Animals rely on instinct rather than sense

Some years ago, my 10-year-old son asked me, “Do animals have sense?” He said he wanted to know so that he could understand them better. I replied to him that we ourselves did not have enough sense to determine how much, if any, sense animals have. I added that they appear to have some, though their actions are probably the result of what we call instinct or natural prompting. I was at a loss to explain to him why we said certain individuals had “horse sense.”

Anthropomorphism (Latin for “human form”) is the act of attributing human characteristics to animals and should be avoided by students of biology and natural history, and most assuredly by writers. The natural tendency, however, is to humanize lower animals and interpret their behavior in light of human actions and capabilities.

As far as we know, the ability to analyze a situation after receiving various types of stimuli and to make a decision for a particular course of action is unique to the human species. Mammals, birds, reptiles and other lower animals think without knowing what they think; that is, they do not possess self-consciousness. Only humans seem to be endowed with this gift, and they alone develop what can be termed disinterested intelligence; intelligence that is not primarily concerned with their safety or well being but encompassing other aspects of the environment.

Just how much sense our wild neighbors have is difficult to determine. The seagull that carries the clam into the ozone to drop it on a rocky shore to break the shells shows something like reason, or a knowledge of the relationship between cause and effect. Though we might think of the bird’s actions in this light, it is more probable he behaves in this manner because he inherited an unthinking habit or instinct formed in his ancestors as a result of the pressure of hunger.

The sense, or wit, of lower animals seems to have been developed as a result of the struggle for existence, and it seldom seems to progress beyond the prudential stage. But, if the problem confronting the animal is complex, we sometimes see them providing amazing solutions. The sea otter using a rock as a tool to smash the shell of an abalone he has placed on his chest certainly seems to indicate he knows what he is doing.

Fear, affection, and hunger are the agents that developed the sense of the lower animals, as they were the prime factors in developing the intelligence of man. But, man has progressed, of course, while animals have stopped at these fundamental necessities of life—the need of safety, of food, and of offspring to perpetuate the species.

Failing to realize that animals do not possess disinterested intelligence, many humans interpret their actions in the same light as they would human endeavors and emotions. Consequently, the natural world is envisioned as some sort of idyllic Garden of Eden where all creatures, both great and small, live in a state of eternal bliss.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! The struggle for existence is an ongoing response to a fundamental law of nature, which says that too many of all species are produced and only the best adapted or fittest can survive in the ongoing struggle for the necessities of life. The sense or wit that animals have is directed entirely to the ultimate reasons for their existence: survival in order to reproduce. Humans, we hope, have progressed beyond that point.

Years ago, Alfred Lord Tennyson knowingly described the true situation in the jungle of the natural world when he wrote, “Nature is red in fang and claw.”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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