Friday, May 22, 2009

Basic instincts

This is my housemate's cat, Larry. Larry has had a few bad experiences with cars, so he has to be an indoor cat. At least once a day, he attempts to mate with this knitted patchwork blanket. Given the opportunity, he also likes an encounter with a jumper or scarf (pure wool only, he won't stoop to synthetic fibres).

After servicing the females in his territory, he likes to go hunting. His prey is a length of leopard-spotted synthetic fur with a bunch of feathers attached to the end.

All of Larry's natural impulses and behaviours have to be played out in a completely simulated environment. Sometimes characteristics of household objects (eg. hairy, moving) provide bevhavioural cues, even when, in other ways, that object bears little resemblance to anything a cat would encounter in the wild. It could be said that Larry's blanket-humping is a desparate measure from a domesticated animal. But even wild animals have been known to misread environmental cues.

In the early 1980s, biologists discovered something unusual about the Australian jewel beetle. I could paraphrase these findings, but I think they are best conveyed in the charming deadpan of a scientific paper. Here is an abbreviated version of Dr Trevor J. Hawkeswood's article on the species Julodimorpha bakewelli:

...The males are known to mistake the ends of discarded 'stubby' bottles for females and attempt to mate with them. The first published indication of this phenomenon was Douglas (1984), who published a photograph of a male J. bakewelli attempting to copulate with a 370mL beer bottle in Western Australia.

The 'stubbies' were apparently acting as 'supernormal releasers' for male copulation attempts in that they resembled large females; the shiny brown colour of the glass is similar to the shiny yellow-brown elytra of the female
J. bakewelli. On two occasions, a flying male was observed to descend onto a stubby and attempt copulation, and a search yielded two other stubbies with male beetles, with genitalia everted and attempting to insert the aedagus.

A discarded wine bottle of a different colour brown held no attraction; in addition, rows of regularly spaced, small tubercules around the base of the bottle reflect the light in a similar way to punctuations on the elytra of the beetle; these along with the colour and shape of the bottle may well enhance their resemblance to females.

One of the reasons I find animals interesting is the mystery of what it's like to view the world through their minds. Although I have to take a scientific approach, part of me wants to believe that in some important ways, the minds of animals are not very different from our own. I find it exciting when Larry reads human social cues, or opens doors with his paws, because this behviour seems like evidence of a highly evolved intelligence. But at other times, his actions, like those of the bottle-copulating beetles, seem to be automatic reactions to narrow environmental cues, and not the actions of a thinking being.

The philosopher and mathemetician Rene Descartes thought that animals were 'automata': mere machines whose behaviour was a robotic response to their environment. Sadly, it seems like this view is sometimes correct.

But perhaps this is not the evidence of a vast gulf between human and animal consciousness that it appears to be. Larry's hunting of faux fur and insemination of our woollens may seem like absurd behaviour, and evidence of his lower powers of thought. But what is this animal doing living in our house in the first place? He does no work, contributes no rent, and his food is paid for by humans. By biological definitions, Larry is a parasite, yet we willingly allow him to exploit us.

Modern, urban humans also live in an environment which bears very little resemblance to the environmental conditions under which we evolved. It seems like we too can misdirect our reproductive instincts. Don't worry, this is not a reference to bestiality. I'm referring to zoologist Konrad Lorenz's famous theory on the appeal of domestic pets. Lorenz observed in the 1940s that most pets have large eyes and heads, and shortened noses, all features in common with human infants. He suggesting that these infantile features were responsible for triggering a nurturing response in adults. In the absence of the litter-loads of spawn we would have produced in our wild state, Larry's big eyes, soft fur, and button nose trick us into thinking we are caring for our own baby. Although, if my human child starting doing that to our jumpers, I'd probably put it in a bag and drown it in the creek.


Christopher Currie said...

Pure gold.

Romy said...

Ahhahahah, so good. You are a genius.