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The Whole Animal
and Excessive Fear
"Why do I tell you this little boy's story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge."
Edward O. Wilson, 1995
"Fear of the dangers of anthropomorphism has caused ethologists to neglect many interesting phenomena, and it has become apparent that they could afford a little disciplined indulgence."
Robert Hinde, 1982
Scientists are supposed to study animals in a totally objective fashion, similar to the way we inspect a rock or measure the circumference of a tree trunk. Emotions are not to interfere with the assessment. The animal-rights movement capitalizes on this perception, depicting scientists as devoid of compassion.
Some scientists have proudly broken with the mold. Roger Fouts, known for his work with language-trained chimpanzees, says in Next of Kin: "I had to break the first commandment of the behavioral sciences: Thou shalt not love thy research subject." Similarly, Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, in When Elephants Weep, make it seem that very few scientists appreciate the emotionallivesof animals.
In reality, the image of the unloving and unfeeling scientist is a caricature, a straw man erected by those wishing to pat themselves on the back for having their hearts in the right place. Unfeeling scientists do exist, but the majority take great pleasure in their animals. If one reads the books of Konrad Lorenz, Robert Yerkes, Bernd Heinrich, Ken Norris, Jane Goodall, Cynthia Moss, Edward Wilson, and so on, it becomes impossible to maintain that animals are invariably studied with a cold, callous eye.
I have met many other scientists who may not write in the same popular style—and who may not dwell on their feelings, considering them irrelevant to their research—but for whom the frogs, budgerigars, cichlid fish, bats, or whatever animals they specialize in hold a deep attraction. How could it be otherwise? Can you really imagine a scientist going out every day to capture and mark wild prairie voles—getting bitten by the voles, stung by insects, drenched by rain—without some deeper motivation than the pursuit of scientific truth? Think of what it takes to study penguins on the pack ice of the Antarctic, or bonobos in hot and humid jungles overrun by armed rebels. Equally, researchers who study animals in captivity really need to like what they are doing. Care of their subjects is a round-the-clock business, and animals smell and produce waste—which some of my favorite animals don't mind hurling at you—something most of us hardly think about until we get visitors who hold their noses and try to escape as fast as they can.
I would turn the stereotype of the unfeeling scientist around and say that it is the rare investigator who is not at some level attached to the furry, feathered, or slippery creatures he or she works with. The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, didn't believe one could effectively investigate an animal that one didn't love. Because our intuitive understanding of animals is based on human emotions and a sense of connection with animals, he wrote in The Foundations of Ethology (1981) that understanding seems quite separate from the methodology of the natural sciences. To marry intuitive insight with systematic data collection is both the challenge and the joy of the study of animal behavior.
Attraction to animals makes us forget the time spent watching them, and it sensitizes us to the tiniest details of behavior. The scientific mind uses the information thus gathered to formulate penetrating questions that lead to more precise research. But let us not forget that things did not start out with a scientific interest: the lifeblood of our science is a fascination with nature. This always comes first, usually early in life. Thus, Wilson's career as a naturalist began in Alabama, where as a boy—in an apparent attempt to show that not all human behavior is adaptive—he used his bare hands to pull poisonous snakes from the water. Lorenz opened his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Committee with "I consider early childhood events as most essential to a man's scientific and philosophical development." And Goodall first realized that she was born to watch animals when, at the age of five, she entered a chicken coop in the English countryside to find out how eggs were made.
Closeness to animals creates the desire to understand them, and not just a little piece of them, but the whole animal. It makes us wonder what goes on in their heads even though we fully realize that the answer can only be approximated. We employ all available weapons in this endeavor, including extrapolations from human behavior. Consequently, anthropomorphism is not only inevitable, it is a powerful tool. As summed up by Italian philosopher Emanuela Cenami Spada:
Anthropomorphism is a risk we must run, because we must refer to our own human experience in order to formulate questions about animal experience.... The only available "cure" is the continuous critique of our working definitions in order to provide more adequate answers to our questions, and to that embarrassing problem that animals present to us.
