Animal Architects

Why do caterpillars hang from trees? They bungee jump from a silk thread in order to flee a hungry bird or other threat. They can crawl back up the thread or descend to the ground. How do beavers build their dams and lodges? With great variety and flexibility, never the same way twice, depending on the weather, landscape, population, and other factors. Animal Architects discusses insect silk, beaver dams, birds nests, bee hives, and other examples of animal building. The stories are fascinating in themselves, and the thesis is tells a larger story. The authors use numerous examples, from stereotyped wasp nests, to the highly flexible building strategies of beavers, to build taxonomies of mapping, from stimulus-response to concept-building, and social intelligence, from isolation to multi-dimensional decision-making. The picture of animal intelligence is much richer and more nuanced than the “stimulus-response” behaviorist school.
There is a strong perceived dichotomy between “intelligence” and “instinct”. It can be seen in today’s article Washington Post article about a recent scientific study showing that humans pleasure centers are stimulated by acts of generosity and kindness. The article quotes neuroscientists and philosophers suggesting that these scientific studies take moral judgements outside of the realm of morality and into the domain of physical determinism. “Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not “handed down” by philosophers and clergy, but “handed up,” an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.” But the expression of morality – like other aspects of human behavior — intertwines instincts, emotions, culture, and reason. The interesting thing isn’t nature or nurture, it’s the fascinating combinations.

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