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A Biologistís Background, or, How I got that way

Bill Meredith

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I Corinthians, 13:11.

(April, 2013) My parents were married in 1923, and their first child, my sister, arrived eleven months later, so everyone expected they would have a large family. I was the second child, but I always was a slow learner, and I did not solve the problem of how to get born until nine years later, so I was doted on and spoiled. Mother was never in robust health, so when I was big enough to walk I was often cared for by my grandmother, who lived nearby. Grandma was always busy, so I toddled along behind her when she weeded the garden and tended the chickens, and sat on her lap when she churned butter. Each day, she took a couple of breaks to listen to her favorite soap opera ("Oxydolís own Ma Perkins") and a radio evangelist. After that, in hopes that I would go to sleep, she would read Bible stories to me from a book that must have belonged to her own children. I was her first grandson, and she was determined that I should grow up to become a Methodist preacher, and maybe even have my own radio show. As fate would have it, though, she was preparing me to become a biologist. My favorite Bible story was about Noahís Ark, because on the wall by her rocking chair was a Currier and Ives print showing all of the animals going into the Ark, two by two. I could name all of them when I was three.

Everybody read to me, and the stories I liked best had animals in them. Grandma liked to read Aesopís Fables; because tales like the Fox and the Grapes or the Dog in the Manger were lessons in morality as well as entertainment. I knew Peter Rabbit by heart, but my favorites stories were about a rabbit named Uncle Wiggly. He lived in a Hollow Stump Bungalow with Nurse Jane the Muskrat Lady, and he went about the forest community doing Good Deeds to Folks in Need. All the while he was pursued by two evildoers, Skeezix (a crow) and Pipsisewa (a rabbit-sized rhinoceros), who wanted to bite his ears off. It seemed perfectly natural to me that those characters wore human clothes and spoke in English. To me, they were real, and for a while I was afraid to go with my Dad to bring in the cows at milking time because there would surely be a rhinoceros wearing blue overalls and a straw hat lurking behind a tree and waiting to do horrible things to us. Knowing that logical explanations were futile at that age, Dad took the manly approach; he got me a pop-gun that shot corks to defend myself. It worked; the Pipsisewa was frightened away the first time I shot at him, and no one in the neighborhood ever saw him again.

Besides the fictional creatures, I was surrounded by real animals. Dad had a book with pictures of all the different breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, which I memorized. All of our animals had names and human personalities. There was a dog named "Wimpy," because he liked hamburger, and an affectionate kitten that grew into a mean-tempered ogre who liked to hide in the barn and jump on my head when I entered. Our cow, "Old Midget," was a cantankerous Jersey; she was replaced by "Pet," a gentle Guernsey who distinguished herself by having twin calves. I had a pony named "Brownie," who learned to steal Dadís chewing tobacco from his hip pocket, one of her colts learned to open doors by turning the knob with her teeth. Our pig was named "Guy" because it had a confused expression on its face which reminded my mother of one of our neighbors; to my surprise, Guy turned out to be a girl, and produced several litters of piglets before she finally ended up in our freezer. And there was a baby rabbit from a nest that Dad accidentally destroyed while mowing hay; I kept it in a shoe box, fed it milk with an eyedropper, and recited Uncle Wiggly stories to it. It died after a week or so, and I buried it in the shoe box with a proper funeral that included a sermon about the grief and sense of loss suffered by its mother, wherever she was.

I didnít learn much biology in school; we had science classes, but they were mostly about rocks, dinosaurs, erosion, magnets and such. When I got to High School, the biology course was taught by the football coach. I majored in biology in college because it was easy; I already knew the names of many animals and plants, and the professor was a birdwatcher. The courses were interesting, but the emphasis was on pre-medical studies; so when I finished college I still assumed animals talked among themselves and solved problems in pretty much the same way I did. But that was soon changed, for when I entered graduate school I met Dr.Leland Taylor.

