I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to imagine an comparative tree of different animals’ brains. Luckily, Colby professor of Biology Josh Martin created a chart (that was easy to understand even for non-scientifically minded individuals like myself) to explain how animals have different nervous systems, and how that plays into the evolution of the human race. 

Somewhere deep in the conglomerate of useless knowledge in my brain, I knew that sponges do not have brains. I did not, however, take that knowledge and consider what other animals’ nervous systems look like. Professor Martin looks at how higher functions of the brain play out in “lower” animals, or animals that are not normally considered to be overly intelligent. According to Professor Martin’s research, the female praying mantis has a nervous system that is relatively similar to that of humans. They have a central nervous system that can be scientifically considered a brain, and it controls the parts of the body in ways that are similar to our own brain. I wish that I could include the chart that Professor Martin used in his presentation, but basically for this similarity to occur, humans and praying mantises must have a common ancestor somewhere along the evolutionary line. One can only imagine what that human-bug hybrid might have looked like.

Since the nervous systems are so similar, I wonder to what degree the brains react in similar ways, specifically regarding reflexes. If a person slams their finger between the door and the doorjamb, the first reaction after removing the finger from its painful position is normally to move it to make sure it still works. It’s an involuntary action. Similarly, when Professor Martin started talking about how interesting hand movement is, almost everyone in the audience began opening and closing their hand. While this might have been voluntary for some, the thought that bringing attention to a certain body part caused the movement was interesting.

I wonder if animals with similar nervous systems have similar reflexes. I do not mean withdrawing limbs from pain. I mean having the cognitive function to recognize that a part of the body is being brought to their attention, and moving that part of the body is a direct response to that recognition. Of course, if you talk about hand movement to an ant, nothing will happen. I imagine this study would include causing a very small vibration to a limb of an insect with a similar nervous system. After the initial movement from the disruption, does the insect move again to assess the damage of the limb? Would they check on it again later to continually access the damage?

I think this area of study is very interesting. While there are thousands of studies and theories that compare humans to primates, finding such a simple yet strong connection between humans and insects widens the lens for evolutionary theories. Though the seminar did not end with an answer or direction as to what the common ancestor between humans and praying mantises would have been like, researching the cognitive similarities regarding attention, motivation, and aspiration between humans and other animal groups is what will connect the dots to form a timeline in evolutionary history.