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Science and Technology

Flies 'have free will'

Last Modified: 16 May 2007
Source: PA News

Scientists claim to have found evidence of free will in flies.

If confirmed, the discovery could overturn basic assumptions about the difference between humans and animals.

Understanding the mechanisms involved may also lead to development of free-thinking robots, bringing science-fiction to life.

Simple creatures such as insects are generally regarded as biological machines which only respond to external stimuli. Apparently variable behaviour in such animals is usually attributed to random activity in their brains.

An international study of fruit flies has now shown that such variability cannot simply be random. It appears to be generated spontaneously, but not randomly. The tested flies looked as if they exercised free will.

Dr George Sugihara, one of the researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said: "We found that there must be an evolved function in the fly brain which leads to spontaneous variations in fly behaviour. The results of our analysis indicate a mechanism which might be common to many other animals and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will."

If the scientists are right, then the annoying bluebottle or wasp that will not leave you alone is not innocently reacting to a programme. It is choosing to be a pest.

The research, reported in the online journal PLoS ONE, used a combination of automated behaviour recording and sophisticated mathematics.

Scientists tethered fruit flies in completely uniform white surroundings and recorded their turning behaviour. The flies received no visual cues from what was around them, and since they were fixed in space their turning attempts had no effect.

Lacking any input, their behaviour should resemble random noise, similar to that heard on a radio tuned between stations. But the analysis showed that the structure of their movement attempts was far from random. A host of increasingly complex random computer models all failed to simulate the fly behaviour.

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