The "embarrassing problem" hinted at is, of course, that we see ourselves as distinct from other animals yet cannot deny the abundant similarities. There are basically two solutions to this problem. One is to downplay the similarities, saying that they are superficial or present only in our imagination. The second solution is to assume that similarities, especially among related species, are profound, reflecting a shared evolutionary past. According to the first position, anthropomorphism is to be avoided at all cost, whereas the second position sees anthropomorphism as a logical starting point when it comes to animals as close to us as apes.
Being a proponent of the second position creates a dilemma for an empiricist such as myself. I am not at all attracted to cheap projections onto animals, of the sort that people indulge who see eats as having shame (a very complex emotion), horses as taking pride in their performance, or gorillas as contemplating the afterlife. My first reaction is to ask for observables: things that can be measured. In this sense, I am a cold, skeptical scientist. With my team of students and technicians, I watch primates for hundreds of hours before a study is completed, entering codes of observed behavior into handheld computers. We also conduct experiments in which chimpanzees handle joysticks to select solutions to problems on a computer screen. Or we have monkeys operate an apparatus that allows them to pull food toward themselves, after which we see how willing they are to share the rewards with those who assisted them.
All of this research serves to produce evidence for or against certain assumptions. At the same time that I am committed to data collection, however, I argue for breathing space in relation to cognitive interpretations, don't mind drawing comparisons with human behavior, and wonder how and why anthropomorphism got such a bad name. Anthropomorphism has proven its value in the service of good, solid science. The widely applied vocabulary of animal behavior, such as "aggression," "fear," "dominance," "courtship," "play," "alarm," and "bonding," has been borrowed straight from language intended for human behavior. It is doubtful that scientists from outer space, with no shared background to guide their thinking, would ever have come up with such a rich and useful array of concepts to understand animals. To recognize these functional categories is the part of our job that comes without training and usually builds upon long-standing familiarity with pets, farm animals, birds, bugs, and other creatures.
In my own case it began with a love for aquatic life.
Zigzag through the Polder
Almost every Saturday when I was a boy, I jumped on my bike to go to the polder, a Dutch word for low-lying land reclaimed from the water. Bordering the Maas River, our polder was dissected by freshwater ditches full of salamanders, frogs, stickleback fish, young eels, and water insects. Carrying a crudely constructed net—a charcoal sieve attached to a broomstick—I would jump over ditches, occasionally sliding into them, to get to the best spots to catch what I wanted. I returned in a perilous zigzag, balancing a heavy bucket of water and animals in one hand while steering my bike with the other. Back home, I would release my booty in glass containers and tanks, adding plants and food, such as water fleas caught with a net made out of one of my mother's old stockings.
Initially, the mortality in my little underwater worlds was nothing to brag about. I learned only gradually that salamanders don't eat things that don't move, that big fish shouldn't be kept with little ones, and that overfeeding does more harm than good. I also became aware of the ferocious, sneaky predation by dragonfly larvae. My animals started to live longer. Then one day—I must have been around twelve—I noticed a dramatic color change in one of my sticklebacks in a neglected tank with unchecked algae growth. Within days, the fish turned from silvery to sky blue with a fiery red underbelly. A plain little fish had metamorphosed into a dazzling peacock! I was astonished and spent every free minute staring into the aquarium, which I didn't clean on the assumption that perhaps the fish liked it better that way.
This is how I first saw the famous courtship behavior of the three-spined stickleback. The two females in the tank grew heavy bellies full of roe, while the male built a nest out of plant material in the sand. He repeatedly interrupted his hard work by performing a little dance aimed at the females, which took place closer to the nest site each time. I did not understand everything that was going on, but I did notice that the females suddenly lost their eggs, whereupon the male started moving his fins rapidly (I later learned that his fanning served to create a current to send additional oxygen over the eggs). I ended up with a tank full of fry. It was an exhilarating experience, but one that I had to enjoy all by myself. Although my family tolerated my interests, they simply could not get excited about a bunch of tiny fish in one of my tanks.
