Watching how animals learn

My essay this year in Cosmos & History’s collection of papers on “What Is Life” is importantly about noticing that animals are not primarily involved in conflict, as the Darwinian theory and the equations of ecology are described to mean.   Life’s Hidden Resources for Learning

When watching animals behave, fish in a stream or mice in the shadows, or even ants, they’re primarily involved in exploring.    That learning behavior, poking around their local environments, seems focused on finding things that are free to use, and, won’t get them in danger.

Punishment is not what guides that, but discovery.
Punishment is what signals that a learning process has failed!

It’s the learning animals are observably doing on their own, actively and individually, about their own particular environment, that most determines their individual successes or failures.

The following is from a 12/25 response to an email conversation, with Mary & Stan.   We were talking about

how the depression and apathy of caged animals is evidence of how their natural learning in interrupted by being caged…

I think there are some good examples, even good solid economic use for watching how animals behave in cages. That’s how it was noticed that they become listless and disoriented when treated that way.  It lead to a complete rethinking of the way zoos are designed and major changes in how we work to preserve diversity of animal life in the wild too.

That observation by the zoologists has also started to become part of our culture and (slowly percolating) wider recognition that all living things need their environments to be alive. Living in space vehicles in outer space WE would become sense deprived!

All animals are learning creatures, not input-output machines. Learning from that also has at least one really huge economic value. The difference between machines and learning things is quite essential to our learning  why the learning of our economies, full of creative learning people, is so handicapped.   All sorts of evidence points to their not learning how to survive, but how to self-destruct…!

There are surely also lots of simpler ways in which the individual learning of animals is employed by trainers and entertainers and to help people understand and navigate environments of many sorts. Seeing eye, hunting and rescue dogs and other service & entertainment animals is one obvious one.

A horseman is very sensitive to the horse’s knowledge of the trail, and notice if their mount reacts to new smells and things too, for example, alerting the rider to things only the horse would know about. There are probably lots of other ways we use animals as knowledge workers, once you acknowledge that they actually spend most of their time doing just what we do, poking around for what they find interesting…

One of my most compelling experiences was ten minutes or so that I spent watching a little shaded hillside stream on a hot afternoon in Tennessee some years ago. There was a bigger black water bug quite clearly engaged in teaching a few smaller ones the fine points of how to dance on the rapids.

The little ones started out really clumsy and would loose their positions and slide down to a quiet pool where the big one would bump them to make them jump back up into the rapids again. Then the little ones started getting better and caught on to the steady rhythm needed, and ended up being really good at it….

It seemed very much the same sort of thing as how a bird struggles with it’s first flight, working up the courage to clumsily jump out of the nest for the first time, learning the first arts of independence.

Wouldn’t all animals need to go through that sort of thing? Are there any interesting ones you’ve noticed?

Phil Henshaw


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