All animals innately fear only one thing: Fire.
All humans seek fire, create fire and want to control fire.
Have we always sought out fire or was there a time when we feared the flames?
How did we learn to run to the heat instead of away from it?
Is our desire for fire the one thing that separates our animal instinct from beast?
How does fire anneal our cultural covenants when we create our most basic moral, aesthetic and intellectual memes?

17 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    “All animals innately fear only one thing: Fire.”
    How can we back this statement up with scientific data? I would believe more that all animals innately fear predator threats rather than fire.
    “All humans seek fire, create fire and want to control fire.”
    Fire has an allure that draws us to it. What that attraction is, I believe, differs between each person and situation. For instance; I enjoy a warming fire while sitting quietly out of doors sipping wine. The warmth is soothing and the flames seem to dance for me in perfect rhythm with the rest of nature.
    Controlling fire is, like everything else, an illusion. We like to pretend we have control of the flames, however, one single amber floating loftily through the air can quickly end that illusion in an uncontrollable blaze.
    Have we always sought out fire or was there a time when we feared the flames?
    Since scientifically the Human was born as a herbivore, I think it’s safe to say we did not seek out fire initially. The human probably found flame by accident, and once the accident was recreated intentionally we put it in our mental toolbox.
    “How did we learn to run to the heat instead of away from it?”
    Fire offers us options. Humans like options.
    Is our desire for fire the one thing that separates our animal instinct from beast?
    I’m not sure we really have a “desire” for fire. But I believe if we did, it would be far down the list of items that separate us from animals.
    “How does fire anneal our cultural covenants when we create our most basic moral, aesthetic and intellectual memes?”
    I’m not sure this is an appropriate question within today’s culture, as fire in its basic form is inconvenient. It requires fuel, which requires labor and time. It requires an ignition source, which requires action/labor/time. And, it requires tending to, which requires labor and time.
    The time and labor factors alone are simply matters of inconvenience to our current cultural covenants. Imagine having to stoke a wood or coal stove to cook or provide heat.
    I think a lot of people would revert back to vegetarianism.

  2. Animals do not run towards fire and if fire is pressed towards them they back away.
    If you don’t call that an innate fear of fire, please explain why and if you can name an animal that runs towards fire instead of away from it, please let us know.
    Common sense and experiential facts do not require “scientific data” in order to be true.
    I’m not sure how you can effectively answer the rest of the queries in today’s post if you don’t accept the premise of the argument.

  3. We’re drawn to fire. I think it goes back to Caveman times. Fire was used to cook, provide light in the dark, and for warmth.
    I personally like fire in a so called “controlled” setting. I love being able to sit beside a log fire with a mug of Hot Chocolate and watch the flames.
    Animals do fear fire. A fire blazing out of control is the biggest fear of any animal INCLUDING humans. Think of how an animals feels, trapped in a burning house. Think of how WE feel watching our home burning down, or worse still, being trapped in it.
    Cryptic,
    I in fact had a wood stove a couple of years back. We used it for heat. The chopping of wood, the lighting of it, the warmth it provided and the keeping it burning with regular logs was what made it fun for me. It came in more than handy when the snow got so heavy on the power lines that they came down and our power was cut off.

  4. Hi Dawn!
    Yes, I agree animals fear fire. Even in the open wilderness if lightning ignites the brush, animals will flee the flames, not investigate the flames. They sense the danger on a DNA level. It is a behavior that is inborn and not learned or taught.
    Your point that an uncontrolled fire is pure terror for animals and humans alike is right on target!
    When the World Trade Center was on fire, people on the upper floors jumped out of the windows and down to their deaths.
    Sometimes people held hands and jumped together.
    Here are some images of people in free fall from the World Trade Center but I must warn you they are disturbing and they are graphic and not for the weak-of-heart:
    http://images.google.com/images?q=world%20trade%20center%20falling
    People on the ground could not comprehend CHOOSING to leap out a window and into certain death. They could not understand why those people chose death over trying to get out of the building.
    Firefighters in the WTC would talk of the sound of bodies hitting the pavement. It was a sound none of them recognized but the sound soon became familiar. It was one sound they would never forget.
    A scientist was on one of the news shows and explained the leaping phenomenon. He said in a study of rats in a maze — where rats learn behaviors and learn from each other — rats, when faced with the choice of a fire at their back or a leap out of the cage into an unknown space, the rats will always choose to flee the fire than to stay and be burned alive. They have an innate sense that fire is bad and to get away from that burning, even for an instant before death, is preferable than burning.
    The scientist went on to say humans react the same way. There have been other high-story fires where people have leapt out the window to their deaths than to do nothing and get burned alive.
    The want to flee from the flames is so intrinsic that, like rats, people will jump into the unknown than face the burning fact of reality behind them.

