Defending propositions: curiosity and cats



This is the fourth post in the propositions series. If you don’t know what I mean by “defending propositions”, you can read the introduction here.

The proposition

Today I want to talk a bit my last – and my favorite, proposition:

Lack of curiosity killed the cat

The timeline of my propositions shows I only came up with this one at the last moment. After revising the propositions several times, I was a bit stuck, yet I still needed fresh propositions. To get out of my local minimum, I tried changing up my sources of inspiration. Before I relied mainly on my own notes and examples of others’ propositions. My new strategy was to search for articles on topics like “qualities of a good scientist” in hopes this would trigger new ideas. And it did!

I’m sad to say I no longer can find the original article, but one of the qualities it listed was curiosity. I proceeded to have several lightbulb moments as I was attributing behaviors of different people to (lack of) curiosity. But I knew that a statement like “Curiosity is an essential part of doing research” would not cut it, so I had to dig deeper.

I then thought about the saying, “Curiosity killed the cat”, which implies that curiosity is a negative quality. Wikipedia told me that the entire saying is, in fact, “Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought it back”. A bit better, but still not very positive. I then did a Google Scholar search on “curiosity” and “cats”, and, lo and behold, found this 1966 (still paywalled!) paper:

In this study, the researchers compared how “curious” different animal groups were. The researchers placed unknown objects in the animals’ habitats and measured how much the animals interacted with the objects, for example by sniffing them. The responses were the highest for primates and carnivores, which included wild cats. The paper then discusses how animals adapt to their environment, for example if their usual food source runs out. Curiosity – considering whether an unknown object could be an alternative food source – could then make the difference between survival or extinction of a species. It is therefore,

Lack of curiosity killed the cat.

My cat Buffy: "Is this food for me?"
My cat Buffy: “Is this food for me?”

 

Defense

To top it off, this proposition helped me have an awesome PhD defense / viva. The first question asked to me by one of my opponents was to explain the proposition. That was great, because I had prepared a slide with figures from “Curiosity in Zoo Animals” in advance. As I started talking, I felt my confidence growing, and it didn’t go away for the rest of the defense, after which I could call myself Dr. 🙂

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