Wasps can do a type of deductive reasoning

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Paper wasp Polistes dominula

For centuries the arrogant human thought that deductive reasoning was the hallmark of human intelligence. Arrogant human is now awakening to the possibility that they have been wrong with respect to non-human intelligence and sensibilities for centuries. Today, we learn in The Times newspaper that the lowly wasp, the irritating wasp people like to kill mercilessly, demonstrates a type of deductive reasoning. It’s called transitive inference. It’s a type of reasoning which involves using known relationships to infer unknown relationships.

Polistes dominula – Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers put wasps through a series of tough experiments which honeybees had failed. The nervous system of wasps is a similar size to that of bees but they live in a different society to bees.

A honeybee colony has a single queen and many female workers of equal rank. The colonies of paper wasps have several rival reproductive females. These are known as ‘foundresses’. They compete and create separate hierarchies.

A wasp’s rank in a hierarchy affects its share of reproduction, work and food. Therefore it pays for them to go up in the ranks and this requires a certain amount of specialist intelligence which they have developed and which allows them to exhibit deductive reasoning by way of transitive inference. Is a bit of a blow to humankind’s arrogance.

“They seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships. Our findings suggest that the capacity for complex behaviour may be shaped by the social environment in which behaviours are beneficial, rather than strictly limited by brain size.”

Professor Elizabeth Tibbetts of the University of Michigan.

Transitive inference has also been observed in other species such as rats, pigeons and a small African fish (Astatotilapia burtoni). It’s funny that pigeons are also maligned and treated like the lowest of the low by the arrogant human. Pigeons are actually smart, great navigators and yes they can reason.

The scientific name for the two species of paper wasp used in the experiments at the University Of Michigan, managed by Elizabeth Tibbetts an evolutionary biologist, is Polistes dominula and Polistes metricus. Perhaps people will be less eager to squash them against the window pane in future.