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Learning from the wood mouse


So what do we know about intelligence?  In the 1960s behaviourists studied animal behaviour in what they then regarded as 'controlled' laboratory conditions.  Rats were placed in boxes or mazes and their behaviour was measured in terms of 'conditioned responses'.  Rats would be 'conditioned' to press a lever for a food reward.  It made an assumption that learning was either reward or aversion based.
Wood Mouse Apodemus sylvaticus, 

physical and social environment

This approach appeared more 'scientific' because it was 'controlled'.  It is odd that in one sense it looked at an organism as being conditioned by its environment, and yet ignored its interaction with the environment. You take a rat and put it into a laboratory under controlled conditions.  Other variables could be excluded, or held constant, in large part because the animals had been taken out of their rich physical and social environment.  It assumed that this rich environment played little part in the development of animal behaviour other than in the sense of 'conditioning' the animals behaviour.  Crucially,  it could also ignore any debate about purposeful behaviour, or animal 'thought'.  It fitted the notion of animals as automata, albeit sophisticated ones. Organisms conditioned by their environment.  All behaviour, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus – response association.

This approach to behaviour began with John Watson who said in a paper published in 1913:

'Psychology as a behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is … prediction and control.'

animals as automata

The endeavour was to learn the mechanics of behaviour in order to control it.  Or as B.F. Skinner put it in 1971 "What we need is a technology of behaviour".  Like any other machinery it will have its inputs and outputs associated with them.  It regards animals as automata.

The results of these studies found their way into education paradigms.  But they ignored the rich context of an  organism's natural environment both physical and social.   It makes an assumption that  intelligence can be stripped down to a core biogenic nature - the concept of 'innate intelligence'.  Intelligence that can be measured in a box. This has its ultimate expression in the gene-centred view of intelligence - the idea of 'intelligence genes'.

intelligence as dynamic process

Yet, intelligence is neither a static nor an isolated state. It is a dynamic interactive process.  Intelligence is a complex engagement, and  for social organisms, it is also a cultural and social process.

The behaviour and function of organisms cannot be understood in isolation from their environment or their social being.  Behaviour is contextual and adaptive.

We tend to compartmentalise the environment as if it was a box in which organisms exist - a bit like a container from which we can remove an individual and study them in isolation. This leads to erroneous division of causality - we talk of 'environmental' causes, outside the organism, as distinct from 'inherent causes', inside the organism.

No doubt this has some value. But it is a simplistic and misleading dichotomy.  If organisms are killed in a bush fire, then clearly an extraneous  cause of their demise is perhaps beyond question.  The organism died as a result  events external to the organism.  But organisms are not completely separated from their environment.

organisms integral to environment

Organisms do not exist simply within an environment like toys in a box, they are an integral part of the environment, both for themselves and of other organisms, and there is a causal interdependency.  They are an integral part of their environment. They develop as part of it.  They adapt to it, and they respond to it and interact with it. Organisms also in large part create their niche, they don't simply occupy it.  This is what we mean by an 'ecosystem'.

A forest doesn't just provide an environment for organisms living within it.  The forest is more than the trees.  A forest is an intimate and complex relationship of organisms, big and small.  It is an organic entity, and a true understanding of behaviour needs to take account of this intimacy.  Any measure of intelligence must surely take account of the way it functions in this process.

seed dispersal by wood mice

From little acorns tall oaks grow.  But the spread of the forest depends in large part on small mice and other rodents living in the undergrowth  The undergrowth is in large part created from leaf litter dropped by the trees.  Small rodents play a key role in tree seed dispersion.  This is particularly so for rodents such as wood mice because they cache their food.  The mice not only disperse the seed, they plant it too!  In this sense the wood mice are as vital as bees and other insects in the maintenance and spread of the forest.  All good gardeners will encourage insects and worms because they understand this intimate interdependency.   It is in the sense of this sense that an ecosystem as a functional entity.  We cannot understand the forest by simply looking at the trees.

In the forest ecosystem, the wood mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus, plays a role in seed dispersion, but also  as prey for birds, reptiles and other mammals. In the Mediterranean forests of the Iberian peninsula, for example,  the wood mouse plays a crucial role in oak regeneration patterns.  These roles are perhaps incidental to the life of the wood mouse, yet they are integral to the ecosystem of which they are a part, along with other organisms. 

The trees produce leaves which fall to create leaf litter, which creates  cover in turn for wood mice and other species. Sometimes we can't see the wood for the trees. 

Little wonder then that the abundance of wood mice depends critically on seasonal factors, and a recent study showed that one such factor is summer droughts. As with other small rodents, high reproductive rates allow a rapid population recovery, and populations will fluctuate from season to season. The abundance of females is dependent in turn on acorn abundance.  Such is the intimate interrelations of the ecosystem. 


wood mouse behaviour

The behaviour of wood mice can only be understood fully in the context of this ecosystem. Wood mice exhibit broad plasticity in their behaviour, modifying their diet depending on the most abundant food source such as fleshy fruits, fresh plant parts and even invertebrates.  Their behaviour is also influenced by population density.   Male and female wood mice exhibit different behavioural responses. Few of these can be seen in isolation, and can only be fully understood in context. 


human intelligence

We often forget that we humans are also like the wood mice, interdependent on and with our environment.  The wood mice may not know of its role in maintaining the forrest, but we humans clearly do know our potential for destroying it.  

Forests are a big deal for us too, and not least because they sequester and store carbon.  They provide timber and other forest products, and they are vital to the survival of many of the world’s poorest people, who live in and around forests.  We cannot understand economics and the consequences of economic decisions without taking account of this interdependency.  

One of the problems for humans, and for the planet, is that we have isolated ourselves from our ecosystem. Yet,  our activity impacts on the global climate and on habitats.  Unlike  Apodemus sylvaticus, we destroy more of our forests than we plant, and we deplete the worlds fresh water with our increasing demand for crops and our unregulated world trade. 

Is this really the best we can do with our 'intelligence'? Or have we much to learn from the wood mouse? 

Author: Ray Noble


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