Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not By Instinct

So much of any animal's mental life and social life goes unrecognized that the myth of instinct was created to explain animal behavior. The myth is such a powerful and convenient replacement for reality that it is going to take a long, long time to replace it with real observations.

Here is one good place to start: What could be more "instinctual" than swinging from a tree branch, for an ape? But look at the orangutans at Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen, a zoo in The Netherlands. They had been kept in a low, simple cage that allowed no such activity as swinging from a branch. And when the zoo upgraded their enclosure, they didn't know how to do this quintessential ape maneuver.

So the zoo hired an Olympic gymnast, Epke Zonderland, to teach the orangutans how to swing from branches.

In their natural homes, orangutans rarely are found on the ground, but these had been forced to live on the ground in their old cage. When the zoo moved them to the new enclosure, with 30-foot-high trees, they seemed to not only not know what to do, they even seemed a bit afraid of the trees.

When this story was reported elsewhere, some labeled the orangutans as "lazy". But in reality this shows just how much of what can seem to be "instinctive" in an animal really depends on socialization--learning behavior from others.

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