Michael Viney: Animals were put on Earth to fart around
The sight of sheep at a hedge got me thinking about animal curiosity
Illustration: Michael Viney
A while before the rains came and grass started growing again, the first lamb found a hole in our acre’s decrepit defences. It began exploring, followed by its mother – and, in due course, by a few more lambs and ewes.
This is becoming quite an annual happening as our hedges and fences grow wild. It piqued my interest in animal curiosity, both that of lambs and my own “intrinsic motivation”, as psychology calls it.
What the lambs penetrate first is a maze of shadowy briars and tangled trees, a long wander from what passes for our lawn. They eventually arrive there, however, and mow it for a while with tacit consent, until retrieved by our perennially forgiving neighbour.
It’s understandable that animals explore the environment for food or water, sex or shelter, but simple curiosity works, too. My own curiosity sent me online.
In one laborious experiment, six litters of piglets were offered entry to two pens, one with a strange object, the other without. All the piglets aimed first for the pen with something new.
I have watched next door’s lambs ganging up to play “king of the castle”, leaping up on field banks or a boulder in their meadow. This could be necessary exercise for new and wobbly legs, but it is also, clearly, fun, like the play of infant children.
The term “intrinsic motivation” in animals was coined in 1950 “to explain why rhesus monkeys would engage with mechanical puzzles for long periods of time without receiving extrinsic rewards”. It currently figures in discussion of educating robots in the skills of curiosity, learning and self-development.
The quote is from an online overview from the journal Frontiers in Psychology headed “Intrinsic motivations and open-ended development in animals, humans and robots”. Its half-dozen authors relate studies of psychology to neuroscience and robot computer technology.
The image of monkeys with their heads bent to “mechanical puzzles” calls up groups of young humans with their smartphones, or children mesmerised by the flicker of video games.
A freer childhood
My childhood was brightened by going out to play whenever the sun shone, free to explore with my own imagination. Change and novelty arrived at an assimilable pace, not one that induced, for someone’s profit, a manic attention span, and the flowers, birds and butterflies of the suburb’s gardens and vacant sites were a real acquaintance with nature.
Insatiable curiosity, in so many different forms, has driven my own life
Human curiosity, the most intense among primates, is the usual spark of genius and invention. But so much of it is spent on time-consuming internet play or pursuit of casual interests, well outside the evolutionary priorities of survival and reproduction.
Among the researchers referred to above, Dr Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield seeks roots of such curiosity in the evolutionary term of “neoteny”, the retention of juvenile characteristics. We retain, he suggests, a child’s curiosity and capacity to learn.
For the BBC Future website (“A home for the insatiably curious”), he defended our more trivial pursuits with a quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut: “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
Insatiable curiosity, in so many forms, has driven my own life, from a teenage entry to journalism to a midlife shift of lifestyle (so many “self-reliant” things to try) to exploration and celebration of the natural world. I was lucky to be paired with a resourceful wife with a systematic sense of inquiry.
We both see lifelong learning as a prime defence of our brains in old age, our bookshelves brimming around the walls and broadband as the magical key to world research. As physical mobility declines, we can be found mesmerised at our separate desktops in a house caressed by leaves.
John Fowles, the fine novelist and nature lover, once went through great doubts about natural history. The most harmful change brought about by Victorian science, he concluded, was the attitude to nature demanding “that our relation with it must be purposive, industrious, always seeking greater knowledge”.
This, he felt, got in the way of felt experience and encounter with bird, flower or butterfly, so much more personally meaningful and potent than needing at once to know names. Later, in his essay The Green Man, he compromised with the Zen ways of “seeing”.
“Living without names,” he wrote, “is impossible, if not downright idiocy. . . I discovered, too, that there was less conflict than I had imagined between nature as external assembly of names and facts and nature as internal feeling; that the two modes of seeing and knowing could in fact marry and take place almost simultaneously, and enrich each other.”
Still, I really must get out more, into our real green world.