Instinct vs. Insight: How Much Foresight Do Animals Have?
Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley on the Capacity to Think Ahead
At Disney World in Florida, scientists gave two bottlenose dolphins, Bob and Toby, a series of puzzles to put their planning abilities to the test. In one task, the dolphins were first shown how to pick up weighted rings with their beak and were then taught how to drop four of these weights into a container to release a tasty fish reward. Once Bob and Toby had learned this, the experimenters changed the difficulty level: now weights were spread out within 20 feet of the prize box, meaning the cetaceans had to do some fin work.
Yet rather than simply gathering up the four required weights in one trip, they did it by swimming back and forth between each object and the container. After several dozen trials, the experimenters moved the weights farther away still from the prize box, within a radius of nearly 150 feet.
Now this was too much hard work: gradually, Bob and Toby started putting multiple weights on their beak at a time to shorten the journey. They did not simply pick up the required four, however. Often the dolphins gathered up two, three, and even five weights, so they may have struggled a bit with the counting. Nonetheless, by carrying more than one weight at a time they demonstrated at least some capacity to think ahead.
In another task, the dolphins had to put a single weight into a box, but this time they also had to poke a stick inside to obtain the reward. There was a twist. The second step was only possible for about fifteen seconds after the weight had been dropped, before a sliding door sprang shut and prevented further access. This did not pose a big problem for the dolphins: they quickly learned to complete the sequence in time.
Next, however, the researchers placed the stick over 80 feet away from the box. Bob and Toby once again dropped the weight into the apparatus and then quickly swam to retrieve the stick. But when the door kept shutting before they had returned, they simply gave up. With a little more foresight, a simple solution would have presented itself: go and get the stick first, glide back at a leisurely pace, and only then, with the stick at the ready, put the weight into the box. The dolphins did not get it. They did not prepare.
Dolphins can evidently plan to some extent, but their enduring errors, even after many trials and opportunities to learn, suggest their foresight is quite restricted. As we will see, such results are typical for studies of animal planning. On the one hand, there is evidence of some competencies. Animals are not just mindless automatons. On the other hand, performance tends to be inconsistent, and tasks that might seem trivial to a human mind, even to a young child, often go unsolved.
Humans hold rather conflicting ideas about the minds of other animals. Some people are attracted to what we call rich interpretations of animal behavior and readily attribute complex cognitive capacities to animals, while others are reluctant to do so and instead gravitate to lean interpretations. Many people vacillate between these views depending on the context (and what’s on the menu that evening). On the one hand, people frequently anthropomorphize, projecting all kinds of mental processes onto their pets—feelings, memories, expectations. On the other hand, those same people may treat other animals, especially those farmed for food, as if they had no mind at all.Dolphins can evidently plan to some extent, but their enduring errors, even after many trials and opportunities to learn, suggest their foresight is quite restricted.
Scientists, not immune to holding preconceived ideas, should guard against any biases influencing their research. Sensational rich claims about animals apparently thinking ahead in clever ways can be exciting, but they cannot be simply accepted at face value. These claims need to be tested in rigorously designed studies, and results need to be independently replicated. Before jumping to any conclusions about animal planning capacities, we must systematically rule out lean alternative explanations.
As we will see, an animal may have just repeated what was previously rewarded or may have acted on instincts that seem clever and farsighted without any real understanding of what the future holds. In this chapter we will find out what science has thus far established about foresight in other species.
Animals can give the impression of being focused on the here and now, such as when a lemur basks when the sun appears from behind the clouds.
But this does not mean they are completely stuck in the present. Most species, great and small, face recurring patterns in nature such as fluctuations of light, temperature, and food availability that occur in periodic cycles. Even the humble bacterium E. Coli, infamously responsible for food poisoning, prepares. As it travels through lactose-rich human digestive tracts, it switches on genes for maltose digestion a couple of hours before it will reach the maltose-rich areas.
This preparation does not mean that the bacterium is fantasizing about maltose, however. The strains of E. Coli that happened to activate genes in this order survived and replicated more than the ones that did not, or the ones who did so too early or too late. If the long-term pattern stays the same, like how maltose always comes after lactose in the digestive tract of a host mammal, natural selection can forge behaviors that seem intelligently calibrated to upcoming events. The key takeaway here is that only genetic variability and a reliable sequence of environmental circumstances is required for such forms of preparation to evolve.
