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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.'