Aphid Philosophy

aphidMy wife has moved the two green pepper plants into the room with our hot tub. Our hot tub is indoors, overlooking the back yard, in a room glassed in on all sides. We keep it covered when not in use, but I use it every day when I’m thinking about my blog articles. The pots with the plants are large, a couple of feet in diameter.

Each plant has a colony of aphids living on it. The one with the most fruit on it has green peach aphids, like the one pictured above right. The other one has orange aphids, which I can’t find pictures of online, though except for colour they are identical to the green ones, and there are also some of the winged variety, which are only slightly larger and black, with fragile, single-veined wings.

Aphids are pretty smart. They won’t kill the plants they feed on — when there are too many of them to keep their host plant healthy, or if the host plant is sick, they will start breeding mostly the winged variety and leave the plant. That’s one of the reasons they’ve been around for 280 million years, I guess. They are astonishingly prolific. They reproduce both sexually and asexually (self-cloning), through both live birth and eggs, and embryos often carry daughter-embryos and grand-daughter embryos within them, just waiting their turn to be born (the vast majority of aphids are female). The so-called ‘honeydew’ they secrete is the excess sugar from the plants they suck nutrients from. They can only fly at 2 mph on their own steam, but will often take the night air currents up 3,000 feet and then average 30 mph following the jetstream over a 9-hour overnight flight, descending in the morning and picking out their new host plant by colour as they land. Some aphids will, in times of stress, breed up to 50% of a stronger ‘soldier’ variety, which defend the colony and neither eat nor breed during their short lives.

We all learn about aphids as ‘ant cows’, though it’s not slavery. Ants can quickly become addicted to the sugary aphid ‘honeydew’, and spend enormous effort overfeeding ‘their’ aphids so that the aphids excrete not only the addictive sugar but enough other nutrients to keep the ants alive. The instinct in ants is so strong that they will look after and feed aphids even if the aphids fail to give them their ‘fix’. What kills some plants are the viruses that aphids carry, and a fungus that grows beneath the ‘honeydew’ if it’s not eaten by wasps, ants and other insects. But spraying is futile, as it is more likely to harm ladybugs, lacewings and other insects and birds that eat the aphids than the aphids themselves, and hence often backfires.

I watched a single aphid exploring the side of the hot-tub cover. It took the creature 20 minutes to traverse from one side to the other, and I’d say it found the journey interesting. What is this giant hot puddle, so intense that its condensation alone is enough to slake the thirst of any creature of a size fathomable by an aphid? And this strange flat skin, with the smell of hydrocarbon instead of living flesh — What kind of beast is this? Why are my brethren content to spend most of their lives on that one plant over there, when there are so many other wonders in this world to discover and investigate?

As tiny as it is (it would fit comfortably on the head of a pin, and the photo above is magnified hundreds-fold) it packs a lot into a small package: in addition to its sophisticated and multi-faced reproductive biology, it has two compound multi-lensed eyes, an elephant-like proboscis, two complex four-segment antennae, wings (when needed), a five-segment body, six legs, two pheromone-secreting cornical tubes for sending alerts to other aphids, and a tail (cauda). And it has a brain that has been extensively studied. So it seems to me it must live a rich sensory life, both conscious and sub-conscious.

What does an aphid think? I have hypothesized before that the basis for emotions is sensory, not rational, and that most animals probably feel emotions more varied and profound than we relatively sensory-deprived humans. I find no reason to believe that tiny creatures can’t feel emotions just because there’s no room for the requisite chemicals in their brains — nature is able to scale extremely powerfully, and if there’s room for sophisticated language, ruse, and reasoning capability in the brains of parrots and corvids I think it’s likely there is also room for very powerful emotions, and more ‘intellect’ than we might imagine, in the tiniest of creatures.

So I imagine that while aphids probably don’t imagine or invent (not because they couldn’t, but because from an evolutionary perspective there’s no reason, no need for them to have developed this faculty, so they haven’t), I believe that they think and feel. If they didn’t, what reason would they have to live, to procreate, to evolve as they have done for a period 100 times longer than humans? It makes no sense to me that nature would have evolved ‘dumb’ species that followed a prescribed program without thought or feeling. Like many human ‘programs’, such un-self-correcting creations would be very dangerous, integrate poorly into life communities, and act excessively in ways that would often be detrimental to life as a whole. Self-managing systems need their intelligence and sensitivity highly devolved and decentralized, for resilience and adaptability, and to optimize the success of the whole.

This is just a theory, of course, a hunch, an instinct, something that just ‘makes sense’ to me in the context of everything else I know and believe. Either I’m inappropriately and immodestly idealistic in believing this theory, or else it is correct.

