Joshua Sokol writes: Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.
In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.
Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”
In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.
This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.
Among philosophers of mind, that idea has racked up citations, including supporters and critics. And by its very design, Japyassú’s paper, which aims to export extended cognition as a testable idea to the field of animal behavior, is already stirring up antibodies among scientists. “I got the impression that it was being very careful to check all the boxes for hot topics and controversial topics in animal cognition,” said Alex Jordan, a collective behaviorial scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz, Germany (who nonetheless supports the idea).
While many disagree with the paper’s interpretations, the study shouldn’t be confused for a piece of philosophy. Japyassú and Laland propose ways to test their ideas in concrete experiments that involve manipulating the spider’s web — tests that other researchers are excited about. “We can break that machine; we can snap strands; we can reduce the way that animal is able to perceive the system around it,” Jordan said. “And that generates some very direct and testable hypotheses.” [Continue reading…]