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Sand wasp about to enter its burrow
Sand wasp

Why simple instinctive behaviour is not enough

Instinctive behaviour is ‘hard wired’ into living things. Insects for example, automatically fly around. They have simple sensors that allow them to perceive their surroundings, detect food and avoid obstacles; though they can’t ‘see’ windows and often fly into them. The fact they don’t learn is shown by flies repeatedly doing so.

The sand wasp provides another example of the problems of not learning. When a sand wasp returns to its burrow with food for its young, its instinct is to put the food down outside and go into the burrow to check there are no other insects there that will eat the food. If it finds none, the wasp will go out, pick up the food and bring it in.

In an experiment, a biologist observed this and while the wasp went to check the burrow, he moved the food away. The wasp came out, realised there was no food and went off in search of more. It then found the food the biologist had put down, returned with it to the burrow and, as per instinct, put the food down and checked the burrow. The biologist moved the food again. The wasp came out, found no food and went in search of food again.

The process repeated until the biologist got bored. The wasp only obeyed its instincts! It never learnt.

Learning can also fit into the subsumption concept – learning being a high level task – as we shall see in the next Step.

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