  5. David,
    I went to see the movie The World Trade Center recently. It was a movie I’ll never forget. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s based on the two Police Officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno who were pulled out of the rubble alive.
    The movie showed people actually jumping out of windows to their deaths, and also the sounds of bodies hitting the roof of the building the officers were using to gather equipment before heading up to rescue people. The sight of that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I also saw some of them on the news when the World Trade Center was hit by the planes.
    The thought of having to make that choice is a terrible one. Having to choose between dying by fire, or dying by a fall. And god forbid, if I ever had to make that choice, I would rather choose to jump and fall. Death would be instantaneous as opposed to suffering horrific burns and terrible pain.

  6. Hi David,
    I was curious to see if animals do fear fire since the hypothesis was challenged in a comment.
    I suspect most small animals do fear fire — I know my parents’ cats were afraid of the fireplace. But, we did have a cat who would sneak out of the house for a couple of days and come back covered with ashes during the winter. Was he sleeping near a fireplace somewhere else?
    I also know that humans fear uncontrolled fires, but love controlled fires.
    Who doesn’t love a nice campfire or backyard fire pit on a cool autumn evening? Who isn’t fascinated by a bonfire?
    Look at many people’s fascination with lighters of all sorts — Zippogallery.com is a nice example of fire creation devices that continue to mesmerize people and capture their imaginations.
    I knew some kids who would light anything they could get their hands on using a magnifying glass or lighter.
    These kids might have been the inspiration for Beavis’ “FIRE!!! FIRE!!! FIRE!!!” obsession that was subsequently banned from the airwaves when a little kid decided to set his own fire in the early 1990s and blamed it on too much Beavis and Butthead.
    Reading a little more about pyromania shows it provides some twisted folks with a release of brain chemistry that stimulates them and reinforces their anti-social behavior.
    However Cryptkeeper might be right about some animals not being moved by the sight of fire.
    I found a government article that suggests that some large mammals become used to fire and ignore it because they are often exposed to it in their environment.

    Since fire is a natural part of the environment for many animals, Komarek (1969) hypothesized that these animals lack an innate fear of fire and that some sensing mechanism and behavior patterns certainly must give warning in sufficient time for large mammals to move out of danger. His observation of large mammals showed their relative disregard of fire.
    Ivey and Causey (1984) reached a similar conclusion in a study of radio-tagged white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Immediate and short-term responses of deer during burning activities showed deer to use streambeds and other moist sites as refuges from fire. Deer were observed feeding to within 65 ft (20 m) of approaching fire with no apparent alarm. At no time were deer observed running in response to fire.
    Ivey and Causey (1984) also reported that burning up to 70% of a home range did not cause deer to change their home range.
    Natural fires in grasslands usually burn cool near the ground, then progress in a discontinuous front, leaving a mosaic pattern of burned and unburned areas (Handley 1969). This allows large mammals to avoid fire and leaves shelter and mature food sources near burned areas.

    Source: USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.
    I would have never thought this would be the case before Cryptic’s comment and reading the USGS article because I would have assumed that all animals would instinctively fear an uncontrolled fire as much as humans do.
    As far as fire being a mean to anneal our cultural covenants, just take a look at the Bible and all of the burnt offerings that were offered up during the Old Testiment days. One way of showing your respect to God was to barbeque the best animal from your flock.
    We still light candles in our religious ceremonies to symbolize our faith.
    This is the place where I most often see fire being used as a way to transmit values and faith.
    “In the Catholic tradition, the candle (flame) is a symbol of Christ, the light of the world,” writes WeddingDetails.com. (weddingdetails.com/lore/catholic.cfm).
    A lighted baptismal candle also symbolizes passing along the Christian faith to a new member of the church.

    The giving of a candle lighted from the paschal candle helps spell out this reality. It is also the way that the Church, through baptismal sponsors who represent the total community, “passes the torch” of Christian commitment to those being baptized.

