A Moment of Science

Duck Panic

Do animals come into the world tabula rasa and only learn things from experience? Or do we emerge with some knowledge already hardwired?

chicks

Photo: Stephanie Jones (Flickr)

The same experiment can be done on other infant birds that might be menaced by hawks, such as goslings and ducklings.

You may have heard of the nature versus nurture debate. In a nutshell, the question is this: Are animals born with no knowledge of the world and only learn things from experience? Or do we, and they, emerge with some knowledge already intact?

A Little Bit Of Both

As is the so often the case, the answer is probably a little bit of both. Some things we are born knowing and some things we have to learn.

However, throughout history people have been made uncomfortable by the idea that animals are born with some knowledge of a world they have yet to experience.

Is there any evidence for this claim?

In fact, there is. A classic experiment can be done with newborn chickens using nothing more complicated than a cardboard cutout of a bird silhouette.

The cutout has wings extended on the sides and a long appendage at one end. Move it over the chicks with the appendage sticking out front, so it looks like a goose, and nothing happens. Turn the same silhouette around and move it with the appendage trailing behind, so it looks like a long-tailed hawk, and the chicks will break into a chorus of desperate peeps.

The same experiment can be done on other infant birds that might be menaced by hawks, such as goslings and ducklings. Move the silhouette one way: no response.

Move it the other way: panic!

This suggests rather strongly that chicks and ducklings and goslings don’t need to learn what a hawk looks like, or that it is dangerous. They emerge from the egg with at least some basic knowledge of the world already present.

  • shwetar

    coool would u happen to have a video about this or of this, for it would be great to put on a nature vs nurture website

  • Scott

    Actually, the experiment as described here was not performed to demonstrate the existence of instinctive behavior, but to demonstrate the phenomenon of maturation of instinctive behaviors. The described behavioral discriminant was not observable in newly hatched specimens, but rather, only manifested after a very consistent number of days after hatching.

    The effect of this result is far reaching, since it directly controverts the prior convention that any behavior that could be considered instinctive behavior must be observable at inception. In turn, a broad field of possible instinctive behaviors became open to study, since they could no longer be dismissed on the assertion that they were not observable at inception.

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