“Precocious knowledge can help naïve individuals in making correct predictions and deciding whether to approach or avoid an object, and how to cope with a situation encountered for the first time. Evidence of precocious knowledge has been documented in species with a short life span, where learning by trial and error could be too costly.” ~ Italian evolutionary biologist Elisabetta Versace & Italian cognitive psychologist Giorgio Vallortigara
For animals, a primary evolutionary dichotomy exists in developmental strategy that determines the extent of innate knowledge. This trade-off (life-history variable) involves the degree of maturity that an animal has when it begins its life.
An animal may be precocial or altricial. Newborn precocial animals come into the world equipped to cope independently. By contrast, the offspring of altricial species are dependent upon parental care to survive, as they are born or hatched in an immature form. Humans are altricial to an extreme, but they too possess precocious knowledge.
“From the time they are born, infants already link aspects of their own mind and emotions with those of others. Newborns imitate the facial expressions of others. To do this, they must link what they see on the face of another person with how it feels to be that other person on the inside.” ~ American psychologist Alison Gopnik
The precocial and altricial modes of development evolved based upon food availability and predation pressure. Birds exemplify. Female precocial birds must be well-fed to produce the energy-rich eggs needed to support greater in-egg development of chicks. Eggs of precocial birds may have twice the calories per unit weight as those of altricial birds. Altricial avian females do not have such large nutritional needs before egg-laying; but, with help from their mates, they must be able to find enough to feed their fledglings.
Birds that depend on stealth to stay safe need to be able to signal their chicks to stay still. Such species all have a call that instantly immobilizes fledglings, which keep quiet until they hear an all-clear signal. Obviously, such chicks are born knowing what the “be quiet” call means.
While in the nest, an entire brood is vulnerable to predation, and so dependent upon concealment and parental defense. In contrast, precocial birds quickly leave the nest with some ability to avoid predators. There is much less chance of an entire brood of precocial chicks being killed.
In altricial species, embryos develop relatively rapidly. The neonatal brain will grow from its small size after birth. In contrast, development before birth is longer for precocial species, and the neonatal brain larger. There is no consistent difference in adult brain size between altricial and precocial species.
The distinction between precociality and altriciality is especially broad in birds. Altricial chicks hatch with their eyes closed, covered in little or no down, are incapable of leaving the nest, and must be fed by their parents for an extended period. Precocial birds open their eyes upon hatching, are covered in down, and leave the nest within a couple of days. Chickens and several water birds, including many ducks and geese, are precocial.
Some birds are superprecocial. Megapodes are stocky, chickenish birds, endemic to Australasia. They hatch with a full set of feathers; some can fly on that same day.
Parrots have the best of both worlds. They are altricial, but parrot eggs are nutrient-rich, like those of precocial birds.
Parrot life history is like humans: both are highly intelligent, born with eyes open and large brains; but developmental success is predicated upon significant investment in parental care.
Like megapodes, some mammals are highly precocial. Common wildebeest calves can stand within minutes of being born and walk about within 30 minutes. Within a day, a wildebeest can outrun a hyena.
Precociality gives this wildebeest (aka blue gnu) a great advantage over other herbivores. Blue gnus are 100 times more abundant in the Serengeti ecosystem where they live than their closest relative, hartebeests. Hartebeest calves can take up to a half-hour after birth before they can stand up and are unable to keep up with their mothers until they are over a week old.
A key need for precociality is being born with the wiles to deal with a dangerous world. How is this possible?
“Solid evidence shows the existence of unlearned knowledge in different domains in several species.” ~ Elisabetta Versace & Giorgio Vallortigara
Though we know that savviness can be innate, there is nothing to support the idea that genetic matter manages to encapsulate expertise. Besides lacking evidence, it is simply inconceivable that nucleic acids store knowledge which comprises actionable concepts and categories pertinent to the outside world.
There is no way to explain the cognitive abilities of precocial animals by material means – within genes. Consider instead that a species-specific knowledge set is energetically embedded in an embryonic consciousness coupled to a mind-body, and precocial knowledge makes perfect sense.
Genetics put on quite a show at the molecular level, but like so much else, the story of existence is incomplete until the intangibles of Nature are factored in. An intelligent force of harmonious structuring will never appear under a microscope; but it most certainly is here, there, and everywhere.