Curioser and Curioser

When I was taught science, we learned there was a clear divide between physical forms – defined by genes, varied by combination and mutation, passed down through procreation – and knowledge – which could only be passed from one living creature to another through behavior, communication and living memory; not encoded in a genome.

In a recent Nat Geo (11/14) I came across the fact that Monarch butterflies migrate on an interval longer than their life span, so the individuals who make one migration are the great-grandchildren of those who made the last.  So how do those youngsters know to migrate, if none of the individuals present when it’s time to start were alive to experience and remember the previous migration?

It’s not too difficult to imagine genetic traits that would pre-dispose butterflies to travel in groups, to flee cold weather, maybe even to sense that traveling south is generally the way to do so. But to cause them to all fly at virtually the same time every year, on virtually the same routes from year to year, purely through some combination of physical traits?  And even if those pre-dispositions are passed from one generation to the other, wouldn’t we expect the behavior to be eroded by those generations that never get to experience it – “Oh yeah, Grandpa’s always talking about his famous migration. He’s so full of pollen….” (Unless, of course, butterfly adolescents are much wiser than human ones…)

Or do butterflies have the intelligence to understand and recall their own migration, communicate it to their offspring – and those to theirs and those to theirs – and then to act on that knowledge passed down to them; even though they themselves have no experience with the act of migration, or the conditions that make it the most likely path for survival? Not exactly the level of cognition we generally attribute to the brain of an insect.

In the same issue, Neil deGrasse Tyson is quoted as to how the ember of curiosity seems nearly extinguished in some adults he meets, while in others it barely burns, and I wonder – how could anyone not be curious when confronted with these fluttering Magellans.

“Everything you think you know is wrong,” they say, and what fun it is to think about what might be right!


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