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The Astute Cockroach : The Behavior of This Lowly Creature May Tell Us How We Humans Became Smart

February 15, 1987|WILLIAM JORDAN | William Jordan is a Long Beach-based science writer.

The dog brought in the newspaper, and I sat down to read it over breakfast. Just as I opened to the movie reviews, a brown object the size of a tea bag leaped from the front section and scrambled into the previous day's paper, which was stacked next to the refrigerator. Even as my feet were leaving the floor and the paper flying toward the ceiling, I recognized the object for what it was--a large specimen of the American roach, Periplaneta americana.

If I were a layman, I would probably have heaved the papers out the window in a big wad. But 10 years as an entomologist had prepared me for this moment. Grabbing an empty jar, I closed in cautiously--roaches are covered with sensory hairs that perceive the slightest vibrations--and gently began turning the pages of the arts section, where it had taken refuge. Sure enough, the thing was expecting my move, and before I could react, it catapulted into Metro. I reached for that, and at the first touch the roach sprinted into the classifieds, where I finally succeeded, corralling it over an ad for a bankruptcy-divorce lawyer.

It then did what any creature tossed into a cataclysmic world would do: It panicked. It scrambled hysterically for several seconds, bouncing off the sides of the jar, falling on its back and flailing its way to its feet. It finally stopped to rest with its head pressed against the floor.

It lay there looking forlorn (not being forlorn, of course, because it takes conscious intelligence to understand how bad things are), but it also appeared to be contemplating its predicament. Then the tips of its antennae began to move ever so slightly. Like tiny, thread-thin snakes, they pushed into the crack between glass and paper, the tips probing and pulling back, probing, pulling back, with the shaft following flexibly along the lip of the jar.

I bent down to do some contemplating of my own, and all those years of study came flooding back. The roach was now an "organism," designed and built about 250 million years ago to fit a damp world of cracks and holes--cramped quarters beneath leaves, rocks, pieces of bark. And a mere 12,000 years ago, the roach was offered a whole new universe by that curious new brand of ape called Homo sapiens . Quite literally, the roach strolled out from beneath the forest floor and walked into the kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms and dens of human dwellings. Later, when sewers were invented, all the better.

A quick glance over the creature's flat, brown body revealed evidence of its evolutionary past. Plates of armor lay across its back; a wide shield covered its neck and head and formed a kind of wedge for pushing along beneath leaves or between the pages of a newspaper. Its design just happened to be perfectly suited to a prosperous life in the seams of civilization. Unlike mosquitoes and bedbugs, to take two from the multitudes, roaches retained simple jaws and now eat a general, balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins and fats--just like their human benefactors.

The roach began to stir. Its head raised up. The antennae stood tall and alert, then moved, slowly back and forth, stroking the air for molecules of information. I stared at this divinely astute organism and a pair of large black eyes appeared to stare back at me. The thought was impossible to avoid: I was looking into the eyes of an intelligent creature.

I flashed back to roaches I had known. There was Oscar, a male American roach who had lived in my kitchen in Berkeley. Every night I'd come home, turn on the lights, and there Oscar would be. I'd quietly roll up a newspaper, and as my club came whistling down, he would invariably bolt to safety beneath the stove. There were also the Madeira roaches, Leucophaea madera , that the entomology department raised in plastic garbage cans for insect physiology classes. About once a week we fed them dry dog food. Each hungry individual would grab a kernel in its jaws, drag it to some private nook and stand over it to protect his find, gnawing like some tiny, ravenous dog with a bone.

The point is that you could make a case for something similar to intelligence; roaches act smart.

But it is a complete illusion. Roaches have no intelligence at all. Tests indicate that they have a very low learning capacity, and what little they do absorb they soon forget. In one experiment, cockroaches were relieved of their heads after being trained to lift a leg, and the body performed without a hitch; the leg lifted on cue.

And so here was this creature--this sublimely alert, sensitive insect that looked smart and acted intelligent-- and it was all an illusion. What passes for smartness is pure instinct. It bubbles up from the structure of the nervous system without any alterations from experience. In computer terms, it would be called a hard-wired program.

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