CHAPTER 12: WOOD, NOT BUMBLE
At about the same time I was proudly accepting my undergraduate degree from a good, but not renowned, state university, DeWitt Henry was receiving one of the multiple post graduate degrees he would earn, a PhD from Harvard.
When I was embarking on a business career, perhaps disillusioned by what quantum physics had done to my science, DeWitt set about to make his mark, a gigantic mark. While working on his PhD, he and Peter O'Malley, a future baseball mogul, founded Ploughshares. Ploughshares, under his leadership, is one of the, if not the, most prestigious Literary Journal in the world. He taught at Emerson College and became a full professor. He has published more than fifty essays and six books.
His work has been extensively reviewed by many. The consensus is he is brilliant.
. . . .
I was sitting on my son's patio one warm spring afternoon. This was a time when selling was important to me. My thoughts were not on the beautiful day, but on so called practical matters. Half dozing, I daydreamed of being a better salesman, making more money, getting more out of life. Then something happened that made me see a bigger picture.
The floor of the patio was concrete. The sides were open to the outdoors. Wooden columns supported wooden beams that made up the ceiling. The ceiling was designed to protect one from the sun, but there was space between the beams open to the sky. All the wood, whether column or beam, was unpainted and weathered gray. This wood was important to our local neighborhood wood bees.
If everything is connected, these bees are tied to the bees and wasps of my childhood, to the bees and wasps that flew a million years ago. But wait, there is more. If there is a timeless place where effect does not follow cause, where there is no turtle problem, these ancient flying creatures could be affected by a wood bee we see today.
Wood bees, also known as carpenter bees, are common in our area. For a couple of reasons, many people consider them pests, to be poisoned or killed in other ways.
First, the wood bee looks like a bumble bee, which can sting. The wood bee, especially the male wood bee, is very aggressive. Although he cannot sting, no human likes to have an angry bee buzzing around his head.
Second, wood bees damage wood, especially unpainted patio wood that is weathered gray. When my son, Michael, bought his house, and with it, his patio, he and wood bees became mortal enemies.
The female wood bee finds and expands holes in wood. Or she chews new tunnels. She then collects pollen, in the usual bee way, puts it in the tunnel, and lays her eggs. The eggs hatch, the young bees (larvae) eat the pollen, eventually becoming new, adult wood bees. Over time, enough tunnels can weaken beams of patio wood to the point of collapse.
That particular warm spring afternoon twenty or thirty wood bees were patrolling the patio. They were behaving exactly like an epidemiologist (hereafter, bug scientist) would predict. I knew some of the ways my son had tried to discourage the bees - spraying wood with poison, painting over the tunnels.
But suddenly, I knew Michael was going to try a new tactic. He came onto the patio carrying a tennis racket. He promptly served one of the bees well into the backyard. Humans 15, Bees Love.
I was impressed, but I don't think the surviving bees felt the same emotion. Also, I don't think any bug scientist has ever predicted how they would react. The wood bees seemed to quickly come to the conclusion that "discretion is the better part of valor".
After the tragic death of one of their members, the bees kept close watch on Michael. Whenever he approached, they would fly close to the wooden columns or up, between the wooden beams. He couldn't get a clear swing. I believe, at the end of the day, the score was still Humans 15, Bees Love.
Observing these wood bees made me think they were pretty smart. Perhaps it is not even that weird to think each bee may have a mind of its own. And its own worldview. Being obsessed with sales, which could be defined as the art of getting others to do what you want them to do, I asked myself “What does a wood bee want to sell?”.
Before we can explore the mind of a wood bee, we must first admit to the possibility that a wood bee has a mind. You may find it possible to believe I have a unique worldview and you have a different, unique worldview. It is, however, probably more difficult to believe both worldviews are equally valid. Or invalid. But it requires a quantum leap to accept that a wood bee has a worldview, and this worldview is just as valid, or invalid, as yours or mine.
