Sunday, January 20, 2013

There's a heartwarming story... the Times today about a cat named Holly who traveled 200 miles to reunite with its owners. Apparently, this isn't totally unheard of (my emphasis):

Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, cited longer-distance reports he considered credible: Murka, a tortoiseshell in Russia, traveling about 325 miles home to Moscow from her owner’s mother’s house in Voronezh in 1989; Ninja, who returned to Farmington, Utah, in 1997, a year after her family moved from there to Mill Creek, Wash.; and Howie, an indoor Persian cat in Australia who in 1978 ran away from relatives his vacationing family left him with and eventually traveled 1,000 miles to his family’s home.

Professor Tabor also said a Siamese in the English village of Black Notley repeatedly hopped a train, disembarked at White Notley, and walked several miles back to Black Notley.

So how did Holly find her way home? Hard to say, since:

There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.

Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Dr. Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues.

Huh? Magnetic fields, olfactory cues? Whatever. You can read the rest of it here.

But what I found more interesting was this:

Holly hardly seemed an adventurous wanderer, though her background might have given her a genetic advantage. Her mother was a feral cat roaming the Richters’ mobile home park, and Holly was born inside somebody’s air-conditioner, Ms. Richter said. When, at about six weeks old, Holly padded into their carport and jumped into the lap of Mr. Richter’s mother, there were “scars on her belly from when the air conditioner was turned on,” Ms. Richter said.

Scientists say that such early experience was too brief to explain how Holly might have been comfortable in the wild — after all, she spent most of her life as an indoor cat, except for occasionally running outside to chase lizards. But it might imply innate personality traits like nimbleness or toughness.

“You’ve got these real variations in temperament,” Dr. Bekoff said. “Fish can by shy or bold; there seem to be shy and bold spiders. This cat, it could be she has the personality of a survivor.”

He said being an indoor cat would not extinguish survivalist behaviors, like hunting mice or being aware of the sun’s orientation.

Where am I going with this? If you guessed "Nature vs. Nurture," you'd be right.

Because just as there are "shy and bold" fish or spiders, I believe more and more that there are "shy and bold" people. And smart people, and not-so-smart people, and people with "street smarts" but not "book smarts," and the other way around. Some people are fighters; some are quick to give up. Some are born optimists, some are born pessimists. I could go on and on. The point is, just as your physical characteristics are largely pre-determined by genetics, so I believe are your non-physical characteristics, like your personality.

The more I go along in life, the more I believe in inherent personality traits and the less I believe in free will. Ask yourself, did that cat sit down and make up its mind to return to its owners, or did it just do it? And ask yourself the same question, how many of your actions or decisions were made consciously, and how many were just plain pre-determined by who you are and what circumstances you found yourself in? I'll bet we have a lot less to say about the direction of our lives than we think.

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