Dr. Taylor was a small man, nearly 70 years old and slightly stooped, with unruly white hair and a lab jacket nearly as old as he was. He smoked constantly, sometimes lighting a new cigarette before the last one was finished, and occasionally putting a piece of chalk in his mouth by mistake. But he was an excellent teacher. He taught courses in Ecology and Animal Behavior, in a style reminiscent of the storytelling that I had known as a child. Nearly all of the material in his courses was completely new to me; and after 55 years, most of it is still to be found in modern textbooks.

The most surprising idea was in his lecture on anthropomorphism. He defined it as the assumption that animals thought and felt like humans, and he insisted that kind of thinking was the biggest mistake a biologist could make. In the lower animals, he told us, behavior is governed by inherited instincts, and little or no learning is involved. For example, a male praying mantis will continue to mate with the female after she has bitten his head off and eaten it. A robin that has been hatched and reared by hand knows instinctively how to find earthworms, and will build a mud-lined nest even though it has never seen one. Higher animals can learn by trial and error, like the pony that opened doors, but they do not learn by logical reasoning. Dogs can be taught to obey not because they want to please their master, but because their ancestors were pack animals who would be killed by the alpha male if they did not obey himÖ and so on. These were radical ideas to me, but subsequent learning, including some of my own research, confirmed them. Modern behavioral research has modified some of them, especially among higher mammals like apes, but in the main they are still considered correct.

Recently I found a website at Cornell University, where a pair of red-tailed hawks built a nest on a light tower by the athletic field. A camera recorded the hatching of three eggs. The first two chicks hatched on the same day, and as soon as they were dry they began pecking at anything that moved, including each other. This was described as sibling rivalry by many of the people who saw it and sent in their reactions; but it really was just an instinct that enabled them to eat when food was offered by the parents. The third chick hatched three days later, and the others immediately began pecking at it. The father happened to be guarding the nest at the time; he stopped the squabbling by setting down on them, and the pecking stopped. Several observers praised his parental tact and intelligence, but it was clear that they were guilty of Dr. Taylorís "sin of anthropomorphism." The truth was that it had started to rain, and the father was simply following his instinct to shield the chicks from the elements. The chicksí first meal was a garter snake, which their mother tore into small strips that could be placed carefully into their mouths when their uncoordinated pecking missed it. It was beautiful to watch, and I could understand why some of the observers attributed human feelings of love, gentleness and patience to her, but I knew they were wrong. The biggest and most aggressive chick was always fed first; it pushed its siblings out of the way, and only when it was full did the second chick get fed. The smallest one was always last. Fortunately, this was a good year, and the parents brought in banquets of chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and pigeons, so there was plenty to go around; but in a leaner year the small one, and perhaps even the middle one could have starved. The instinctive behavior of both the parents and the chicks does not include sympathy, altruism or family love; if it did, in lean years all of the chicks might starve. Instead, it is a pattern to increase the probability that at least one chick will have a chance to survive. Nature works that way all up and down the food chain; the fittest, and the luckiest, have the best chance of surviving.

All three chicks have now left the nest and are hanging around the Cornell campus, being fed by their parents. If they are to survive, they will have to modify their present instinctive behaviors by trial-and-error learning. They attack prey instinctively, but they usually miss; they will have to learn how to catch it efficiently. Recently one of them flew at a squirrel on the lawn and missed it; he sat there (in confusion?) for a while, and then walked right out into the street. He gazed (in bewilderment?) at passing cars, which managed to miss him, and eventually he hopped up on a parked car and began calling for his mother. He will have to learn a lot before winter comes. Less than half of all red-tailed hawks survive their first year.

The knowledge I got from Dr. Taylorís classes made me a better biologist and a better teacher, but it created a problem in another area. When talking to children about animalsÖ first, my own kids, then grandchildren, and now my several small friendsÖ should I be a good biologist and avoid anthropomorphisms, or should I make a more interesting story by letting them believe animals talk and think as we do? I thought about it a lot, and decided that believing in Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggly when I was four was good for me in developing my imagination and interest in reading, and it didnít really hurt my development as a biologist. So I read those stories to them, along with Alice in Wonderland and Old Possumís Book of Practical Cats. And when I do, I always have the feeling the Dr. Taylor may be somewhere up there watchingÖ and, perhaps, smiling. After all, he was a grandfather too.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith