When you have cockroaches in your kitchen, scuttling over your dishes, climbing on the cutting board, slipping into the cracks around the sink, the only thing—the only thing—you want in the world is for them to be dead. You don’t feel bad killing them, either. Cockroaches somehow seem different than mice, or raccoons, or bats, or all the other little creatures that love to take up residence in our homes. But are they?
What if cockroaches are conscious? For Aeon magazine, Brandon Keim explores the ethical dilemmas we face when we look a little closer at insect cognition. Keim doesn’t say that cockroaches are like you and I, but he does suggest that roaches may be a little more like bees—which have been shown to be quite adept communicators and community members—and less like six-legged harbingers of disgust. Catching up on what little research has been done on cockroach cognition, says Keim:
Among the surprising — to me, anyway — facts detailed by Lihoreau, Costa and Rivault about Blattella germanica (the German, or small cockroach) and Periplaneta Americana (the American, or large cockroach), found in kitchens and sewers worldwide, is their rich social lives: one can think of them as living in herds. Groups decide collectively on where to feed and shelter, and there’s evidence of sophisticated communication, via chemical signals rather than dances. When kept in isolation, individual roaches develop behavioural disorders; they possess rich spatial memories, which they use to navigate; and they might even recognise group members on an individual basis. Few researchers have studied their cognition, says Lihoreau, but cockroaches likely possess ‘comparable faculties of associative learning, memory and communication’ to honeybees.
As to whether cockroaches possess a self, in the pages of Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior, and Natural History (2007), co-written by William J Bell, Louis M Roth and Christine A Nalepa, I happened upon a reference to Archy, a popular early-20th-century cartoon cockroach who said: ‘Expression is the need of my soul.’ Archy’s inclusion was intended in fun, but there was a grain of truth. Cockroaches could very well possess a sense of self, and one that’s perhaps not entirely alien to our own.
If you want to get more intimate with this idea, novelist Haruki Murakami’s short story “Samsa in Love,” published last month in the New Yorker, inverts Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and imagines what happens when a cockroach-like creature “woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”
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