Ever met a fieldworker
studying animal behavior? Ever asked about the awareness
or character of his object of study? Listened to them
stammering? Don't worry. Journalists get this: 'I'd rather
not say anything about that'. Or: 'don't quote my name
Ethology, the research into animal behavior, is afflicted
with dualism. On the one hand there are the fieldworkers,
who observe animals in their natural surroundings. On
the other hand there are laboratory researchers, who solely
observe captured animals under strict circumstances.
Even a child can understand that such different approaches
will yield different research results. Animals behave
differently when they are free than in captivity. But
the breach lies not in the research method alone. Even
the research goals are dual.
Laboratory research is usually aimed at discovering
collective behavioral mechanisms of the stimulus-response
type. Researchers assume behaviorist preconditions.
They prepare a sharply outlined situation and monitor
the reactions of an animal or a group of animals. The
question is a matter of yes or no. Will the animal become
aggressive under these conditions? Will the animal succeed
in finding its food? Physiological measurements, hormone
levels and blood pressure complete the picture.
Field researchers have a different approach. They observe
an animal species over longer periods of time before
formulating a research objective. The question is usually
phrased in more than one part, and the answers that
are found are also multi-dimensional. Often these registered
behaviors raise numerous new questions, and outcomes
are less definite than those in laboratories.
In ethological branch literature the 'hard', quantified
and conditioned research type predominates. The animal
is like a machine and people want to understand how
it works. Field researchers who want to see their work
published have to conform to this. They have to describe
their observations mechanistically and quantify them
in detail. This article appeared in magazine "Intermediair"
on 24th February 2000
By Carien Overdijk, journalist Researchers who study animals as individuals hardly
have a vote in ethology. Psychology is reserved for
the human species, and whoever wants to find personality-bound
thoughts or feelings in animals has no place in science.
Leading ethologists give a simple reason for this rejection.
Man has no way of knowing what goes on in an animal's
mind, because animals can't talk about it. If you do
try to describe something about the inner animal, you
are guilty of a mortal sin called anthropomorphism,
which is the projection of human properties on animals.
Ouch! That's where the ethological shoe pinches the
most painfully. Ethologists pretend to research animals,
but in reality their research is about just one sub-species:
man. Behind every ethological survey there are two existential
questions. Number one: in what way do animals differ
from humans? And number two: in what way do humans function
like animals? Humanity has been wanting to know these
two things for a very long time, and the underlying
hypothesis is obvious. People- despite their animal
urges - are worth more than animals.
Man wants to dispose of his own urges as bothersome
but obstinate leftovers of evolution. This can help
him determine human superiority. Besides moral interests,
there are also large economical interests at stake.
Both factory farming and biotechnology flourish on the
speculation that animals are consumer articles. Laboratory
animals - and in the not too far future also source
animals, suppliers of cells and organs - will become
even more searched after than they are now. Cardiologists,
internists and their patients understandably are not
eager to hear that every pig has a unique, thinking
personality like they do themselves.
Ever since Darwin, the division between man and animal
has become a "Sperrgebiet". For centuries
western man has imagined himself to be a unique creature
that inherited the earth from a Supreme Being. The Bible
has made this into a dogma. This is how man proved his
claim to the supervisory of nature and the unlimited
use of animals. When Darwin confronted humanity with
their animal offspring a century and a half ago, all
hell broke loose. Since then man has been trying to
prove his uniqueness by traits and abilities that only
he is supposed to possess.
It's ironic that precisely this so-called non-scientific
fieldwork is proving the opposite time and again. Especially
the work of Jane Goodall, who has been making biographies
of the famous Gombe chimpanzee-colony in Tanzania for
forty years, has been groundbreaking. Man is the only
one to use tools? Fool others? Laugh? Make war on members
of the same species? Goodall showed that the Gombe chimpanzees
do all those things. And following this there are new
revolutionary discoveries with other apes, monkeys,
birds, dolphins and elephants.
Time and again, man has to redefine his own sub-species,
and time and again animals are spoilsports. Humans are
supposed to be different because they're the only ones
who have culture, language, and arithmetical abilities.
Not so. While ethologists until late in the seventies
tried with all of their might to attach the word protoculture to recently discovered cultural expressions of animals
(washing food, burying their dead), chimpanzees proved
that not only can they add and subtract, they also have
their own language and can even learn other languages.
Speaking is impossible for monkeys due to the construction
of their larynx, but the captive chimp Washoe was so
adept at human sign language that she taught it to her
own children. Recently we discovered that even varying
species such as elephants, dolphins, cows and chickens
use their own language. As far as fieldworkers are now
able to determine, these languages comprise several
dozens of different sounds.
The difference between people and animals - from human
coordinates - are at most gradual. Animals have intellectual
capabilities as well, even though they score low on
human cognitive ability tests. Many ethologists are
inclined to portrait animals as retarded fellow creatures,
but this is another error in thinking. It's the same
error of thinking that says that black people are of
a less intelligent race. If you make your own abilities
the norm, you leave all others out of the equation.
