What is an emotion? We interpret emotions as happiness, fear, anger. Emotions are conveyed in multiple ways – by facial expressions like smiling and scowling and by verbal communication such as laughing or screaming. A cockroach has a rigid exoskeleton which does not allow for movement therefore it cannot show emotion via facial expression. And although only around 35 out of several thousand cockroach species have been studied at first hand, the common household cockroach is not known to communicate via sound (although there is a species of cockroach reared by cockroach fanciers called the Gromphadorhina which is known to hiss). So here again – the cockroach does not express emotions verbally either. Instead it is believed that the cockroach, and all insects, react to the environment stimulus. And what exactly would make a cockroach happy? A pile of fresh food? A warm damp place to sleep? For example, when a cockroach senses movement – whether it be a movement like a branch moving in the wind, or the hovering of a fatal broom held above it, its first reaction is to simply run. Can we interpret the action of its running as fear? Is it frightened for its life? Or it is simply a reflex action?
Science would suggest it is a simple reflex in all insect behaviour including the cockroach. But clearly this is a subject that goes round and round in circles. Because when we express emotions such as happiness a chemical called Endorphins is released in our brains. And – guess what….Endorphins have also been discovered in the insect brain! So does that mean that insects feel happiness and fear just like us?
So it appears that even the experts don’t really yet understand whether insects have emotions or not. Perhaps they never will. However Endorphins present in the insect brain certainly allow for the possibility regardless of the lack of facial expressions or verbal communication. Perhaps its best we just don’t know because if we conclude that they do, then would we treat them differently? In 1976 Muriel Rukeyser, an American poet and political activist, wrote a poem entitled St. Roach which gives food for thought. What do you think?
by Muriel Rukeyser
from The Gates, McGraw-Hill, 1976
For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.
Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color that was
neither good nor bad.
I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.
Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.