Is behaviour genetically encoded into the brain?

Are animals born specific behaviours, and are they passed on by genetics?
10 January 2023


A yellow labrador



This is a question that James has sent in and I can identify with this, as I have a black Labrador. In his case, he says he's got a golden retriever and in his words it has a tremendous urge to carry things around. I can't even take a walk without the dog turning up with a stick or something. We've never taught him to retrieve these things. He just started doing it. I believe he was born with it. So can you please explain, he says, whether or not it's understood how behaviors, and even certain skills, which appear to be genetically passed on get encoded into the brain like this. What do you think?


Leor - Wow. What a big question. And I guess when we're thinking about how things are passed on genetically in terms of evolution and how that gets into our psychology, there are some overlaps between animals and humans, but there are also some differences. So with golden retrievers specifically, we know that they've been bred to retrieve. So the fact that they can do that very well is not surprising because their evolution has kind of been fast-forwarded to be able to do that really well. For humans, I guess the question is why don't we all retrieve constantly? And I guess it's a question of personality. We see even babies as young as a few days have personalities and temperaments. Some are irritable and some are calm and that's obviously not something that they learned. It was just something that they were born with.

Chris - But to the root of the question, does anyone actually know what's going on in the brain of a retriever that wants to retrieve versus a dog that just wants to run off and play? Have we got any insights yet into how genetics translates into brain structure that encodes these sorts of hardwired behaviors, a bird building a nest, for example, and knowing what to do about getting the right sticks in the right place and putting the nest on the right side of the tree.

Leor - So there's a whole line of research called comparative psychology or comparative cognition that looks at the skills that animals have and why they have those skills. And so for instance, we know that different kinds of birds and corvids are exceptionally good at problem solving and we know that different, like you said, different animals perform all these kinds of behaviors and actions and um, and things that really impress us. So why does that actually happen? I think that it's a really long chain of causes and effects. And I don't know if as a science we have it all down to one long trajectory that we understand. We know that our genes code for particular kinds of proteins, and that those proteins are then used in our biological functioning and that that gets translated into our whole way of living, and how animals behave as well. But the whole chain? I think that's a really big question.

Chris - Anything from the whale perspective, Tom?

Tom - Well, I'm not sure people know very much more about how whales convert their genetic programming or their neurochemistry or neurobiology into communication. But we do know that they pass on complex behaviors from one to another while they're alive. And researchers who study whales go as far as to call these cultures. So for instance, in sperm whale populations in some places, you have whales that look exactly the same to me or you. But when they come into contact with each other, different populations won't interact at all and they'll act in totally different ways. They'll forage in different ways, they'll defend themselves in different ways. They'll even communicate with different accents and what it seems like is different communication systems. And they learn these from one another. So if you were to take one of these whale babies away at birth and keep it by itself, it wouldn't do any of those things. Those things aren't instinctive, they're not programmed into them. And we really haven't been looking for a very long time at culture in non-human animals. And in the research that I've done, we seem to find it in more and more places. We find learned behaviors passed down from one animal to another. And combined with the emerging studies of animal personalities, one fox is not like another fox, you are getting a picture of much greater complexity in how animals do things and why they do things and how that differs between them than we thought there was before. And that can simply be explained by differences in genes or brains.

Chris - All fascinating stuff. Thank you very much


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