Creatures that act in tune with long-term regularities such as daily or seasonal variations can have a significant advantage over those that do not. There is perhaps no more conspicuous a case of preparation than that of squirrels and other animals storing food for barren winter months ahead. One would be forgiven for assuming that the squirrels must be imagining themselves hungry and without food in the midst of the coming frost.
But this is not why they hoard food. Even a young squirrel that has never experienced a winter will collect and store provisions. This simple fact tells us that the behavior is driven by instinct rather than insight. In other words, the squirrels have evolved a behavioral solution to the recurring challenge of wintertime food shortages. In a sense this adaptation may not be that different from whales storing fat in their blubber for migration without food, or Australian trees storing energy in swollen lignotubers at the base of their trunk that they can draw on after a fire.
So animals may end up preparing for nightfall or winter even if they do not think about the approaching darkness or cold. Though reliable, the mechanisms underlying these behaviors tend to be relatively fixed, and may not be so helpful in the face of new challenges.
Such a lack of flexibility is illustrated by the classic example of the greylag goose’s response to an egg rolling away from her nest. First, she will rise to her feet, extend her neck over the egg, and then carefully begin to roll it using the underside of her bill. She will then push the egg towards her legs and walk slowly backwards into her nest, all the while faintly moving her head side to side to balance the egg and ensure it doesn’t escape her clutches.
The mother goose’s behavior of course has an important future-oriented function: it prevents her from accidentally breaking her egg and eliminating a valuable opportunity to pass on her genes. But this does not mean she has thoughts of a precious little gosling on her mind as she approaches and rolls the egg. If a mischievous experimenter distracts the doting mother and removes the egg from under her, she will nonetheless continue the series of actions to completion.
In fact, when Nobel prize winners Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen placed other egg-shaped objects near the nest of a mother goose, she behaved in exactly the same manner. She even carefully rolled objects that do not resemble an egg much at all, such as cube-shaped toys. The mother goose appeared to be trapped in a behavioral program that was automatically elicited by certain stimuli.
It’s not just Nobel laureates who can play tricks on mother birds. Cuckoo lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and, upon hatching, the cuckoo chick’s first act is often to destroy the host’s own eggs. Afterwards, the deceived mother bird is helplessly drawn to putting food into the intruding chick’s mouth, even if the chick is bursting out of the nest at several times the mother’s size. In this case, the cuckoo chick is exploiting the fixed tendency of the mother bird to feed a gaping, chirping red mouth in her nest—apparently with no regard as to who that mouth belongs to.Like cuckoos and their hosts, predator and prey are pitted against each other in an evolutionary arms race, favoring the early detection of threats and hunting opportunities.
In a sense, the cuckoos and the hosts they dupe are in an evolutionary arms race. There is selection pressure for the potential host to detect and reject brood parasites—if a reed warbler sees a cuckoo, for instance, it is more likely to desert its current nest. In turn, some cuckoos emit a hawk-like chuckle after laying eggs in another bird’s nest, which has the effect of distracting the host and thus increasing the chances of getting away with the cuckolding. All this complex behavior is evidently future directed in nature, but it can run along without anyone having formed a considered plan.
Clearly, life is dangerous. Animals that predict threats can increase their chances of avoiding harm to themselves or their offspring by taking preemptive action. When chickens see a moving shadow on the ground, they often respond by looking up, apparently to check for potential danger such as a hawk flying overhead. Like cuckoos and their hosts, predator and prey are pitted against each other in an evolutionary arms race, favoring the early detection of threats and hunting opportunities.
Different species are vulnerable to different predation risks, and so they have evolved diverse ways of detecting and dealing with these threats. As they graze, gazelles tend to scan the horizon, which increases their chances of spotting a potential terrestrial attack by predators such as large cats, whereas many monkeys also keep an eye on the skies because they are vulnerable to dive-bombing birds of prey.
Animals become more vigilant in situations that are particularly dangerous. Monkeys who are active during the day are more cautious at night, while nocturnal animals such as rats are more cautious in the light of day. Grazing animals tend to be more cautious in open spaces, but less so in large groups—presumably because the chances of falling prey are reduced and the chances of detecting a threat are increased with more eyes on the lookout.
Animals can be threatened by predators, by microbes that cause illness, by a lack of vital resources such as food and water, and by environmental hazards such as raging fire, floods, or storms. In social species, conflict can lead to ostracism, and even failing to find a sexual partner is threatening in the sense that it entails a hard stop to a genetic lineage. Given the range and reliability of recurring dangers, it is not surprising that species have evolved means of dealing with these situations. These behaviors may look superficially like the result of foresight. But they are primarily instinctual.
Excerpted from The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.