Thursday, August 14, 2008

Life, meaning, and the cockroach

In my mind's eye, I have imagined a cockroach – but, interestingly enough, a dead cockroach. Is there really any difference between us and the cockroach? Of course, one argues, there are a host of differences that come immediately to mind! Consider all the important essentials that mark humans from all other mammals, much less from this loathsome insect. “We are as gods when compared to the cockroach!” a traditionalist might proclaim.

Yet are we so distinct from the cockroach, from any insect really, to require such transcendental comparisons? I think not. There's reason to be humbled:
Humans possess 100,000,000,000 brain cells. A cockroach has nearly 1,000,000 brain cells; a fruit fly, only 250,000. Still, insects exercise impressive information management: They pack neurons into their brains 10 times more densely than mammals do. They also use each brain cell more flexibly than mammals. Several far-flung tendrils of a single neuron can each act independently—boosting computing power without increasing the number of cells. Somehow that circuitry allows a honeybee, with barely a million neurons on board, to meander six miles from its hive, find food, and make a beeline directly home. Few humans could do the same even with a map and a compass.[1]
And there's the host of biological similarities, left-over insults stemming from our species common descent with modification from the cockroach 500 million years ago or so.

Decades ago, as a teenager, my brother and I were helping my father completely remodel a dilapidated house. A bit too casually we chained the base of the semi-rotting front porch to the hitch of a working man's, no nonsense white pick-up truck. When, slowly, the wooden structure stripped away with all the dignity of a crusted scab being peeled from the face of a room temperature corpse, what jittery army crawled from the now gaping mouth below front door and foundation was a site to behold. Hundreds of brownish-red, Jelly Belly-sized eggs tumbled about while thousands, maybe even millions of shiny, brown-shell shielded cockroaches jiggled about chaotically, pouring out of every nook, slot, and concrete cranny of the house and porch. To the delighted disgust of our boyish curiosity, dotted here and there among the brown shimmering mass were even a few white specimens – albino cockroaches, or so we thought – appearing as some priestly class of cockroach, somehow specially separated, holy exceptions to their otherwise more unclean, tainted-colored brethren.

Moving a shovel above them to get in a good smash was difficult. And that day certainly marked the record for me being perceived by more minds at one time than at any since. Each 18-jointed insect, madly trying to escape to anywhere but there, was training no less than 4,000 individual lenses upon its monstrous primate invaders.[2] Even their rear-ends sported finely-tuned perceptors, motion detectors which allow them to determine the most efficient escape trajectory.[3]

Cockroaches don't live that long, two-and-a-half years at most.[4] So my brother and I have been long forgotten by our zillion viewers. But while alive cockroaches learn from experience and draw from memory just as do higher mammals, Japanese researchers assure us:
Cockroaches have a memory and can be taught to salivate in response to neutral stimuli in the way that Pavlov's dogs would do when the famed Russian doctor rang his bell [....] Such "conditioning" can only take place when there is memory and learning, and this salivating response had only previously been proven in humans and dogs. Now, cockroaches appear to have that aptitude too.[5]
In a world of brains, numbers of neurons count for something, even if not everything. I think I saw more than one hundred thousand cockroaches that day. So the amount of neural mass controlling all those cockroaches was heaver than the neural mass inside my head. I have heard estimates that there are six trillion cockroaches on the planet, but I think that's probably too small. There are only about six billion people, so for each person, there would be such an unfair allotment of but one-thousand cockroaches for each. Could I have gotten so lucky that day to have seen so many? I doubt it. “Scientists estimate that there are one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) ants living on the earth at any given time,”[6] so I'm guessing cockroaches are at least right up there in such large numbers.

The cockroach -- so many of them; so few of us. Perhaps the law of supply and demand establish our value to nature. There are far fewer people, far more cockroaches. So we are worth more, rare beings that we are. The Baji River dolphin and friends would surely agree with such an assessment.


[image] “The Gokiburi Wars” Kyonoki June 21, 2007 (Acessed August 14, 2008)

[1] “Consciousness in a Cockroach” Discover January 10, 2007. (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[2] “The cockroach & amazing facts” Essortment (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[3] “Roach Anatomy: The Inside Story” Wendell's Yucky Bug World (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[4] “Cockroaches and Their Control” College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University. July 1998 (Accessed August, 14, 2008)

[5] Tan Ee Lyn “Cockroaches can learn -- like dogs and humans” Reuters June 13, 2007 (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[6] “Number of Ants in the World“ They Physics Fact Book (Accessed August 14, 2008)

Labels: , , ,


At 5:12 PM, Blogger wiggy said...

Monty, you are a dang good writer! I was very entertained and aesthetically pleased by your description of that mound of cockroaches. You should consider writing a work of fiction, maybe about cockroaches. Write on, friend!


Post a Comment

<< Home