An ineffable arrangement of neurons

Hank is one of two Anatolian Shepherds that work here at the farm. I was doing chores the other day and found him, as you see here, enjoying a bit of a break. Raising livestock, as we do, has provided many opportunities to observe a range of innate animal behavior. With lambing season now behind us many of these are fresh in my  mind, such as when a ewe will turn her attention immediately to removing remnants of the amnion from the airways of her newborn. The rooting and suckling of lambs which are but minutes old. A lamb’s dramatic struggle to stand. The vocalizations between ewe and lamb, many of which are only heard during the first day or so of life. And the ability of a lamb, in even total darkness, to imprint on its mother. Among all of the species we have raised, however, the most dramatic displays of innate behavior are those of our shepherds. The Anatolian was selectively breed in central Turkey, several thousand years ago, and is known for its hardiness, independence, and its keen ability to guard livestock, especially sheep and goats. Our dogs aren’t much to look at during the day, for while the sun shines they sleep; lightly, with one eye closed and the other tracking the flock. At dusk the dogs are on duty and patrol the perimeters of our pastures by night. To watch these dogs is a wonderment. They rarely bark but are capable of producing deep, intimidating, rumbles which seem to well up from the ground beneath their feet. Although they can move quite quickly, they don’t often hurry, but orient purposefully toward whatever requires their attention. Both Hank and Argus know, well before Joanna and I do, when an animal is in labor. Often, as parturition approaches, a ewe will separate herself at some distance from the flock and, if this should happen by night, she will surely have one of the dogs with her. Our best guardian, Sophie, would stay with ewes all through their labor and assist in cleaning the newborn. It is the habit of all the ewes to consume the afterbirth as quickly as it is produced and Sophie would assist here too. We have been told that this behavior reduces the risk of predation. As I photographed Hank the other day lambs scampered back-and-forth, across his field-of-view. Such behavior would elicit, from most any other dog, an innate, predatory (chase) response. True to his breed, however, Hank simply watched with the satisfaction that his flock was doing just what it should. He knows what he’s about. I close by wondering what, precisely, instinct might be and where we may find it in the animal brain. Surely, everyone who discusses the subject glibly comments that instinctive behaviors are hard-wired. To be sure, but that is too easy an explanation made by those unable to offer anything more. How is it that the activity of some genetically-programmed arrangement of neurons may result in the Anatolian absence of predatory behavior, while some other arrangement makes dogs of other breeds display the ancestral habit? I suppose if I knew the answer to questions like that I’d be famous. Short of specific answers, I delight in the fact that the ineffable arrangement of the more than 100 billion neurons of our own brains can explain all of human behavior. How could it be otherwise? For, surely, we have moved beyond the concepts of animal magnetism, spiritualism, and vitalism as explanations. Humans are animals which may be studied, and so it will be, through scientific inquiry, that we will come to know where our behaviors lie and the neural form they assume. For now we will have to marvel at their manifestations.

Hank

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