When a spider is born, it already knows how to spin a perfect, spiral web. Cats already know how to catch small fast-moving succulent critters, clean themselves vigorously, and act snooty.
It’s called instinct. But why don’t humans have any sophisticated pre-programmed instructions? We’re supposed to be the kings of the jungle! Even a stupid gazelle can walk within minutes of its birth. By its first hour, it’s already begging its parents for a cellphone.
Instead, for the first several years of our lives, we are only capable of extremely low-level tasks, such as complain loudly and pee on ourselves. Which is good if one is pursuing a career in professional sports, but not very useful for much else.
Michael Crichton in the novel Jurassic Park idly proposed that having more complex instincts uploaded into our foetal brains would only make our heads bigger, which would make giving birth more difficult. Which I hear is somewhat painful.
But maybe it’s like embedded electronics vs. full-fledged computing stations. Animals get their survival mojo all hard coded at birth, like CMOS chips. Therefore, they have a short list of preset instincts that can be run from stable, finely-optimized firmware in their heads.
Meanwhile, humans are given a blank slate, like a stick of RAM. We can be flexible with what we stick in our brains, and grow neural pathways to respond to challenges and situations as we encounter them. It means we end up being an illogical, forgetful, belligerent species – just look at politics – but it means we also have a greater capacity to learn. A spider will never learn how to weave a web shaped with the likeness of Andy Warhol, for example. But we can learn to make Campbell’s Soup.
Moral of the story? Don’t stop learning, don’t take it for granted.