Every spider is as brilliant as it needs to be!


Uh-oh, curmudgeon alert. Everyone has been sending me this article, “Spiders are much smarter than you think”. It’s a good article. It’s just that a few things about it set me on edge.

Smarter than I think? You don’t know what I think. I already have a high opinion of spider intelligence. But OK, they’re doing good work to spread the news about the abilities of spiders. You should read it if you don’t already know about it.

I’m also bothered by the word “smarter”. We can’t quantify intelligence! Not in people, not in spiders, not in anything. We can isolate bits and pieces of aspects of intelligence, and measure some of it, but “intelligence” in the broad sense is multifactorial and hard to pin down. What the article actually describes is behavioral adaptability and the capacity to model their environment. Spiders can do that! By studying them, we can discover interesting things about how they do that.

Another concern is that the article is almost entirely about a single species, Portia.

No fair! Jumping spiders are a kind of charismatic microfauna, cute and pretty. They are active predators, too, which tends to bias our impressions of their human-like behaviors. We are self-selecting for what we quantify as “smart”, which is often a word meaning “human-like”. A lot of spiders, though, are ambush predators who have a different suite of behaviors. Are they less smart? A black widow that left its web to chase prey on foot would be less “smart”, but we might judge it as more in alignment with our expectations.

I do very much agree with these sentiments, though.

“There is this general idea that probably spiders are too small, that you need some kind of a critical mass of brain tissue to be able to perform complex behaviors,” says arachnologist and evolutionary biologist Dimitar Dimitrov of the University Museum of Bergen in Norway. “But I think spiders are one case where this general idea is challenged. Some small things are actually capable of doing very complex stuff.”

Behaviors that can be described as “cognitive,” as opposed to automatic responses, could be fairly common among spiders, says Dimitrov, coauthor of a study on spider diversity published in the 2021 Annual Review of Entomology. From orb weavers that adjust the way they build their webs based on the type of prey they are catching to ghost spiders that can learn to associate a reward with the smell of vanilla, there’s more going on in spider brains than they commonly get credit for.

“It’s not so much the size of the brain that matters, but what the animal can do with what it’s got,” says arachnologist Fiona Cross of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Yes! So let’s avoid judging animals whether they are smarter or dumber.

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    Neural tissue is expensive. So any species will only have as much brain power as it needs to have.
    Bigger brains are in part the result of an arms race between herbivores and carnivores, it is also a result of the need for more complex social relationships among groups.
    The decline of the number of species of apes during the last few million years, and the resurgence of more species of monkeys could be a sign that brain power is not a fix-all solution for evolution.
    And considering the size limit for arachnids, something like Portia is a miracle, and might be the ultimate limit for arachnids.

  2. imback says

    Wait, I think I’ve also must have had training to associate a reward with the smell of vanilla. Has all this been just part of an experiment?

  3. PaulBC says

    I’m also bothered by the word “smarter”. We can’t quantify intelligence! Not in people, not in spiders, not in anything.

    Just to be pedantic, that’s not quantifying. It’s assigning a total ordering. You can’t do that either, but it’s at least a more reasonable goal. You might be able to come up with a list of tasks and determine which is usually better at it, a human or a spider. It will depend on the task. That will give you a partial ordering. Whether you want to ascribe the reason to “intelligence” is largely a matter of definition, but you can say something meaningful about capability.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    OT
    We just passed the “5 million dead” roadmark for COVID. And the anti-vaxxers show our claim to sapience is exaggerated.

  5. davidc1 says

    Pah ,piffle ,as far as spider smarts go
    if it is bigger than you ,
    run away ,
    if it is smaller than you
    eat it .
    Yes I know females are mostly bigger than males .
    So it really should be ,
    if it is bigger than you ,and it is the mating season ,make sure your affairs are in order ,then go forth and multiply ,then leg it .

  6. davidc1 says

    @4 Way off topic ,but has anyone seen the so called piece of gop art
    showing the snatch snatcher as an angel ,or something ,banishing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ,(nekid ) from the White House ?
    I swear the god botherers over there are getting madder by the hour .

  7. wzrd1 says

    I’m also bothered by the word “smarter”. We can’t quantify intelligence! Not in people, not in spiders, not in anything.

    True enough. I ran into another article complaining about the sheer idiocy of calling a brain a computer and any analogies being entirely wrong. I agree as well, digital computers have only one transmitter and modulation system, whereas there are more than a few neurotransmitters and neuromodulators that help power a pattern difference engine called a brain.
    https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-empty-brain?utm_source=pocket-newtab

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Brain failure!
    (Going off on a tangent)
    Dominic Raab of the British government has a cunning plan.
    Britain is short 100,000 lorry (truck) drivers and the logistic crisis is threatening the Christmas trade even worse than the situation in USA.
    So Raab has suggested using prisoners on day release to drive lorries.
    The flaw is, what are the odds that prisoners with the competence to drive heavy vehicles will overlap with prisoners due for/ trusted with day release?
    This reeks of desperation. The Bojo crime family is hoping to use other crooks to solve a problem that was seen coming years ago, and 8 weeks before Christmas they are clutching at any straw.
    We humans are NOT masters of using brains effectively!

  9. James Fehlinger says

    You might be able to come up with a list of tasks and determine
    which is usually better at it, a human or a spider.

    Shucks, if only spiders could be taught to drive cars,
    then we wouldn’t have to put up with that autopilot nonsense
    from Tesla.

    ;->

  10. says

    Emulating the full range of spider behavior is way beyond the abilities of today’s AI, which says something both about the complexity of spider behavior and the nonsense that many people believe about “the singularity” being around the corner.

  11. says

    “I ran into another article complaining about the sheer idiocy of calling a brain a computer and any analogies being entirely wrong. I agree as well, digital computers have only one transmitter and modulation system, whereas there are more than a few neurotransmitters and neuromodulators that help power a pattern difference engine called a brain.”

    Fallacy of denial of the antecedent. This only tells us that today’s digital computers are not brains.

    Brains are covered by the Church-Turing thesis, therefore they are computers of a sort.

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