One of the great things about being in nature rather than environments of our design is that it can remind us of raw truths regarding our existence. For example, something about my recent time photographing bowerbirds challenged how I think about who I am.
Once bowerbirds reach maturity something drives males to find a spot and build their namesake bower. The bower changes substantially from species to species, yet within a species they are very consistent, even over a very large distribution/range. The structural and behaviour complexity of bower building raises many questions:
While these are interesting, it is the question of how they know the form of and process to build these bowers that I think is really fascinating. Is bower building a learnt behaviour or something innate passed from one generation to the next? The short answer is that it appears to be both. The long answer is much more interesting.
You can find many articles discussing why they build. How they know what to build is less understood (aspiring PHD students take note). The closest I’ve found to an answer is this interview with Dr. Gerald Borgia from the University of Maryland, in the USA. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, if a bowerbird is raised in isolation it will still build a bower. However they will not be as detailed or complete. The nuances of a perfected bower are not present until novices have seen the bowers of more experienced builders and actively practice.
At least on some level, this bower building appears to be an intrinsic behaviour that is passed genetically from parent to offspring. This is complex behaviour that includes details on design that is uniform across nearly all individuals over a massive range. The word “instinct’ conjures up images of animals responding in some emotive, automated manner to some external stimuli: fleeing from a predator etc. We would not normally consider deliberate, methodical behaviour over an extended period, leading to complex construction, as instinct. Passing layout and construction plans from one generation to the next requires something more than vague stimulus-response programming. It requires specific, detailed information be carried across reproductive lines.
There are other examples of this happening in nature. Take, for example, this article which discusses how bird song appears to be encoded in genetics. The idea that behaviour like song, which remains stable over many generations, is encoded in DNA is not too hard accept. A “program” carried in the genes of the species from one generation to the next without the need for teaching seems reasonable.
It doesn’t stop there.
A study from 2013 exposed mice to a specific odour in situations designed to induce fear. Incredibly, offspring of those original mice also associated the odour with fear. It appears that somehow specific information regarding the threat of that odour was transferred genetically from parent to offspring in a single generation. The theory is that it is not stored in the DNA, but something external: the epigenome (more on that another time). Regardless of how, surely the notion that experiences of parents appear to be passed genetically to their offspring should give us pause. Surely it raises serious questions about what makes us, us?
I reflect on my parents and my grandparents and think about the incredibly hard, sometimes traumatic things they went through. Some were huge global problems such as the Great Depression and WW2. Some were intensely personal issues. It doesn’t surprise me that events, both joyous and crushing, impact on lives and change people. However the idea that change can include a genetic aspect and those of subsequent generations is less intuitive.
We live in a society that lauds individuality and has lofty ideals that if you work hard success will follow. Taking pride in accomplishment is only fair and right. However that pride should be infused with a large dose of humility. There is a myriad of elements that mould us to be the people we are, and if we’re honest, surely we must admit that we are passive and unable to alter most of them. We have utterly no influence on the country we’re born into and its economic and political position. We have utterly no influence over the families we’re born into, the stability and safety of the home, the value placed on education, and the example set by our parents of how to live. Life being a level playing field or quote marks is a fundamentally flawed notion.
Every person you hold dear, have just met, or see on television, no matter how lofty or low their circumstances, is a cloud of influences, most of which they hold no control over, pulling them in certain directions and down certain paths. Consider that, PTSD and other crippling acquired mental health issues potentially passing genetically over generational boundaries should invoke empathy and compassion.
Our society functions on the notion that your successes and failures are you own. It is important and necessary that individuals be held accountable for the outcome of their actions. This principle is necessary and right for the greater good. Yet it does ignore that for each individual, there’s much more to them than just them.
I acknowledge that I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be born into my family in this country. It is an incredible blessing. Now I’m challenged to show grace, and be a blessing to others.
The decisions we make now have lasting consequences in both incredibly small (genetic) and large (environmental) scales.