If I’m correct, then the aphid I’m looking at right now does think and feel. She wonders. She is curious. She experiences the profound joy of living, and the commensurate desire to go on living. She enjoys the company of and communication with others. She is driven to learn and gets satisfaction from doing so. She experiences emotional grief and/or physical pain at being lost, separated, witnessing the death of a fellow creature, or being stepped on. She cares about all the life she can fathom, and as long as she lives she fathoms more, and passes along more knowledge, and more reason to care, in her DNA. That is why she is here.

What she doesn’t do, I’d guess, is worry. It seems to me worry requires an arrogance of control, an assumption that there is something we (or some other human) could be or should be doing or could have or should have done, different from what we actually ‘choose’ to do. The opposite of worry is acceptance. My aphid accepts the inevitability of death, with equanimity (a composed mind) and grace (a composed heart). I find that kind of humbling.

I suspect, too, she does not fear death. She wants to live, and she is not ignorant of the fact and the sting of death (if you doubt this, just observe how quickly and cleverly the tiniest of creatures secret themselves away when they ‘smell’ a human or other predator close at hand). But as she scurries along the edge of the hot tub, inches away from a strange and certain death by drowning, she knows that every action in life, every step, every exploration, is a calculated risk. But she knows that she must do these things, utterly new things, death-defying things, and what we might see in another creature as acts of astonishing courage, are to her simple imperatives, thrilling, wondrous, terrifying, remarkable, pulse-pounding must-do‘s. The aphid philosophy, one that perhaps we could learn from, were we not so cowed by our bloated, disconnected, over-rationalizing brains: Do it or die.

Aphid information mostly courtesy of Gordon Ramel.

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8 Responses to Aphid Philosophy

  1. Jim says:

    Yes – I have always held utmost respect and affinity with tiny creatures. Just because they are small doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings although of a rudimentary nature, but there again who are we to assume their perception is rudimentary. I will tell you that I walk along paths, and if I see an insect or a slug or snail or spider I will NOT tread on it if I know it is there. It has a right to live.So many people do not even think or imagine that they might be that tiny creature, if not now, then maybe in a previous incarnation.Perhaps?The thing to do is to imagine what it would feel like to your body if you were about to be CRUSHED by something huge. Brief yes, but excrutiatingly painful nonetheless!Jim

  2. A nice story, and I too care for even small animals. But I doubt that they have emotions and beliefs as you suggest.You write, correctly, “I have hypothesized before that the basis for emotions is sensory, not rational…” Sure – but the basis for sensations is not chemical but neural. More neurons, more sensations.But what makes sensations sensible – that is, what gives sensations their subjective feel – is the interplay between new input and previously existing neural structures. What we feel – what we sense – is to a large degree based on we believe. Numerous examples exist showing just how much our brains contribute to what we experience.But this contribution has to be stored ssomewhere. Big brains – a lot of interpretation, prediction, nuance. Small brains, much less so. We formulate hypotheses, make plans, anticipate – smaller creatures react to stimuli. It’s not ‘impending death’ to them, it’s ‘black shadow’ (which is why their scurrying is often irrational, why moths are attracted to flame).Finally, I would like to suggest that aphids and other tiny creatures don’t need to have thoughts and feelings just like us in order to be respected. Accept the aphid on it’s own terms – a finely honed neural system, of great complexity, able to navigate autonomously, seek out food and (to a degree) avoid predators, able to sense and experience, even if not able to feel just the way we do.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    What she doesn’t do, I’d guess, is worry. It seems to me worry requires an arrogance of control, an assumption that there is something we (or some other human) could be or should be doing or could have or should have done, different from what we actually ‘choose’ to do. The opposite of worry is acceptance. My aphid accepts the inevitability of death, with equanimity (a composed mind) and grace (a composed heart). I find that kind of humbling.I suspect, too, she does not fear death. She wants to live, and she is not ignorant of the fact and the sting of death (if you doubt this, just observe how quickly and cleverly the tiniest of creatures secret themselves away when they ‘smell’ a human or other predator close at hand). But as she scurries along the edge of the hot tub, inches away from a strange and certain death by drowning, she knows that every action in life, every step, every exploration, is a calculated risk.Whether insects and animals can think and feel , or not, the above is beautifully, beautifully put .. and somehow perversely appropriate when we are seeing some of the malevolent aspects of the human desire for control .. as a substantial part of the American population licks its lips waiting to watch the news that Stanley Williams has been terminated.He sounds OK with it to me, as if he will die with a clear conscience.I don’t doubt that dogs and cats think and feel .. how, I don’t have any idea. Other animals I have not observed enough to form an opinion, though intuitively I think there’s something to what Stephen suggests. I suppose I think that elephants, dolphins, and a range of other mammals, have *thoughts* and *emotions*, though maybe / probably we would not recognize them. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know where the line is / lines are, and whether it’s the same line(s) as some form of *consciousness* ?