    Source: Catholic Update. (americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0389.asp)
    Fire also plays a role in the church’s use of the Paschal Candle.

    The Paschal Candle is blessed at the beginning of the Easter Vigil and is the first light that leads the faithful into the darkened church. The Paschal Candle remains lit for all of Easter, through Ascension Thursday to Pentecost.
    This candle is lit each time a new member is brought into the church and each time a member of the church is commended to God at their passing.
    The stand is made of black walnut with design elements that complement the tracery of the stained glass windows.
    It is crafted to reflect the singular importance of the candle it holds.

    Source: Diocese of Gary. (dcgary.org/cathedral/tour/paschal_candle.htm)

  7. Dawn!
    I admire you for being able to watch the new WTC movie. I don’t know if I will ever be able to watch it. It is too painful an experience for me to remember.
    I’m glad they had the sounds of the bodies hitting in the movie. That was a big “sound” — along with all the firefighter alarms after the buildings fell — that will stay with me forever from the news clips of the event unfolding in real time.
    I agree that I would jump, too. I think jumping is the greatest leap of faith in human hope. “Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe I’ll just break my leg.” I think the leap is in the power of picking the death instead of having it determined for you.
    The scientist went on to say that when the maze was set on fire and the rats lined up one-by-one to jump to their deaths they did it even though they could hear the sounds of the other rats dying and “screaming” and hitting the ground. Eerie!

  8. Uncontrolled fire is something that both animals and humans fear. It is one of the primal forces.
    The processes that humans have evolved to “create” fire mark some of the fundamental differences between animals and man.
    We are drawn to heat – be it the sun – or fire. Most of us find some level of heat comforting.
    Creating a good fire is similar to painting a good picture or writting a good essay – part of it is the ritual , the cutting of wood, the laying of the fire, the lighting, the nurturing and finally the enjoyment. (And yes I am a paid up member of the wood fire brigade.)

  9. Thanks for the information, Chris.
    Animals have an innate sense of fire. They can learn to recognize it and live around it but they will never willingly approach it and they will flee from it if the fire moves toward them.
    A horse will stand near a campfire but that same horse will not walk through the flames of the campfire and if you don’t believe me and you want “scientific proof” try it sometime!
    The “sight of fire” is not the same as having flames upon you or walking through the flames.
    Our conquering of fire is what sets us apart from the animal world. We want fire in our hands as you suggest.
    The history of the forward progress of the world is in the extended mastery and use and the control of fire to move humankind outward from the cave fire and into the smoke signal and the steam engine and the steel mill and to the combustion engine. It is our mastery over the flame that makes us human.

  10. Hi David,
    I’ve never observed an animal stepping into a fire either.
    People on the other hand sometimes aren’t a wise as animals are — remember the cast member of Survivor, The Austrialian Outback 2001, who fell into a fire on the show.
    I suspect since the grass fires burned cool and weren’t overwhelming, the animals knew they didn’t have to run — even if the animals were close to the fire. The deer also exhibited tactical knowledge of fire by going to stream beds and other moist areas when it was in the area.
    Without fire, we’d would have never been able to progress where we are today.
    I can’t even image what life was like before fire was harnessed as a tool.
    Do we even have any recorded history of pre-fire times or has fire always been with us?

  11. Nicola!
    LOVE THAT GRAVATAR! Is it you? I added you to our Blogroll today!
    I agree everything fears fire but animals have an innate fear evidenced even in the newborn young in that they will move in the opposite direction if a flame gets too close — the newborn human infant does not have the same innate reaction to turn away from the flame.
    Humans learn a fascination with fire and its warmth and the innate desire to control it and not flee from it — unlike their animal brethren.
    Perhaps one has to grow up around a variety of feral and domestic animals to accept what I’m saying today as “scientific fact” instead of an experiential one that anyone who knows animals — especially those in the wild — accepts as a matter of fact.

