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Instinct and Learning

In our study of the learning process of animals and human beings, we must be very careful so that we do not relate the two in such a way that we forget the fundamental differences between them. Man is a rational-moral being and as such, he is going to behave differently from the animal. According to Genesis, man was a separate creation and may not be rightly classified as an animal.

However, any of us who have made even a cursory study of animal life, if you have only butchered a frog, cannot help noticing many similarities in body structure between the human and animal kingdoms. This is even true to a much less degree for the relation between the plant and animal kingdoms. We are struck by this fact, just as the evolutionist is; but we do not therefore conclude that ‘higher’ forms of life have developed from ‘lower’ forms of life. Rather we marvel at the fact that God, in his creative design, used a common pattern with very marked variations; thus animal bodies, including our own, operate on the same principle. We all must eat food, breathe oxygen, and drink water. By a study of the bodies of animals, the effect of environment on them, heredity, food, etc., we can glean much valuable knowledge for ourselves about the function and care of our own bodies. Even Solomon tells us to study the ant as an example of industriousness.

Thus, to a degree, we can also be instructed by a study of the learning processes of animals. If we bear in mind the essential differences in our creation and purpose, we will have little difficulty. Perhaps one of our greatest obstacles is that most of the research in this field has been carried on by godless scientists.

Man is born with two sets of instincts which are ready for action as soon as he enters this world. Both of them are necessary for his earthly survival. The first set, attractions, would include the readiness to nurse and the readiness to cling with the hands. The infant must eat even though he requires much more parental guidance than the animals. Very young infants may sustain their own weight by the grasp of both hands about a cane held horizontally above them. The second set, or avoidances, would be the fear of falling and the fear of very loud noises. These four cover the immediate needs of the child and more are added later. It has been found, for example, that the fear of snakes is absent in infants. It is generally well developed at the age at which children run about alone; the age at which snakes might be a real danger to them. Thus, from infancy to old age, we continue to act automatically in the way that our ancestors have acted since time began.

Many of the lower animals are born educated almost to the full extent of their capacity, the possible lines of action of their whole lives being provided for entirely. A chicken flees at the first cry of a hawk although it may be quite unresponsive to the similar cry of a catbird. There is, however, especially in the ‘higher’animals, a field of activity in which the reactions are less fixed, and here lies the opportunity for learning by individual experience. This is so large a part of our own life that we have difficulty in realizing how limited it is in many of the animals. Animals have two principal modes of learning; by trial and error, and by imitation. Man can also learn by experiment.

Thorndike’s classical experiment, with a few young chicks and a wooden cracker box, is so simple that anyone can manage it, and it is very good for showing the details of learning by trial and error. The box has two main compartments which are connected by a “U’-shaped passage through which the chicks cannot see each other. A hungry chick of two weeks old is placed in one compartment. Two or three others are placed in the other one and provided with food. The lone hungry chick can hear the contented eating of the others but cannot see them. It is his lesson to learn how to get to the others. His hunger and his liking for company may be depended upon to move him to make the effort.

His first efforts will be obviously aimless; trying to fly out and falling back; peering through crevices and around the corner; walking back and forth in all directions; standing; peeping; pecking at the walls and at the floor, etc. These will occupy so long a time that the observer who is watching and waiting, will marvel at his stupidity. He may even turn two of the three corners and return to try more walking and peeping; but when he goes far enough to see the other chicks he will run to them at once.

If at once returned to his own end of the box, it will be seen that he has not yet learned his lesson, for he will repeat most of the useless efforts of the first trial. His second trip through will generally be made more quickly than the first (the first may take an hour or more) and succeeding ones more quickly still, although there may be much irregularity.

Animals learn little by imitation. Learning to do as others do is so large a part of our education that it is difficult for us to realize how small a part it is of theirs.

Did you ever try to cover a cold dog with a blanket? Instead of getting under it, a dog will always get on top of the blanket with all his feet, and after turning around a few times, lie down there. His turning about is like that of his wild ancestors when making a lair in the grass: it is instinctive behavior.

Animals have inherited aptitudes; each has its own. A cat gives no heed to most of the things going on around her, but the sight of a canary or the sound of a mouse brings instant alertness and readiness for action. These stimuli have meaning for her; are related to her livelihood; and are purely instinctive and inherited.

In its beginning, imitation is very much mixed with trial and error. Learning to write, for example, is an imitative process; but if one watches a youthful learner, at the start he will be seen trying to guide his pencil blindly, making all kinds of lines by means of many kinds of movements of hands and shoulders and feet, with turnings of head and furrowings of brow. Slowly the curves are mastered, the proper muscles are brought under control, and the useless motions eliminated. After a time it is no longer necessary to give thought to the movements of the pencil. Reaction paths become established; the curves run into words automatically, while the mind is concerned only with the thoughts that the words convey. Thus the uppermost seat of the brain action is relieved of routine and released for the mastery of new undertakings.

All this helps us to understand the great gulf that is fixed between us and the animal world. We alone have the mind for doing as others do; our education consists largely in learning to imitate others.

The method of learning by experiment is peculiar to human beings. This involves both control of conditions and consideration of results. Animals may choose, in a way. Your dog may choose between two well-known paths by which to return home. But I do not believe that he will reflect on the consequences of his choice. In learning by experiment, consideration of the results of an action involves not only the immediate results but also the consequences that are more remote. Morality comes in here also. Man is infinitely imitative, imitating everything. Man is reflective, considering gains and losses. Man is occasionally inventive.