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 with that.'
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 any clearer.
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 penthouse: man.
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.'

See also: the Dutch public debat on xenotransplantation or Barbara Noske on the Human-Animal Continuity.