Fruit flies glued to a wire show free will is not limited to humans, researchers argue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am

Is there such a thing as free will? And if so, is it what distinguishes people from animals by our ability to tell right from wrong? These weighty questions have haunted the greatest minds for centuries. But if a new experiment carried out by researchers led by Bjorn Brembs, of the Free University of Berlin, is anything to go by, the metaphysical significance of these questions may have been vastly overrated. This is because, if the experimenters are right, even flies have free will.

Fruit flies were glued to a wire so they were only able to turn, inside white surroundings - without physical clues and environmental stimuli. If the flies were nothing more than biological automatons, their turning patterns should be random and resemble random computer-generated patterns.

Such, however, was not the case when the team compared their patterns. The divergence, Dr Brembs and his associates argue, must mean the flies somehow make primitive decisions: the turning pattern exhibits a kind of foraging strategy observed in other animals, as well as humans, to explore their surroundings.

'If even flies show the capacity for spontaneity, can we really assume it is missing in humans?' Dr Brembs said in an interview with the online science journal, PLoS One, which published his research this week.

He was referring to determinism, a philosophical tradition that argues free will is an illusion and our actions are determined by prior causes, only we may not be aware of them.

Details of the experiment, including a nifty video clip of a tethered fly, are at


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