By Ishvara Krishna Dasa
Can the study of mysterious animal instincts lead to the key to the origins of life?
Having been brought up in a city, Budapest, I first learned about nature from books and films. For a long time, books about the living world fascinated me—stories by ornithologists, accounts by naturalists about their expeditions, presentations by researchers of animal behavior. My favorite authors were Gerald Durell and David Attenborough. I would never have thought that investigating the most hidden subjects of nature would become my profession.
My parents’ familiarity with science helped make biology my favorite subject in elementary and secondary school. My mother worked as a chemist, and my father was a doctor. Thinking in terms of science came naturally in our family with three children.
In high school biology class I couldn't escape dissection of animal specimens. I was sorry and morally repelled to see the earthworm crucified with pins and the disembowelled frog or prepared birds that seemed much more attractive seen intact than with their guts visible.
My interest turned to the social sciences, and I went to the university to study cultural anthropology, which analyzes and compares past and present civilizations.
My Worldview Turned Upside Down
In Hungary, where I lived, my first university years coincided with the change of the political system. Communism was out, and suddenly I realized that the world can be seen from various aspects and man is free to choose the worldview he wants. This freedom was promising but also frightening because of the heavy implications of choice. Therefore the structure and thinking of other societies became important for me not only from a scientific point of view but also existentially, as relevant for my own life.
During this period I got acquainted with the wisdom of India's Vedic scriptures from the books of Srila Prabhupada, an Indian teacher representing an unbroken tradition. After a few small books on reincarnation, I read Bhagavad-gita and acquired an overview of its philosophy: Every living being (including plants and animals) is an eternal soul who, somehow or other, got entangled in the material world and now wanders from one kind of body to another, accepting various body forms. When souls get a human body, they are awarded the chance to wake up to their original pure consciousness and, by acting properly, can go back to the spiritual world at the end of life to reconnect with God.
At first I thought this too good to be true. At the same time, however, the coherence of the reasoning, the concept of nonviolence, and the option that life may have a higher purpose fascinated me. After scientific materialism, imbibed in the education system of Socialism, this was very attractive, but at the same time quite unusual and hard to believe.
I got into an ideological crisis. My system of thinking, acquired in my childhood and deemed beyond doubt, was undermined. At the same time, it was still strong enough to prevent me from accepting another ideology.
I especially had problems with one question: Where had the kingdoms of animals and plants I so much admired come from? According to my childhood books and schooling, life had emerged through chance chemical processes and the species evolved from common ancestors over millions of years. But according to the several-thousand-year-old Vedic texts I was starting to respect, the body plans of plants and animals have existed on our planet since the beginning of time.
I also got hold of some publications that raised scientific counterarguments against the theory of evolution. I was surprised to discover a whole array of arguments and started to ponder that evolution theory might, after all, not be an undeniable fact. Perhaps it was just one possible interpretation of nature—one that had been spoon-fed to me. I was curious to find the truth. And I thought that without finding an answer to the question of origins, I could not make a well-founded decision about the purpose of my own life.
Back to the Bookshelf
I reread my animal books and noticed that origins were treated with remarkable superficiality. Whatever phenomenon the authors spoke about, they used expressions like "evolved," "emerged," "was modified," "adapted,” etc., but they never went into the details of how these things happened.
I thought I could get more detailed information from biological journals, but found, to my dismay, that the descriptions, though worded more scientifically, were based on an unproven preconception. This reinforced my suspicion that my schooling was misleading and that evolutionism was but a linguistic construction, a mythic explanation of the world from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To borrow an expression from the humanities, it was a "narrative," a story invented by people in a certain age and told to the others.
Rereading the books, I was taken by the wonder of the inborn instincts many animal species demonstrate. To gather more information for deciding on the question of origins, I chose to study this subject in detail. Animal behavior is the subject of the scientific discipline of ethology. Being a cultural anthropologist by training, and also interested in nonhuman cultures, I dubbed myself a "cultural zoologist” (maybe the only one on planet Earth).
Let's look at some questions that arise in connection with instinctive animal behavior.
It is not at all surprising that insects behave like insects, birds like birds, and mammals like mammals. They execute most of their intricate behavior in a predetermined, instinctive manner. But how do they know when and how they should act? Where did the intelligence manifested in nature come from?
To explain the origin of behavioral patterns, evolutionists point to gradual modifications of simpler behaviors. But is the current view necessarily the correct one? Is it based on detailed, plausible deduction? Or could there be an alternative, better explanation? Is it possible that our world reflects in many ways a supernatural intelligence that applied its own infinitely ingenious solutions to create the living world?
Many animal behavioral patterns do not merely consist of one single phase, but involve a range of behavioral steps that must always be present to achieve successful action. This represents a serious, if not lethal, threat against the Darwinian theory.
The East Australian mallee fowl (Leipoa ocellata) hatches its eggs in an unusual way. First, with their strong legs mallee fowl parents dig a hole fifteen feet wide and three feet deep. During winter, they gather twigs and leaves from within a radius of fifty-five yards and amass them in the hole. When the material has gotten thoroughly soaked in the rain, they cover the whole thing with a layer of sandy earth twenty inches thick. This is how the mallee builds its craterlike nest, which towers nearly five feet high.
The mallee fowl hen lays her eggs on rotting leaves in the egg chamber within the nest mound, and then the male buries the egg chamber. Starting in the spring, for three to four months the hen comes once a week to lay one egg each time, then leaves the nest. During the long nine-month period of hatching, the cock takes care of the right incubation temperature.
