Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich


The Homing Instinct: Meaning & Mystery in Animal Migration by Bernd Heinrich. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. 352pp ISBN: 978-0-547-19848-4

Heinrich as anyone who reads my pages knows can pretty much do no wrong. He is one of the all-stars in my pantheon of science explainers. We need them and are always informed about a couple of things from Heinrich. We learn about animal behavior and that their behavior has nothing to do with what we think about animals. Though Heinrich toys with anthropomorphism he makes the statements necessary to dissuade any belief in that.

Animals are sentient and they show many behaviors that suggest that they think like we do but there are many studies that show that for instance very few of them have any sort of “Theory of Mind”. Studies continue and the very fascinating images of animal behavior continue to unfold.

It is difficult not to be a bit anthropomorphic given what we learn about animal actions and why they do what they do. Heinrich makes cases about homing instincts that make a reader wonder how smart animals are versus how much they react to environmental situations based on their inherited instincts. Those thoughts are exciting. They impel the researcher’s desire to analyse the data with a cautionary ear to human motivation.

So the homing instinct is more vast to Heinrich than we popularily think of it. I suppose that most people think of homing as the ability to return to where we came from. Heinrich thinks so and he makes a case for animal behavior and its importance to where they came from. There are many interesting examples in the book. Some species cannot return to their home because it does not exist anymore. They have to make decisions some of which may lead to their specie extinction. Others may lead to speciation. Heinrich does not speculate in this book as I have just done.

Heinrich describes adaptation to new situations and its successes and failures. It is all fascinating reading and one would never now the details without reading The Homing Instinct. Heinreich’s ability to make his scientific intention known is as always, supreme.

As he ages and continues to write popular naturalism books, he grows more personal. His own stake in the game of science and naturalism has drawn from him a degeree of subjectivity. In this case it enhanced the book. He discusses his own “homing instinct” and how he was drawn to his first American home. He tells the reader how important it was to him to return to his Maine roots.

It was there that he could still study and write about his zeal for the natural world. He continues to do so with a panache. The reader does not require a doctorate to understand in this case, the desire to home that animals have. The reader can understand from this very readable books about nature and animal behavior.

Heinrich has done it still again. Good for him and better yet, good for those who pick the book up for a read.

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