Cu­rios­ity doesn’t kill the cat: it ed­u­cates and an­i­mates an­i­mals and hu­mans

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ENVIRONMENT - Michael Viney

A while be­fore the rains came and grass started grow­ing again, the first lamb found a hole in our acre’s de­crepit de­fences. It be­gan ex­plor­ing, fol­lowed by its mother – and, in due course, by a few more lambs and ewes.

This is be­com­ing quite an an­nual hap­pen­ing as our hedges and fences grow wild. It piqued my in­ter­est in an­i­mal cu­rios­ity, both that of lambs and my own “in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion”, as psy­chol­ogy calls it.

What the lambs pen­e­trate first is a maze of shad­owy bri­ars and tan­gled trees, a long wan­der from what passes for our lawn. They even­tu­ally ar­rive there, how­ever, and mow it for a while with tacit con­sent, un­til re­trieved by our peren­ni­ally for­giv­ing neigh­bour.

It’s un­der­stand­able that an­i­mals ex­plore the en­vi­ron­ment for food or wa­ter, sex or shel­ter, but sim­ple cu­rios­ity works, too. My own cu­rios­ity sent me on­line.

In one la­bo­ri­ous ex­per­i­ment, six lit­ters of piglets were of­fered en­try to two pens, one with a strange ob­ject, the other with­out. All the piglets aimed first for the pen with some­thing new.

I have watched next door’s lambs gang­ing up to play “king of the cas­tle”, leap­ing up on field banks or a boul­der in their meadow. This could be nec­es­sary ex­er­cise for new and wob­bly legs, but it is also, clearly, fun, like the play of in­fant chil­dren.

The term “in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion” in an­i­mals was coined in 1950 “to ex­plain why rhe­sus mon­keys would en­gage with me­chan­i­cal puz­zles for long pe­ri­ods of time with­out re­ceiv­ing ex­trin­sic re­wards”. It cur­rently fig­ures in dis­cus­sion of ed­u­cat­ing ro­bots in the skills of cu­rios­ity, learn­ing and self-de­vel­op­ment.

The quote is from an on­line over­view from the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­ogy headed “In­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tions and open-ended de­vel­op­ment in an­i­mals, hu­mans and ro­bots”. Its half-dozen au­thors re­late stud­ies of psy­chol­ogy to neu­ro­science and robot com­puter tech­nol­ogy.

The im­age of mon­keys with their heads bent to “me­chan­i­cal puz­zles” calls up groups of young hu­mans with their smart­phones, or chil­dren mes­merised by the flicker of video games.

A freer child­hood

My child­hood was bright­ened by go­ing out to play when­ever the sun shone, free to ex­plore with my own imag­i­na­tion. Change and nov­elty ar­rived at an as­sim­i­l­able pace, not one that in­duced, for some­one’s profit, a manic at­ten­tion span, and the flow­ers, birds and but­ter­flies of the sub­urb’s gar­dens and va­cant sites were a real ac­quain­tance with na­ture.

Hu­man cu­rios­ity, the most in­tense among pri­mates, is the usual spark of ge­nius and in­ven­tion. But so much of it is spent on time-con­sum­ing in­ter­net play or pur­suit of ca­sual in­ter­ests, well out­side the evo­lu­tion­ary pri­or­i­ties of sur­vival and re­pro­duc­tion.

Among the re­searchers re­ferred to above, Dr Tom Stafford of the Univer­sity of Sh­effield seeks roots of such cu­rios­ity in the evo­lu­tion­ary term of “neoteny”, the re­ten­tion of ju­ve­nile char­ac­ter­is­tics. We re­tain, he sug­gests, a child’s cu­rios­ity and ca­pac­ity to learn. For the BBC Fu­ture web­site (“A home for the in­sa­tiably cu­ri­ous”), he de­fended our more triv­ial pur­suits with a quote from the late Kurt Von­negut: “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let any­body tell you any dif­fer­ent.”

In­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity, in so many forms, has driven my own life, from a teenage en­try to jour­nal­ism to a midlife shift of lifestyle (so many “self-re­liant” things to try) to ex­plo­ration and cel­e­bra­tion of the nat­u­ral world. I was lucky to be paired with a re­source­ful wife with a sys­tem­atic sense of in­quiry.

We both see life­long learn­ing as a prime de­fence of our brains in old age, our

I was lucky to be paired with a re­source­ful wife with a sys­tem­atic sense of in­quiry. We see life­long learn­ing as a prime de­fence of our brains

book­shelves brim­ming around the walls and broad­band as the mag­i­cal key to world re­search. As phys­i­cal mo­bil­ity de­clines, we can be found mes­merised at our sep­a­rate desk­tops in a house ca­ressed by leaves.

John Fowles, the fine nov­el­ist and na­ture lover, once went through great doubts about nat­u­ral his­tory. The most harm­ful change brought about by Vic­to­rian science, he con­cluded, was the at­ti­tude to na­ture de­mand­ing “that our re­la­tion with it must be pur­po­sive, in­dus­tri­ous, al­ways seek­ing greater knowl­edge”.

This, he felt, got in the way of felt ex­pe­ri­ence and en­counter with bird, flower or but­ter­fly, so much more per­son­ally mean­ing­ful and po­tent than need­ing at once to know names. Later, in his es­say The Green Man, he com­pro­mised with the Zen ways of “see­ing”.

“Liv­ing with­out names,” he wrote, “is im­pos­si­ble, if not down­right id­iocy. . . I dis­cov­ered, too, that there was less con­flict than I had imag­ined be­tween na­ture as ex­ter­nal assem­bly of names and facts and na­ture as in­ter­nal feel­ing; that the two modes of see­ing and know­ing could in fact marry and take place al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and en­rich each other.”

Still, I re­ally must get out more, into our real green world.

Cu­rios­ity and ca­pa­bil­ity to learn: next door’s lambs find a gap in the hedge and gang up to play ‘king of the cas­tle’, like tod­dlers at play. PHO­TO­GRAPH: MICHAEL VINEY

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.