Animal cognition simply hasn't been researched much.
Where this does happen - occasionally - the results
are often astonishing. Monkeys, birds and elephants
can far outstrip humans in things like memory, spatial
insight and botanical knowledge. Ethologists can no
longer ignore this, but most conform cowardly to the
prevailing viewpoint that these abilities are genetically
fixed. According to this reasoning, all animals belonging
to the same species are equipped with the same set of
predetermined standard characteristics.
But rare and far-reaching fieldwork has recently shown
that animals, like people, communicate their knowledge
and teach their children. Like humans, they act not
only functionally (to bring benefits to their own family
and thereby their own genes), but also intentionally.
They are developing new customs and sometimes immediately
adapt their behavior when their habitats change. Within
an animal species the knowledge-level of a social group
can vary strongly. Last summer an international group
of primatologists published an inventory in Nature magazine
about 39 different cultural patterns in chimpanzees,
behavior that is not species-specific, but that only
occurs in certain groups.
Such a publication may be seen as a scientific breakthrough,
but at the same time it shows how little ethologists
know. The behavior outlined in the article are mostly
brief, single actions, such as using leaves for treating
wounds or as a kind of washcloth. The only complex behavioral
pattern in the list is a sort of rain dance that some
groups of chimpanzees perform when it starts raining.
Documenting individual lives could shed more light
on individual capabilities and intentions of animals.
But biology does rather not deal with this type of information.
The longitudinal psychological studies of fieldworkers
such as Biruté Galdikas (orang-utans) and Jane
Goodall are deemed unscientific and are rarely copied.
Most researchers don't feel like observing free animals
for generations, and most magazines don't even accept
it when animals in research reports have names. Fieldworkers
have now found a way around this rule with a number
system, but that doesn't make communication about individuals
The subjective and restricted research of animal behavior
is in sharp contrast with the much more creative research
of physics. In their fear of being accused of anthropomorphism
researchers put forward the weirdest explanations. Infanticide
in the wild is supposedly not intentional, but an 'industrial
accident'. And ideas about power, fatherhood and sexual
relations in animals have grown into a confusion of
tongues that would pale the Tower of Babel by comparison.
One of the latest and most fundamental assumptions is
that man is the only one to have moral consciousness.
Darwin characterized morality as the one means with
which man would learn to further control and suppress
his wicked animal urges. The prominent primatologist
Frans de Waal has refuted this assumption. In his book
Good natured (1996) he describes numerous forms of altruistic
behavior in animals that seem to be based on a consciously
chosen pattern of social values and standards.
With his approach De Waal explores the solid boundaries
of ethology, but eventually he still remains inside
the safe man-animal dichotomy. At the end of his convincing
and smartly construed argument he places morality in
a hierarchy. Human conscience prevails. 'Are animals
moral creatures? Let's just conclude that they occupy
a number of floors in the tower of morality'. De Waal
makes sure there is no doubt as to who occupies the
De Waal's assumption of the moral superiority of man
fits the current ethologic frame of thinking. It justifies
man bending nature to his will. But in the same book
the attentive reader can also find a more humble explanation
for this human behavior. Animals usually promote the
wellbeing of members of their own social group, De Waal
writes somewhere in the beginning. This principle, 'your
own people first', is the deepest rooted moral conscience
in all animal species, including humans.
Western intellectuals who think
they have overcome this politically charged morality,
do not realize that they have redefined 'your own people'.
Humankind for a long time has been one world-people, that
mainly competes with other animal species. It must try
to survive with an ever-growing population in a shrinking
natural environment. Despite nationalistic tendencies
this people is becoming ever more strongly socially entangled.
When it can save members of its species with genetically
manipulated cow's milk or sterilely reared pigs, the decision
between animal and human welfare is not a hard one to make.
This argument seems a lot more crude than the moral assumption
that humans are worth more than animals. But if you look
at the facts you see a comparison of values that are based
on unscientific viewpoints. Earlier it was the Bible that
legitimized human supremacy over animals, now it's a distortion
of the theory of evolution. The 'intrinsic
value' of animals which is always quoted in legal
texts remains an enigma as long as most ethologists view
the world through their heavily condensed evolutionary
glasses. It's precisely this 'intrinsic value' that the
government thinks should put a stop to unlimited (laboratory) animal use.
Resistance is weak. Animal protectors and action groups
have very little influence on science or politics.
Every pet owner turns weak when the unique personality
of the apple of his own eye is the subject of discussion,
but animal platforms are not succeeding in fundamentally
changing the scientific views on animals. The Leiden
professor in bio-ethics Ignaas Spruit, who started the
interest group Pro Primates ten years ago, is becoming
desperate. 'Science is a closed bulwark. Most researchers
find it much too convenient to view animals purely reductionistically'.