Monday, May 16, 2011

My Log 256: On the lookout for the first ducklings and considerations of instinct, and what the hell it is.

Two Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhynchos) at ...Image via Wikipedia

For the last three weeks or so I have been watching carefully, as I cycle around Dow’s Lake and the canal, for the first family of ducklings to appear. The earliest date I have ever spotted such a family was May 13, but for some reason this year I was hoping to beat that record.

No such luck, I’m afraid, although I identified many couples among the ducks who looked like they could become proud parents at any moment. Pure imagination, of course.

About he only interesting things I saw during these weeks were some loons, which one can depend on turning up during the migratory year. At least, I think you can. And I think they were loons. Can’t be altogeher sure, of course.

My concentration on ducklings got me to wondering about the method of their birth, emerging from an egg. And that set me to wondering how a duck knows that if she sits on this egg, it will produce a small baby. The only reason I could come up with was that it is instinctual, they just have an instinct that this is the way to do it? Instinct? Does it exist somewhere in the living organism, or is it like that other puzzler, among humans, the soul? Personally, I always deny that there is any such thing as a soul. No one has ever seen it. No one knows where it is to be found. In fact, most people find it impossible to describe exactly what it is. Therefore, it seems to me there is a good case for whichever philosopher it was who claimed that to talk of a soul was simply a way of talking about something. The ghost in the machine, I think is how this bloke described it.

Well, what the hell is instinct? When I tentatively suggested it is something inbred, one of my friends said, ah, yes, but the duck knows to sit on the eggs by having seen it done before, it is a learned behaviour.

Really? That surprises me, if it is so. It would be like saying that for a goose to set out on a migration route to some place it has never been before would be a learned experience. Impossible to have learned it if he has never done it, right?

I looked up various definitions of instinct, and since I tend to reject anything that might be described as faith-based, I veered towards the scientific description.

If anyone is interested, the American Heritage and Science Dictionary says that instinct is an inherited tendency of an organism to behave in a certain way, usually in reaction to its environment and for the purpose of fulfilling a specific need. The development and performance of instinctive behavior does not depend upon the specific details of an individual's learning experiences. Instead, instinctive behavior develops in the same way for all individuals of the same species or of the same sex of a species. For example, birds will build the form of nest typical of their species although they may never have seen such a nest being built before. Some butterfly species undertake long migrations to wintering grounds that they have never seen. Behavior in animals often reflects the influence of a combination of instinct and learning. The basic song pattern of many bird species is inherited, but it is often refined by learning from other members of the species. Dogs that naturally seek to gather animals such as sheep or cattle into a group are said to have a herding instinct, but the effective use of this instinct by the dog also requires learning on the dog's part. Instinct, as opposed to reflex , is usually used of inherited behavior patterns that are more complex or sometimes involve a degree of interaction with learning processes.

So far so good. But where the hell is this instinct? Can I touch it?

It makes me think of a young woman friend of mine, a recent mother, who, every time I see her tells me she has moments of unexpected pure joy, as for instance, when her baby smiles at her. This is something she didn’t expect, although it is also something that many people would describe as part of a mother’s instinct. Yet it is known many woman don’t have this particular instinct, but prefer not to have any children at all.

Don’t ask yourself questions that require knowledge to answer, Boyce. You are too dumb for this game.

Meantime I continue to look out for the first ducklings of the year.
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