Some time ago, my brother Josh mentioned a quote by Noam Chomsky in which, in order to make a point, the linguist used the impossibility of determining the underlying motives of an insect. However, Josh could not remember the specific reference. I have since found the interview in which Chomsky uses the example.
When asked if he had ever been psychoanalyzed, Chomsky responds:
“I do not think psychoanalysis has a scientific basis. If we can’t explain why a cockroach decides to turn left, how can we explain why a human being decides to do something?”
While I appreciate the method of using entomology in order to gain insight into the inner workings of our own species, I’m not sure what Chomsky really means, or rather, if I do know what he means, then I don’t agree. We may not know such things for cockroaches specifically, but for several insect species, we know, or have some evidence towards understanding, the mechanisms that drive individuals to make choices in direction. For example, a relatively recent study involving desert ants provides evidence that ants in the genus Cataglyphis can “count” on some level, and that it is this counting that guides its movements. Ocelli in many insects are used to process light, and individuals will make decisions based off information acquired through the ocelli, deciding to avoid light or head in a certain direction based on the location of light patches (often time the sun).
Another unusual aspect of using a cockroach to make his point is that in doing so, Chomsky seems to be ignoring or bypassing an important point – cockroaches are unable to talk. Chomsky, as a linguist, may have mistaken the hissing cockroach for the hissing consonant, but the realm of speech is one dark recess in which these critters have never dwelt. I could ask Chomsky how he is feeling, and, despite his apparent resignations, he could theoretically respond, whereas I would be unable to ask the same of a cockroach with any degree of success. This difference between our two species would seem to provide a critical hit to the strength of the comparison.
But I’m no entophilosopher.