As I may have said, and definitely meant to say, I have been interested in science since I was very young. At first, I was attracted to it because I believed it potentially could answer any question. Then I read about quantum physics which was definitely science, but was definitely not definite. Quantum physics, for example, states that one can never know the exact location of an electron, but only the probability that it will be found at a particular place. When quantum physics looked at an imaginary feline (Schrodinger's cat), it asserted that, under certain circumstances, the cat could be alive or dead, or both alive and dead – until you looked at it, the cat was in this strange quasi-state.
To me, when one asks, as quantum physics does, what does it means to be here or there, and especially when one makes, as quantum physics does, life and death nebulous, you are leaving the world of science and approaching the world of philosophy.
If quantum physics hadn't shown the philosophical nature of science, I don't think I would have seen the evidence that is everywhere, that wood bees and every other creature around us has a mind and, probably, a unique worldview.
The bee brain is made up of about one million neurons. The human brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons (about 100,000 times as many as are in the bee brain) and many more neuroglia (or glial cells) which serve to support and protect the neurons. When I first read this, it made me wonder what they meant by “protect”. Were there a bunch of little terrorist cells running around shooting neurons?
When we have a group of neurons as in the human brain, we are back to the subject of neural networks. We need to consider the many different combinations of "excited" neurons that are possible, whether these neurons are in bee or man. I would like to have this discussion, in part, because of the current belief that our memories, thoughts, and even our being self aware, is a product of neural networks. What I say will also apply if it is later discovered that glial cells play a greater part than we now think. I don't know if bee brains contain something like glial cells (bug scientists may know), but it doesn't really matter. In fact, what I say would apply if it is discovered (by whatever scientists that studies really, really small things) that large groups of “similar molecules within a cell” are behaving in a neural network like manner.
Such a discovery might support a theory that individual cells could be self aware.
Is there somewhere a proper expert with the proper equipment to monitor the movement of molecules or even atoms in a living cell? If he exists now or sometime in the future, he needs to be aware of my thoughts.
Living cells, such as neurons, are really huge. To understand why I say this, let me relate something I read recently; If the diameter of a human hair were expanded to the height of the Empire State Building, a DNA molecule (which is made up of a large number of atoms and is usually found within the nucleus of a cell) would be the size of the toenail of a small dog sitting in the lobby. The "similar molecules within a cell" that I was talking about are much smaller, made up of a few dozen or a few hundred atoms.
If a scientist were small enough to enter the lobby of this little Empire State Building residing in a human hair and pet the small dog on the head, he would have to sit down at a table and peer through his microscope to see these molecules. In this context, the living cell is very large.
A cell is so large that, whether or not it lives in a man or a wood bee, it may well be able to support the chemical reactions needed, not just to make life possible, but to actually think. The power of neural networks made up of many cells tied together is close to infinite.
The first bee took to the air 130 million years ago. The first tennis racket was produced about one hundred forty years ago. Even today, you do not see a tennis racket on every street corner. It is a safe bet that the wood bees on my son's patio had never seen a man carrying a tennis racket. Instinct, whatever that is, could not have told the bees to beware. Only the death of a wood bee made the survivors realize: man plus tennis racket equals danger.
Ancient wood bees liked to tunnel into wood. They had the teeth, or whatever, for it. Each bee was proud of the perfect round entrance and knew his particular tunnel would be the best home for his future offspring.
A wood bee flying around a young Abe Lincoln's log cabin a couple of centuries ago would have felt proud of his particular tunnel home. The neurons in his wood bee brain had changed little from those that lived in his ancient ancestor. When he saw a gangling young man walking around, he felt anger. He could imagine the giant monster stepping on him or eating his mate. Wood bees can't sell. They can't speak English. The only way to sell the monster on the idea he should leave was to buzz angrily around his head. And it usually worked.
When my son served a wood bee into the backyard, the surviving wood bees' anger probably increased, but a new emotion, fear, instantly appeared. To any intelligent creature, the solution was obvious - fly close to the beams, don't give the monster a clear shot.
. . . .
Dewitt Henry is an expert in the group we are calling the literary elite. There are many interested non-experts in this group. Most are nothing like me. If DeWitt thinks my writing is worth reading, maybe these people who are nothing like me will also.