White Fang: On Learning Through Instinct

βœ¨πŸ“– White Fang (1906) by Jack London πŸ“–βœ¨

Sometime last year, I was sitting at a local pasta restaurant, basking in the sun, when a stray dog came nearby. Near the dog, there was a little bird that was hurt. The bird was hovering mid-air, struggling to gain height, when all of a sudden, the dog jumped, grabbed it with its mouth, and started eating the bird. The bird was no more, and the dog was well-fed. How did the dog know that birds are food?

I mention this story, because it ties nicely to the book I’d like to write about next. Continuing my life’s theme of being cost effective with my purchases, I picked up another book that I had lying around the house but never got around to finishing: Jack London’s White Fang. 🐺

White Fang (the Albo edition)

White Fang opens with two travelers and their pack of dogs traveling by sledge through icy and snowy North America. Night after night, the two travelers find themselves surrounded by a circle of wolf eyes; and night after night, the wolves eat their dogs one at a time. But the story quickly shifts – it’s not a story about the travelers. It’s about the wolves.

The novel’s protagonist is White Fang, an animal that is part wolf, part dog. For a large section of the book, the author describes how White Fang learns about the world around him, and how he learns to navigate life, from the moment he is born. This got me thinking.

The process for how we humans learn to navigate the world is quite straight forward. For the most part, as babies, we have adults around us that can speak to us with words, and they communicate their lessons to us verbally. For more, there’s institutions and my line of work tells me investing in early childhood education institutions is one of the best things you can do for a person’s and population’s development. For wolves like the White Fang – and for all other animals I presume – “early childhood education” means something else. It’s not like mom-wolf can howl parenting advice to her baby-wolves, you know? This realization, to me, was a little bit fascinating.

Jack London describes how White Fang, as he is growing up, relies a lot on instinct to learn his lessons. He feels hunger; he feels fear; and most importantly, he feels curiosity. Each of these on their own lead him to learning new lessons: where to find food to quench his hunger; what animals to avoid to stop feeling fear; and how to leave his cave to satisfy his curiosity.

There is something preprogrammed in us as living creatures, that we often tend to forget about. Or rather, perhaps I just tend to forget about it myself. We like to always act and say that we are rational beings, and that we are always in control – but how much of what we do is really us being rational? Perhaps the rationalization comes after the instinct. Instinct tells us to eat, and we later rationalize that we chose to eat. Instinct tells us to socialize, and we later rationalize that we chose to go out.

As self-proclaimed city-dwellers, I can confidently assume I and all my friends are very much out of touch with instinct, and often times even fear it. But maybe that shouldn’t always be the case. Maybe we can choose to tap into our instincts and just listen for a few moments. Who knows what we might find.

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