Seeing all the bad press cats are getting lately, it's important to remember why we keep them around in the first place. To help us in this remembering, let's turn to a recent interview of the brilliant scientist and thinker of the roots of mammalian emotions Jaak Pankseep on Ginger Brown's podcast Books and Ideas.
Dr. Campbell: So, what about your laboratory rats and mice? Hasn't your research shown that they are born afraid of the smell of cats?
Dr. Panksepp: Yes, that seems to be a very well replicated phenomenon; many, many people are using it now. It does seem like the smell of a cat has been evolutionarily built into a rat's brain; that there are receptors in the olfactory apparatus...
Dr. Campbell: Jaak, what happens if you put a rat in a box that has cat hair in one corner? I guess it starts out exploring, and it finds the cat hair, and it has a fear response.
Dr. Panksepp: Yes.
Dr. Campbell: The next day, if you put it in that same box, does it remember that the cat smell was in the box?
Dr. Panksepp: It remembers it very well. We did this with our favorite behavior, which is happy, rough-and-tumble play. And when we had animals playing in a box, and then one day we just put 20 mg of cat hair into the box, the play went to zero; no animal showed any play.
Now, some animals freeze and just stay as far away from it as possible; other animals seem more courageous, and they actually approach it. And they might actually manipulate, and say what is this? But it certainly shifts their desire to socially engage playfully. There's some kind of worry that prevents play...
I know what you are thinking, you hater of cats: Just use their hair and smell and that will be all. But this is the kind of thinking that misses the all-too-important Darwinian component of evolution. And nothing in biology makes sense outside of the light of Darwinian evolution. Remember, some, not many (but not many is more than enough in the evolution game), are courageous. These ones would prosper if there were no consequences to boldness.
"I get food and the Mudedes get no rats. A deal is a deal."