How the bee got its dance

There are only two species that have language — humans, and honeybees. Other animals communicate, but its only us two that have language. And language means grammar; some abstract structure which conveys meaning according to the arrangement of symbols in that structure.

Our language is vastly more sophisticated than the honeybees. Their language is something called a waggle-dance, which conveys information about a food source between a individual who has returned to the hive from foraging and between her fellow workers. She peforms her waggle dance and the length and orientation of different parts of the dance indicates the quality of the food source and the direction in relation the the current position of the sun. The dance has structure, and that structure conveys the meaning of the components within it — its a language, a primitive language, but still the only thing that looks close to ours in the animal kingdom.

Why is that? Why is the only other grammar not found in a fellow primate, nor even a fellow mammal but found in an insect?

Here’s my theory — language is a system with unparalleled power to communicate information. But this means that it also has unparalleled ability to deceive, which is what one of the basic properties of communication systems. If you can use language to convey a very specific message, you can also use it to make very specific deceptions, for example tricking someone the food is in one direction, while you go and enjoy it in another. Because of the unprecedented capacity of language to deceive, it exists at the top of a steep evolutionary mountain. Any species which is evolving language must have some protection against the threat of deception, otherwise the only defense is to ignore language-based communications all-together (in which case you don’t get any benefit, and so language-evolution never gets off the ground).

The human defense against deception-using-language is based on our other cognitive abilities — the ability to reason about who to trust and when to trust them. Co-evolving these capacities with language is one strategy which allows the evolution of language. The honeybees have used another, circumventing the threat of deception by making deception evolutionarily pointless: honeybees in a hive are all genetically identical, so although language inherantly contains the capacity to deceive, in honeybees there is no reason why deception itself would evolve to diminish the benefits of communicating through language.

Update: I was wrong about honey bees being genetically identical, but I don’t think it demolishes the argument (quoting N.) “Honey bees are not genetically identical. Worker sisters share 3/4 of the genes with each other, but would only share 1/2 their genes with any offspring they might produce, so they can better propagate their genes by helping the queen produce more sisters. Wikipedia link here

4 replies on “How the bee got its dance”

If you class the waggle dance as a language, wouldn’t you also include the communication between chimps, dolphins, or even some birds that have different calls for different dangers. What makes this dance language but not the sign language that chimps are said to be able to learn? What is your definition of language? I also don’t know if bees would be capable of deceiving through language because i don’t think they know what they were doing (see the Sphex wasp behaviour described by Dennet) – i mean, to deceive on purpose you would have to have an awareness of yourself, wouldn’t you. I can see that it might happen by accident – maybe if a hive of bees was under threat, automated deception might help some bees to break away and make a new colony – perhaps if only some bees could recognise the deception – they would be the better fed? er. I remember that Chimps have been observed to deceive – but I haven’t heard of another animal doing this. DO the bees have any choice or control over their dance, or is it something they are just programmed to do? Um.
Have you read West of Eden by Harrison? There were human-like reptiles called Yilane who had evolved separately to humans and couldn’t/ hadn’t learnt to lie (and were amazed when they saw humans could – i hope i have got this right). I wonder if it would be possible for language/ people to have evolved without the development of deception.
Love Harry. Apologies for ramble. x

sorry – i see you did define what you meant by language. I see. But I still strughgle with the thought that bees have language and chimps don’t – i feel there are other bits that define language that must be as important as the grammar business.

There maybe other animals that do have a grammar that are still undiscovered.

Yes, there are lots of other bits of language, and perhaps it is unfair (not to mention reductionist) to say that language “is” grammar just because this is the bit that no other creature can do (apart from the bees).

Thinking about it now, in light of what you said, I don’t think it would be possible to have anything like human language without deception as well. If you only ever tried to say the whole truth you’d be completely paralysed. And as soon as you realised you could compromise and misrepresent things a bit for conveneience, well, then the gates would be opened…

To say that bees have grammar, isn’t that like saying one sentence is a language? Bees just communicate distance and bearing with respect to the Sun right? Not exactly grammar in the Minimalist recursion sense.

A few other things:
– Saying language “is” grammar is a useful deception, because that recursive part of language which we call grammar is unique to humans and necessary for language.

– Doesn’t all this assume that language was selected for in humans because of its communication applications. See Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch (numerous) for thorough questionings of this assumption.

– Maybe deception isn’t neccessary for communication in your last sense Tom. We don’t reason based on assumed deception on the part of our interlocuter, rather we reason based on our knowledge of the imperfection of communication (see the all-to-familiar Grice’s maxims).

– Maybe deception strategies and honesty strategies can coexist in the population (doesn’t that feel right?) so that there is a pay-off for trusting people (in that most people are honestly communicating where the good huntin’ is) and a pay-off for deceiving people (because those gullible idiots will believe anything). Honest individuals don’t need a defense against deception, the honesty strategy needs a defense against the deception strategy. Honesty is a herd, deception a predator (or whatever).

-Maybe language-evolution doesn’t need to “get off the ground” if the gene for language arose saltationally… (again see Chomsky).

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