  4. cindy says:

    Imagine if cats and dogs can write and blogs, what would, then, be our opinion about them having feeligns and emotions just like us? Scary thought since I still have 12 cats (3 die). I know ducks have. They know the TIME when I, or others would go and feed them. They would congregate on the side of the pond where we throw breads to them. They quack when they see me approaching that spot. IF they do not have brains and memories, how do they know about time? If they can tell time, then …I also know they would keep away from that corner when there are too many children (kids throw stones and empty soda cans at them), but not when there is a group of adults? So they have the ability to make ‘decision’, and …Interesting topic and discussion.

  5. Mariella says:

    I will use the same quote Jon did……”What she doesn’t do, I’d guess, is worry. It seems to me worry requires an arrogance of control, an assumption that there is something we (or some other human) could be or should be doing or could have or should have done, different from what we actually ‘choose’ to do. The opposite of worry is acceptance. My aphid accepts the inevitability of death, with equanimity (a composed mind) and grace (a composed heart). I find that kind of humbling”………….¿Will you call this “the courage” of the aphid?….Mariella…….

  6. When thinking of creatures like the aphid, I like to focus on the fact that all that exists in the Universe is composed of the same energy. We and the aphid and the air that we breathe are all made of stardust. The aphid has a portion of the exact same genetic material as humanity. We are all one. So why does humanity doubt the creatures that live around us? Why do we differentiate ourselves from the plants and animals, sometimes not even realising the relationships that we all have together? I have read a few of your blog articles, and I did a review on it a while back:just Google Jesse S. Somer and How to save the world. Some of what you say comes across as being quite complex…whereas I feel as though I can really conect with the writing style in the ‘aphid story’. You are obviously deeply into the blogosphere, look at all of your links. I definately am affected by your enthusiasm. Check out some of my articles on the m6.net site…I have hardly written any in the planetzepton blog as I’ve been very discouraged by the lack of comments by others. Maybe you could give me some ideas on how to attract more people to my sites.Peace,Jesse

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Jim: Your comment reminds me of a cartoon in the old Bloom County strip where all the characters hung upside down from trees so they didn’t harm any living thing. Stephen: Interesting argument, but for once I’m not sure I agree with you. The size of the brain seems much less related to intelligence (if you believe the scientific research) than the brain/body weight ratio. Isn’t it possible that in smaller creatures the neurons are just more efficient, when they need to be? And you seem to be suggesting that greater intelligence yields greater capacity for emotion, and I don’t see why that should be (in fact maybe nature gives some creatures more emotions to compensate for their lack of intelligence, so their love of life and drive to survive is equal. Sometimes rationalization, I think, actually diminishes, blocks, ’emotional experience’. The fact that scurrying is irrational doesn’t mean scurriers don’t feel as much emotion — and nature’s ‘fight or flight’ instincts apply to the brightest creatures, and are by definition ‘irrational’ (there’s no time for rational thinking). We’re beginning to discover astonishing complexity in subatomic particles and strings so small we can’t even imagine how we will ever see them — maybe we’ll also discover that the aphid’s brain compared to ours is like flash memory to printed circuits — as small as it needs to be to hold as much as it needs to hold.Jon: Thanks. I’m not sure there is a line. I think it’s a continuum, constantly being refined. Given time and increasing pressure (like West Nile) crows could actually become intelligent enough to create cities, armies, and develop mental illnesses symptomatic of unmanageable knowledge. And given time and sufficient spoon-feeding, humans could actually become dumber than doornails (some believe the process has already begun) ;-)Cindy: Thanks. As we learn more about how other animals communicate using non-verbal methods, I think we will be amazed at how much other creatures learn and know.Mariella: Yes, it’s courage in a way, but it is more grace. Courage is likely something that we show because we have no choice. I think we have the choice to be graceful or not.Jesse: Thanks for the kind words on your site. I’ve written a fair bit of advice to bloggers about how to attract more people to your site. Bottom line: Be unique, be helpful and/or interesting, and be patient. I can’t tell you how often during the first year of writing I nearly gave up blogging.

  8. Jim says:

    You never know – just because any of us have a finite size brain does not mean it doesn’t extend, network or connect with the universal brain at the minutest quantum level? Like a radio receiver. I don’t know, I’m not that clever – just like to ponder – its fun!Anyway the view is quite good from up here in the branches! ;-)Jim

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