As we learned from those viral videos –look up “cat cucumber” if you haven’t seen them–, cats seem to be hard-wired to be scared of cucumbers and other objects that resemble snakes.

Behavioural aspects of animals are somehow hard-wired in our genes/brains, but, in this example, what triggers the behaviour is a visual stimulus: the sight of a cylindrical elongated green shape.

How can genes encode the idea of a green cylinder? Does this mean there is a one-to-one correspondence between genetic information and the experience of seeing greenness and cilyndricalness? Wouldn’t this mean that qualia are reductible to computable information?

Does genetics have a concrete answer to this question? How do the different philosophy of mind schools of thought explain it?

New contributor
agente_secreto is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • It's not the substantive part of your question, but I don't think it's right to be talking about Qualia here. It's one thing to say the cat is responding to a visual stimulus that is similar to a snake - it's another to say that what we understand as the composed elements of the "snakelikeness experience" are causally involved in the response. Why should we think it's a prerequisite to recognizing something as a possible snake that we also have to recognize it a green cylinder? Maybe cat brains just pattern match specifically for snakes!
    – Paul Ross
    Jan 14 at 21:49
  • @PaulRoss but the cat experiences the sight of the color green and cylindrical shape, and somehow recognises that experience as whatever information is encoded in its brain - which as you point out applies to any kind of sensory pattern recognition. Of course the information encoded in gene material is not qualia, but somehow references it, doesn’t it? How can this happen without qualia being describable as information? Jan 14 at 22:19
  • 5
    Isn't this more of a scientific question than a philosophical one?
    – Sandejo
    Jan 14 at 22:49
  • 2
    Genes don't reference qualia. They reference physical phenomena that can cause qualia. Jan 15 at 4:17
  • 1
    It's a perennial question and a detailed non-purely-materialistic view of ancient philosophy is Yogachara schools' Adana consciousness: the first mention of the concept occurs in the Yogācārabhumiśāstra, which posits a basal consciousness that contains seeds for future cognitive processes... The store-house consciousness accumulates all potential energy as seeds for the mental (nāma) and physical (rūpa) manifestation of one's existence. It is the storehouse-consciousness which induces rebirth, causing the origination of a new existence. Jan 15 at 4:29

There are even more striking examples of what you describe as “visual information” encoded directly into the genetic code — the orchid and the wasp for instance…

At the very least it should be easy to see that the genetic code must minimally encode an organisms own bodily structure — itself a kind of spatial model — and in fact such a structural model is directly encoded in so-called HOX genes, which are instructions that tell an organism how to assemble and arrange its parts with respect to one another during growth and development.

  • You are right, the orchid and the bee is probably a more striking example, and the question applies to all instinctual behaviour based on sensory input. How is the perceptual stimuli that triggers instinctual responses coded in the genes? If it can be encoded, doesn’t that mean qualia can be reduced to information? As for the second part of your answer, I don’t think it applies here, as those are basically instructions for matter on how to arrange itself, and don’t involve experiencial information, which is the gist of my question. Jan 15 at 10:12
  • @agente_secreto so with HOX encodings of structure, I would say the core idea I think is that DNA is quite capable of encoding spatial structure, at least with respect to a central axis — ie, that the basic function of genetic sequences is precisely as a literal representation of spatiotemporal dynamisms required for ontogeny. Perceptions do not strike me as essentially requiring a distinctively different encoding strategy than spatiotemporal dynamisms (but that said you may get more grounded answers on biology se)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 15 at 14:28

I am very interested in this question, but it seems more biology/anthropology than philosophy.

Not all cats have this response. It's speculated to be about fear of snakes, so likely colour is not critical but a certain shininess and appearing suddenly in a cat's most vulnerable position that a predator snake would choose to attack from. A logical experiment would be to correlate different ancestral cat populations responses, and presence of snakes in their home range. I can't locate it now, but I think one of the domestic cat ancestors comes from an island, which would possibly have less snakes.

Another case is battery-farmed chickens that have never been outside, will still seek cover when a raptor silhouette passes over them, but not other types of bird.

Humans can experience this with spiders, you may have experienced it yourself. I love spiders, but, if one moves in my field of view it jumps out at me, I feel very aware of it.

