Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grazing in motion

When a horse is grazing something interesting frequently happens. It appear to be grazing in one place, motionless. But a few minutes later it is somewhere else, still grazing. Groups of horses exhibit the same behavior, seldom where I last saw them. So I studied this a bit and here is what I found.

The horse is grazing, head down, but it takes a step or two every 3 to 8 seconds. Thus in a sense the horse is in constant motion, even though it is also constantly grazing. If it takes, say, a step every 6 seconds on average it will cover a lot of distance. Ten steps a minute and 600 steps an hour. Sometimes my little herd covers a fifteen acre field in an afternoon. They seem motionless because it takes less than a second to take the step, so they are only moving a small fraction of the time. But moving they are, sometimes for hours at a time.

One result of this pattern of constant motion while grazing is that the grass is taken down more or less uniformly in the field. This minimizes killing the grass due to over grazing, because the horse does not stand there eating all the grass it can reach before moving on. Rather it eats a little then moves on. This benefit might even be the source of the instinct that produces the behavior. After all the horse is expending considerable effort to move this way while eating, so there should be a good reason for it.

There are several other patterns of behavior which modify this uniformity of grazing, but that is a separate topic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

First a few technical preliminaries

First a few technical preliminaries. These are necessary because the field of concept analysis is unknown to most people, so initially folks are likely to misunderstand what I am saying. Moreover I am moving outside the traditional field of concept analysis, which is focused on human language.

I regard concepts as bodies of core belief. In philosophy of language a concept is often defined as what one has to know in order to use a word correctly. Thus a concept is a body of knowledge. I am expanding this definition in two ways. First, it is not about using words but rather action in general. If a horse looks for feed in a feed bucket it is because it has the concept of a feed bucket. Words have nothing to do with this. Second, knowledge implies that what one believes is true, but a concept can just as well be based on false beliefs, so I am likely to talk about beliefs not knowledge. In analytic philosophy knowledge is often defined as justified true belief, so belief is simply the broader category. Since my interest is what the horse (or other critter) believes, not whether it is true or not, I often prefer the term belief to that of knowledge. But in many cases we are talking about knowledge, sometimes deep knowledge.

Thus the scientific question is what can we infer about the core knowledge and beliefs of the horse (or other critter) from its behavior? Note that I am not particularly interested in horse training, or riding, etc., although what we discuss here may turn out to be relevant to those pursuits. My interest is to create a scientific framework within which we can study what horses and other critters believe about the world they live in. This is both simple and hard.

By way of introduction I am not a horse trainer, far from it. But I have worked with horses most of my adult life, especially in trying circumstances. I am the founding president of Back Country Horsemen of Virginia. See Back country refers to using horses to go to difficult places.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Instinct is a way of learning, not a way of thinking

Welcome to Horse Cognition (and other critters). The purpose of this blog is to explore my theory of animal cognition, especially but not exclusively in horses. The basic concept is that instinct is a way of learning, not a way of thinking. That is, instinct provides animals (including humans) with certain capabilities and beliefs, just as learning does, but it does not direct thinking any more than learning does. What I am specifically rejecting is the common notion that instinct is somehow an alternative to thought. On the contrary, so far as I can tell all animals think. Instinct merely provides some of the basic knowledge and beliefs that thought uses.

For example knowing how to use a shovel does not make me dig a hole. Once I decide where to dig a hole my knowledge helps me do it. In the same way a beaver has to decide where to build a dam before instinct tells it how. And even then there are a great many specific decisions to be made, just as there are when I dig a hole. Knowledge is not a substitute for thought and instinct is a source of knowledge (or belief).

This is a science blog so I am pursuing a basic science question, or a method if you like. The question is "what does an animal have to believe (or know) in order to do what it does?" I am especially interested in the concepts an animal must have in order to do what it does, because my training is in concept analysis. My focus is on horses because I have set up an observatory to study them, but I have been working on this for a long time, studying many sorts of animals, including humans.

I think blog posts should be short in order to focus the comments and questions so this is enough for now. Once again, welcome.