Most species of birds hatch their eggs with the warmth of their own body. This case is totally different. The eggs of mallee fowl hatch by the warmth of the hill, as the rotting plant matter piled up inside generates heat that hatches the eggs. From time to time the male sticks his bill into the hill to check the temperature of the soil. He is able to measure the temperature most probably with his tongue or oral cavity. He maintains the temperature of the mound functioning as an incubator at 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit (34 degrees centigrade) with incredible precision. He allows a maximum fluctuation of 1.8 degrees (1 degree centigrade) inside the mound, even though daily and yearly temperatures vary considerably in that region.
If the eggs are in danger of overheating, he assiduously removes a layer of sand from the top of the hill to emit extra heat. Alternatively, to protect the mound from excessive sunshine, he scratches more soil onto the mound. When the outside temperature turns colder, he removes the upper layers of the hill during the day so that the sun shines right on the middle of the nest. But in the evening he covers it again to retain the heat.
Nestlings hatch at different times and break the eggshell with their strong legs. Miraculously, they do not suffocate inside the mound but, keeping their bill and eyes tightly shut, dig themselves out of the hill. They struggle hard for five to ten minutes to make their way upwards a few centimeters, then they rest for about an hour and start again. It might take them two to fifteen hours to get to the surface. After getting out, they take a deep breath and open their eyes. Afterwards, they waddle or roll down the hatching mound and rush into the surrounding scrubland. They never meet their parents and learn from no one how to build a mound or how to maintain its temperature. Still, when they come of age, they behave exactly as their parents did.
Beyond Hen-witted Explanations
The mallee fowl belongs to the family of incubator birds (Megapodiidae). All the bird species belonging to this taxonomic family are well known for using an external heat source to hatch their eggs. Evolutionary science journals assume that this hatching method evolved in small steps from the traditional “sitting on the eggs” hatching. Nevertheless, they are unable to give any kind of detailed and convincing theoretical explanation for this gradual evolvement, which would be in line with the principles of their theory.
To understand more deeply why evolutionary theory does not stand its ground regarding the origin of the mallee fowl’s hatching strategy, let us take into consideration what is needed for the successful hatching of the nestlings.
From the hen's point of view:
Coming back regularly and laying the eggs on the appropriate spot.
From the cock's point of view:
Knowledge about the material and structure of the hill.
Building of the hatching mound.
Specific organ to check the temperature of the soil.
Sophisticated instinct to ensure a constant temperature inside the hatching mound.
From the chicks' point of view:
Appropriate instinctive behavior about what to do after hatching.
Adequate anatomical build to have the strength to dig themselves out from the mound and to survive on their own.
Instinctive behavioral patterns from their birth on, making them capable for breeding and nurturing.
Just think it over. Would it bepossible to omit any of these elements and still have the eggs hatched? Surely not, because all these particular anatomical characteristics and instinctive behavioral programs are needed at the very same time, so that the following generations of birds can come into existence. This is why one cannot draw a line of progressive development consisting of numerous gradual little changes leading from the “heating with body” to the “mound builder” system. By the time the eggs are laid and hid in the ground, all the other elements (physical characteristics and instincts of the mallee fowl) should be present; otherwise the temperature of eggs would not be maintained and the embryos inside would perish.
Thus the mallee fowl’s method of hatching is an irreducible system, as the process works only if each jigsaw-puzzle piece of the behavioral chain is in its proper place. The simultaneous emergence of so many coordinated elements without conscious control—merely by undirected chance mutation—is utterly impossible.
Therefore the origin of the mallee fowl is a riddle with only one solution: This bird, with all its anatomical features and instinctive behavior, was devised by a higher intelligence. Moreover, the “sitting on the eggs” and the “mound-building” incubation techniques most likely manifested at the same time as parts of a comprehensive superior plan.
A More Reliable Answer
The mallee fowl is but one of the many examples in our book Nature’s IQ, written in cooperation with my bioengineer friend Bhagavat-priya Dasa. It describes a hundred examples of unusual animal instincts of unexplained origin (www.naturesiq.com).
Here are some more exciting questions:
How did the archerfish get the idea of spitting beyond the water level, and how did its special mouth weapon (capable of shooting down insects with water) develop? What kind of evolutionary advantage would the ability to spit small quantities a short distance have represented for many, many generations?
How can a small fish (the cleaner wrasse) stay alive when swimming voluntarily into the mouth of a predatory fish (the coral grouper)?
How do the migrating birds know when and in what direction they should leave?
What special mating habits contradict Darwinian evolution?
What are the strategies of animal parents in raising their offspring, and why it is likely that these come from a higher intelligence rather than from chance genetic changes?
Animal behavior patterns pose logical riddles that can hardly be solved without postulating the involvement of intelligent design. It seems reasonable, then, to consider the standpoint of the ancient scriptures.
According to the philosophy of the Vedic scriptures, living beings in this world are made of three components. In all cases, the source of life and consciousness in any living body is an eternal individual spiritual spark. A subtle physical body, in which the mental activities of the living entity take place, covers the living being. It seems that the instincts of a given species are also coded into this subtle material body, and they are substantially constant. The visible biological body covers the subtle body. The variegated forms of life and the appropriate behavioral patterns ultimately come from an infinitely intelligent and ingenious being, who is present in the hearts of all living things as Supersoul.
I have learned to identify the misleading ideological prejudices in science books and to handle them with the appropriate reservation. And nowadays, when I read about nature, I often feel that from behind the lines, Someone is winking at me.
Note: This article was adapted from the book Nature's IQ, by Ishvara Krishna Dasa and Bhagavata Priya Dasa. The book is available from the Krishna.com Store.