Cats, instincts, and evolution

Cats are very strange animals. One of their odder behaviors is scratching around their food bowl. They look like they are trying to kick dirt over the food in order to bury it. Presumably that is what they do in the wild. But the “dirt” house cats are kicking over the food is imaginary.

This suggests that wild cats do not know they are burying their food. That is, it is not goal-directed behavior. If it were goal-directed, house cats would either not bother with the scratching, or they would be very frustrated by their lack of success.

This is not to suggest at all that cats are all dumb instinct. On the one hand, much of their behavior seems very human-like. On the other hand, plenty of human behavior is instinct masquerading as goal-directed behavior. Sex, for instance, has a clear purpose but that’s not usually why we do it. (Even if you believe sex has purposes other than procreation, such as pair bonding, it is hard to explain prostitution — which, while not as common as cats “burying” their food, is still common enough to require explanation.

So why do cats scratch around their bowl? I suspect it just feels good. Evolution does not require that we know why we do what we do — just that we do it.