Archive for the ‘Instinct’ Category

Hard Wired? Not So fast!

March 3, 2016

Swallowing is self-taught. Anything else a bit more sophisticated is taught by others. We are cultural animals. Discuss.

Massimo Pigliucci, a (Roman!) biology PhD cum philosophy PhD teaching from an elevated chair in New York, objected to my tweeting aphorism above: “That is contradicted by a number of well established studies in developmental psychology, as well as by research on other primates.”

OK, Massimo, relax, I was a bit quick, thus simplistic in my formulation. Any discourse is incomplete, I was pointing at a direction. Indeed, I am a great advocate of ethology. Ethology, the experimental study of behavior, is an experimental field. That means its fundamental architecture is made of experiments.

Nicotinoid Insecticides Don't Kill Bees Directly, But Make Them Neurologically Dysfunctional Enough To Die From It

Nicotinoid Insecticides Don’t Kill Bees Directly, But Make Them Neurologically Dysfunctional Enough To Die From It

[All scientific fields are like gravity, they are experimentally driven. We basically know, experimentally speaking, not much more than what Newton knew already, as far as gravity is concerned (with the further twist of gravity being a field at speed c, like electromagnetism, hence, waves, etc.). A true revolution will happen in gravity the day we find something completely unexpected (the fact that gravity at this point is also equivalent to a space curvature theory is a triviality consecutive to Bernhard Riemann’s deep differential manifold theory). Some say we already found something unexpected, the phenomenon known as “Dark Matter”]

Ethology is also experiment driven. And our experiments are not as sophisticated as they soon will be. Differently from gravity, the progress in ethology is going to be quick, and very deep.

Ethology discovered already what writers of fables for children, and “primitive” “savages” hunting for survival, have long known: advanced animals care, have a sense of justice, are observant, loving, etc. More generally, advanced animals,, and others, not even very advanced are endowed with many other sophisticated behaviors we used to attribute to humans exclusively, etc.

Ethology has now gone further: ethologists also discovered that sophisticated, virtuous human-like “instincts” are not universal, even in a species which exhibit them: exploiters and freaks are not just a human phenomenon. In prides of lionesses, the same particular individuals tend to do all the work. Worse: lionesses have been observed having no maternal “””instinct”””. Other, experienced and caring lionesses had to intervene.

So animals have been observed to have altruistic behaviors, or behaviors making group life possible. (It’s quite a bit a chicken and egg situation: without apparently “hard wired” behavior, group life is impossible; the “group” could be just mother and child, such as a leopard and her kitten, or a mother orangutan and her child…)

However, ethology has not yet determined systematically how much is learned from others, and from the environment.

Hence the role of other animals, and how much is self taught is not clear at this point (insects such as wasps and bees “think” at least seven times faster than humans, so they can learn fast, and it looks like “instinct” to us!). In either case, when there is learning, there is no “hard wiring”. Or more exactly much of the “hard wiring” comes from the neurological life of the individual, as it does in any… creator. The creature being created by itself as creator of itself. God inside.

Learning is essential for survival of bees. Honey bees make repeat visits only if said plant provides enough reward. A single forager will make visits to that type of flower for most of the day, unless the plants stop producing nectar or weather gets adverse. Honey bees practice associative learning, and standard classical conditioning, which is the same in honey bees as it is in the vertebrates.

In other words, if even insects learn much more than a few tricks, as I have long suspected, we don’t know what “instincts” are really made of. This will have to be determined by further, much more refined ethological studies (differently from gravity, where it’s not clear what new experiments to do, and how to get results, although LIGO and VIRGO may well bring breakthroughs… In ethology, new experiments are just matter of financing, considering the progress of micro-electronics).

A famous example of what I am talking about is Lorentz’s geese (he got the Nobel for that). Young geese were imprinted on Konrad being their mom, and thereafter followed him everywhere, at some point of their development.

Why can’t that happen for all behaviors, and all species with advanced brains? In other words, could not just all our behaviors come, to a great extent, from some sort of imprinting?

Hey, one can self-imprint. When I want to eat more correctly, I starve myself a bit, and then eat the correct foods (say apples, carrots, tofu). Then I repeat a few times. Then I long for apples, carrots, tofu…

So south American monkeys have a sense of justice. But that does not mean that sense of justice is “hard-wired”. It may just have been taught. By others. Other monkeys. Or it may even be a sort of natural monkey science. Indeed natural interactions with others can be a teaching experience (or a succession of experiences, until a theory arises)…

But that does not mean that sense of justice is “hard wired”. It may just have been taught. By others. Other monkeys. Or it may even be a sort of natural monkey science. Indeed natural interactions with others can be a teaching experience (or a succession of experiences, until a theory arises)…

Standing up, and being able to run, is crucial to the survival of herbivores. A casual look at how a new born herbivore stands up shows that it learns to do so in a few minutes. Some moves are learned in a few seconds. However, today’s most sophisticated programmers could not write such a program. Nor does the brain of a small antelope contain a large computer loaded with such a software. Thus the truth: the antelope learns to stand up. That means it hard wires itself through the learning process. The environment in the most general sense imprints it with the appropriate circuitry.

Ethology will enlighten neurology, and conversely. Both fields are just getting started.

Patrice Ayme’

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