So, the classical evolution argument, goes this must be a very slow process of animals that randomly have certain fears surviving more often. Spiders are probably the most ancient land animal, they have been a risk to humans and all ancestor species almost everywhere tropical. It's plausible there is an ancient 'circuit', and different conditions can trigger it. Jonathan Haidt has shown experiencing epidemics as a teenager can make people lastingly less positive towards strangers, so this kind of thing is definitely plausible.

Trypophobia was only coined around 2005, the fear of clusters of small holes. Unlike the spider movement awareness thing which is very wudespread, it seems quite variable, some people immediately know when they hear about it that they have this phobia, others can't even understand people having it. So it might be an interesting edge-case to explore. Heritage? Childhood experiences? Other factors?

Hygiene has been more critical to female human reproductive success, than male, because infant mortality has historically been so high and childcare overwhelmingly done by women. That doctors didn't save more people than they killed until the 1890s, is linked to poor sanitation around corpses. The clinical benefits of handwashing were discovered by comparing childbirth wards with male doctors to midwife-only wards. The medical profession was extremely resistant to this knowledge, while midwifes were practicing it without a research basis. Women become hypersensitive to smell during pregnancy, which may also be linked to hygiene issues. It's an area that could be tested and investigated.

Another intrusion of biology into what we think we have reasoned our way into, is covered here: How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? Sex in private seems to help us cooperate. Likely we had a mix of bonobo and chimpanzee strategies, and uniquely among hominids developed private sex essentially for game-theoretic reasons. This is an another area, with a fairly defined timescale (after hominids diverged from apes), that could be investigated.

We do a lot of post hoc reasoning, we feel an answer, and then reason our way to justifying it. These kind of 'biological intrusions' into our minds, must be profoundly impacting our reasoning, in ways we likely have blindspots for. In ways that go beyond normal considerations of cognitive biases. Because our instincts accumulate collective intelligence, intelligences about communal social and long term being, that an individual could not arrive at. And society is profoundly shaped by that. EO Wilson's eusociality and multilevel selection may be a way in.

Very interesting topic, super keen to hear any other clues. Perhaps modern work on AI simulations of protein folding, might begin to provide the tools for really understanding how data goes into genes, and back again.


Genes do not code for that kind of information; they code for protein construction which play a role in different cellular functions.

I don't believe visual information can be inherited. What I suspect is happening is that, when cats perceive the cucumber it changes their brain chemistry. That change in brain chemistry is functionally related to the perception of the cucumber. It's actually the change in brain chemistry--not the perception, itself--that sets off an instinctive reaction. In other words, the cat's body is "programmed" (not by genes, but other biological information) to react when a certain brain chemistry is "achieved" in the brain, or certain chemical conditions are met. That's probably what accounts for the "fear" reaction. The cat experiences the results (i.e., qualia) of the chemical reactions (the programmed ones in response to their initial perception). But this doesn't mean cats can't eventually learn not to be afraid of cucumbers and change the brain chemistry, or that the perception is self was programmed.

New contributor
William King is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • I feel like you're treating "chemistry" as somehow different from the neural state of the brain when they are, in fact, the same thing. Genes are largely responsible for creating the basic chemical makeup (neural state) that told the cat to (at least initially) be afraid of the cucumber. Some of these states are just random quirks (they made it in despite not being "selected for" by nature), but others are almost certainly selected traits.
    – MichaelS
    Jan 15 at 7:34
  • This explanation still doesn’t answer the original question. How do cats inherit the instruction to change their brain chemistry -regardless or whether we consider this the same as the neural state or not- at the sight of a cucumber? Wouldn’t that require genetic material to somehow describe the cucumber? Jan 15 at 10:07
  • 1
    This is just weasel words. It's like claiming we don't see things, visual information just changes brain chemistry. How do you account for chickens that have never been outside running from hawk silhouettes?
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 15 at 12:09
  • @agente_secreto Information about the effects of seeing snake-like objects like the cucumber get "stored" in the physical structure of the cat's brain. Visual information isn't coded; information about its correlates are. Nature simply selects for those animals who happen to have that reaction once a certain state is produced by certain stimuli. The produced states trigger the release of hormones to induce feelings of fear. Jan 16 at 19:48
  • @agente_secreto Of course, this is just my theory. Jan 16 at 19:58

Your Answer

agente_secreto is a new contributor. Be nice, and check out our Code of Conduct.

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.