reason arises naturally from brute forces and is present in, say, insects. Disavowals by researchers will not prevent them from claiming a trophy.

Elite media behave the same way as tabloids: Whereas the media release says, “The study by Tibbetts and her colleagues illustrates that paper wasps can build and manipulate an implicit hierarchy. But it makes no claims about the precise mechanisms that underlie this ability,” the Smithsonian Magazine headline is Wasps Are the First Invertebrates to Pass This Basic Logic Test (May 10, 2019).

So what did the study really find and what did the researchers make of it? Briefly, this was the test:

In the laboratory, individual wasps were trained to discriminate between pairs of colors called premise pairs. One color in each pair was associated with a mild electric shock, and the other was not…

Later, the wasps were presented with paired colors that were unfamiliar to them, and they had to choose between the colors. The wasps were able to organize information into an implicit hierarchy and used transitive inference to choose between novel pairs, Tibbetts said.

“I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees,” she said. “But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular color was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations.”Paper. (open access) – Elizabeth A. Tibbetts, Jorge Agudelo, Sohini Pandit, Jessica Riojas. Transitive inference in Polistes paper wasps. Biology Letters, 2019; 15 (5): 20190015 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2019.0015 More.

Tibbetts et al. tell us that monkeys, birds, and fish can use “transitive inference” (can rank environment factors for safety by comparison) but bees can’t. This is so even though bee brains have the same number of neurons as wasp brains, roughly one million. So the number of neurons does not determine the complexity of behavior. Then what is the relationship between the number of neurons and the capacity for complex behavior?

Tibbetts, a University of Michigan evolutionary biologist, thinks that social need rather than neuron count explains the wasp’s superior individual decision-making skills:

“A honeybee colony has a single queen and multiple equally ranked female workers. In contrast, paper wasp colonies have several reproductive females known as foundresses. The foundresses compete with their rivals and form linear dominance hierarchies.

A wasp’s rank in the hierarchy determines shares of reproduction, work and food. Transitive inference could allow wasps to rapidly make deductions about novel social relationships.” University of Michigan, “Paper wasps capable of behavior that resembles logical reasoning.” at ScienceDaily

We also learn from Gavin Broad, principal curator of insects at London’s Natural History Museum, that unlike worker bees, worker wasps can become queens. In short, the wasp needs behavioral skills that a bee does not.

The media release does provide some basis for the media hype because we are told, “For millennia, transitive inference was considered a hallmark of human deductive powers, a form of logical reasoning used to make inferences: If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.”

Actually, transitive inference isn’t so much a “hallmark” as a capability without which deductive powers would be thwarted. Its presence does not show that deductive powers are also present.

For example, weaver birds can weave complex basket nests without otherwise being notably intelligent. A human who wanted to make a basket nest must use tools of reason to create an object that—apart from the many and varied outcomes of abstract thought—a human would never think of making. But we need not infer that the birds who simply start to make the nests as they mature are also using the tools of reason. They are following a behavior pattern that works for them.

The media’s monolithic obsession with denying human uniqueness comes at a cost. The remarkable fact that two life forms have the same number of neurons but one displays significantly more complex behavior than the other is drowned out by the volume of misrepresentation.

Tibbetts thinks that the wasps’ need for more complex behavior than the bee sheds some light. It does but the need itself is not a form of rescue, not in a world where countless life forms have simply gone extinct. We must hope that research will continue to carefully tease out the intelligence in animal minds for what it is, rather than what some need it to be.

See also: Did a fish just show self-awareness? What if the whole question is founded on a mistake about the nature of the mirror test?

Study: Cats do recognize their names They recognize them as signals but not as abstractions


Do big brains matter to human intelligence? We don’t know. Brain research readily dissolves into confusion at that point

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Wasps can reason? Science media say yes, researchers no