Wasps Become the First Known Invertebrates to Demonstrate Reason Using Logic

In the experiment the wasps demonstrated the ability to use logic.
Donovan Alexander

Spring and summer bring out some of the most annoying insects, including the vengeful wasps. Yet, depending on who you ask, wasps are some of the most interesting insects on the planet. Residing on every continent but Antartica, Vespula vulgaris or the common wasp comes in a host of different colors and uses natural construction methods to build their housing units that can feature up to 50,000  wasps.

However, there may be much more to wasps than meets the eye. In a recent paper published by evolutionary biologists from the University of Michigan, researchers discovered that paper wasps can use a basic but potent form of reasoning.  In short, wasps just became the first known insects that can use reason and logic. Think of that next time, one of those critters sting you.


Transitive Inference

Both children and even some animals have been able to develop a simple form of reasoning called transitive inference. For the uninitiated, transitive inference is a form of inferential reasoning. For example, if you know that A > B and B > C and C > D and D > E, then you can conclude without being told than B > D.  

In a simpler example used in the paper the question, “If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then is A greater than C?” Some birds and mammals have shown some form of transitive inference, however, wasps are the first invertebrates to do so.

The Reasoning Wasp

The paper wasps mentioned in the paper demonstrated the ability to use transitive inference to figure out the relationships between various things that have not been explicitly compared with one another.

As mentioned by evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts from the University of Michigan, "We're not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem, but they seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships."

The study involved introducing the wasps to a hierarchical grading of colors called 'premise pairs'. Id the wasps were to land on the color B rather than the color A, they would receive a mild electric shock.

However, the experiment extended with the same thing happening to the wasp, if they landed on C rather than B, D rather than C, or E rather than D. Impressively and rather quickly, the wasps displayed a preference for landing on colors that would not shock, 66% of the time.

"I was really surprised how quickly and accurately wasps learned the premise pairs. I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees. But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular color was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations."

Though the researchers want to conduct more research in the future, this is a remarkable day for invertebrates.

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