  12. Chris –
    My understanding of mankind’s control of fire is as soon as we became “Homo Erectus” around 1.5 million years ago we started to harness the power of fire. There have been re-used “fire pits” discovered in Africa that are roughly that old:

    Evidence from a site in KoobiFora in Africa is the most distressing to those who believe strongly that h. erectus was not a being with technology and culture. Burn patches dated between the ages of 1.4 to 1.6 million years old have been found in this region of Africa, a time period occurring at the very beginning of h. erectus’ existence. Accompanying these burnt patches are tools and burnt bones, evidence that leads some anthropologists to claim that the fires were man made (McCrone).
    This evidence alone was considered inconclusive. Critics pointed out the lack of ash, stones, and food remnants. These critics suggested that the lack of such evidence indicated the distinct possibility that the fires had simply been caused by nature. Stronger evidence was found though, leading many to conclude that the fires could not have been created by nature.
    Crystalline melting at the sites was found to have occurred at around 400 degrees Celsius, as opposed to the 100 degree Celsius melting found at the average bushfire. Also, there were many different elements in the burnt patches, indicating that the sites had been revisited and relit. Unless bushfires had occurred repeatedly at the same site, the evidence here points to man made fire. Even more convincing is the existence of multiple plyoliths at the site of the fires. This evidence runs contrary to the findings at the site of a naturally occurring fire. Fires that occur in nature tend to have evidence of only one plyolith. The dominant plyolith at this site in Africa was palm wood. Palm wood is still one of the most preferred woods for a fire. The dominance of this type of plyolith along with the existence of others indicates the distinct possibility that the fires in Africa were created by h. erectus (McCrone).

    http://www.123helpme.com/view.asp?id=22172
    The main reason you keep a campfire lighted overnight in the bush or in the woods or on the plains is not for warmth — it is for protection from wild animals that are innately scared off because of the flames. That’s why someone always has to stay awake to “watch the fire” because if the fire goes out, you all become a living dinner.
    The guy on Survivor actually was trying to start a fire and inhaled instead of exhaled and the fumes from the young fire entered his lungs and he passed out, hands first, into the fire. You have to know which direction the wind is blowing when you set a fire!

  13. David – It is ….. although my hair is now half way down my back ! I am hooured to have a place on your blogroll ……….
    Thank you for pointing out what seems to to be the obvious …. must learn to engage brain more before firing off a *quick* post. I wonder if newborn humans would move if they could …… they take much longer to be mobile dont they? I am not suggesting we experiment here!
    Chris – I am sure fire arrived before the means to record – a quick look at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0001198.html would appear to confirm that.

  14. LOVE YOUR FACE, NICOLA! I am so happy to see you. Thanks for giving us an “update” on how we should imagine you in the now!
    I believe someone did an experiment — a long while back when one could do this sort of experiment — with young infants and a candle. The human infant instinctively “reached out” toward the flickering flame. Young animals at the same developmental stage as the infants turned away from the flickering candle.
    One could probably do a quick experiment at home to re-test that experiment — though I wouldn’t recommend it — by using a fireplace: Young children naturally navigate toward the flames on their own and are enchanted by the dancing fire; a dog or a cat will not run from the contained fire as a matter of the ordinary day and may even take a nap near the fire — but if you pick up that animal in your arms and then approach the fireplace with their head in lead position they will do everything in their power to head the opposite direction. Now that is an innate response and not a learned reaction because how many cats and dogs are you aware of that have burned paws or whiskers or coats? They know to stay away by some divine intervention in their DNA.

  15. I will updadte my Gravatar when I can get a suitable picture ….. I tend to shy away from the camera.
    I the past I have had a dog and two cats who have slept too close to the fire and have been singed in the process …………. and they were old enough ( and too sleepy) to know better!

  16. I’m having a difficult time believing animals have an innate fear of fire as you urge.
    This statement makes the assumption that animals lack intelligence, and, that it’s simply the “fear of fire” that causes them to flee. I’d much rather see the word evade used as most animals do demonstrate high levels of intelligence. Sometimes more so than humans.
    “All animals innately fear only one thing: Fire.”
    Animals have an innate sense of DANGER, which is what causes them to flee fire. Also, most animals are plant eaters and so there is no significant reason for them to learn to harness the powers of fire.
    You are “right on” in your argument that if the fire is placed against them, they’ll be afraid and flee. But then that “placing fire against them” should be phrased as an “attack” and I can then fall back on my initial statement that animals fear only one thing, predators.
    Chris makes a great point, which I overlooked; in that we use fire for ceremonial purposes.
    Dave, What do you define “basic moral, aesthetic and intellectual memes” as?
    This is probably where I went wrong in my original post and I’m still having a hard time deciphering this sentence:
    “How does fire anneal our cultural covenants when we create our most basic moral, aesthetic and intellectual memes?”
    -CK