Monday, September 03, 2012

Rodent gods

The mourning crow I saw in St James Park got me thinking more seriously about the superstitions and religious practices of animals. There's now some evidence, among western scrub jays at least, that they hold funerals (of a kind) for dead birds. at the very least they gather when one has fallen and the first one that attends the scene calls to others to witness the body. The behaviour seems counter adaptive because whatever killed that first jay may still be around and happy to kill any more than turn up.

Then I heard about some of the work BF Skinner did with pigeons that suggested that they can be made to exhibit superstitious behaviour. The methodology used to expose this was a bit cruel (but it's Skinner so maybe that's to be expected) in that he arbitrarily changed when the pigeons were going to be fed and found that they repeated the behaviour from the last time they had been fed. Skinner knew that had no effect on feeding times but the pigeons didn't and soon they were doing the behaviour regularly.

I'm not sure why but I'm more interested in rituals, superstitions and worship among smaller creatures rather than the bigger ones. Mice, in particular. Do mice have any religious beliefs. Mice gods are not entirely unknown among humans. There's Apollo Smintheus (a temple to it exsts on Tenedos), a mice god whose cult flourished for a few thousand years. The other, Kroncha, used to ferry the god Ganesha around. It wasn't really mouse-sized though and started out as big as a mountain.

But I'm more interested in the real superstitions of mice. Like pigeons, they do have them as this write-up shows. It's similar work to Skinner's on pigeons. Though there is a lot of humanocentric projection going on in the work (it seems to me). I wonder what use this would be in the wild. I guess its the beginnings of higher brain functions as they can let their memories over-ride instinct. That seems counter-evolutionary as they it means they may make more mistakes. But that's just one of the curses of being smart, it doesn't make you right more often but it does mean you can be wrong for more complicated reasons.

So mice can have superstitions which leads to them being deluded about the world and opens the door for deities. Plus everything wants to kill them so they must feel pretty persecuted and want to call on supernatural aid regularly.

My guess is that mice, being small and quick would worship something insubstantial and dark. A being that was too quick for cats, that was always ahead of a swiping paw or faster than the snap of a trap could fall. What do mice like to do? Nibble, eat and make little mice. Pretty much. So their god would excel at all those things. Perhaps the crumbs that dropped from its snout would turn into baby mice to keep the species going. Mice are frenetic, fast and scared. They are all about getting away with it. Slipping through the cracks. Finding the crumbs. Surviving. I'm not sure if it would have a name though, unless it was the squeak a mouse makes when it dies. Not with a bang, or a whimper but a hypersonic call for help.

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