I had a similar experience years later, when I was a biology student at the University of Nijmegen. In a welcome departure from the usual emphasis on physiology and molecular biology, one professor gave a lecture on ethology—the naturalistic study of animal behavior—featuring detailed drawings of the so-called zigzag dance of the stickleback. Because of the work of Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch zoologist, the stickleback's display had become a textbook example. The drawings of my professor were wonderful, showing the male pushing out his red belly, with spines pointing outward, then leading the female to the nest while performing abrupt back-and-forth movements in front of her. When I nudged my fellow students, excitedly telling them that I knew all this, that anyone could see it in a small aquarium at home, once again I met with blank stares. Why should they believe me, and what was the big deal about fish behavior, anyway? Didn't I know the future was in biochemistry?
A few years later, Tinbergen received a Nobel Prize: the stickleback had won! By that time, however, I had already moved to Groningen, a university where ethology was taken more seriously. I now study the behavior of monkeys and apes. This may seem incongruent given my early interests, but I have never had a fixation on a particular animal group. There simply weren't too many chimpanzees in the polder; otherwise I would have brought them home as well.
One thing bothered me as a student. In the 1960s, human behavior was totally off limits for the biologist. There was animal behavior, then there was a long time nothing, after which came human behavior as a totally separate category best left to a different group of scientists. This way we kept the peace, because the other scientists were—to borrow a concept from animal behavior—pretty territorial. Popular books by Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) and Lorenz (On Aggression) were extremely controversial because they voiced continuity between human and animal behavior. If young students of animal behavior now look down upon these authors, seeing themselves as far more sophisticated, they forget how much they owe them for knocking down the walls well before the sociobiological revolution came along. I wasn't able to judge the scientific merit of their work then, but something about these ethologists felt absolutely right: they saw humans as animals. It is only in reading them that I realized that this was the way I had felt for as long as I could remember.
Pecking Orders in Oslo
It is hard to name a single discovery in animal behavior that has had a greater impact and enjoys wider name recognition than the "pecking order." Even if pecking is not exactly a human behavior, the term is ubiquitous in modern society. In speaking of the corporate pecking order, or the pecking order at the Vatican (with "primates" on top!), we acknowledge both inequalities and their ancient origins. We also slightly mock the structure, hinting that we, sophisticated human beings that we are, share a few things with domestic fowl.
The momentous discovery of rank orders in nature was made at the beginning of the twentieth century by a Norwegian boy, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who fell in love with chickens at the tender age of six. He was so enthralled by these sociable birds that his mother bought him his own flock at a rented house outside of Oslo. Soon each bird had a name. By the age of ten, Thorleif was keeping detailed notebooks, which he maintained for many years. Apart from keeping track of how many eggs his chickens laid, and who pecked whom, he was particularly interested in exceptions to the hierarchy, so called "triangles," in which hen A is master over B, and B over C, but C over A. So, from the start, like a real scientist, he was interested in not only the regularities but also the irregularities of the rank order. The social organization that he discovered is now so obvious to us that we cannot imagine how anyone could have missed it, but no one had described it before.
The rest is history, as they say, but not a particularly pretty one. The irony is that the discoverer of the pecking order was himself a henpecked man. Thorleif the boy had a very domineering mother, and later in life he ran into major trouble with the very first woman professor of Norway. She supported him initially, but as an anatomist she had no real interest in his work.
After Sehjelderup-Ebbe received a degree in zoology, he published the chicken observations of his youth while coining the term Hackordnung, German for pecking order. His classic paper, which appeared in 1922, describes dominants as "despots" and demonstrates the elegance of hierarchical arrangements in which every individual has its place. Knowing the rank order among 12 hens, one knows the dominance relation in all 66 possible pairs of individuals, It is easy to see the incredible economy of description, and to understand the discoverer's obsession with triangles, which compromise this economy.
At about the time that the young zoologist wanted to continue his studies, however, a malicious but well-written piece in a student paper made fun of his professor. An enemy then spread the rumor that the anonymous piece had been written by Schjelderup-Ebbe, who was indeed a gifted writer. Even though the piece was actually written by Sigurd Hoel, later to become one of Norway's foremost novelists, irreparable damage had been done to the relationship with his professor. She withdrew all support and became an active foe. As a result of lifelong intrigues against him, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe never obtained a Norwegian doctorate, and never received the recognition he deserved.
Regardless of this sad ending, the beginning of the story goes to show how a child who takes animals seriously, who considers them worthy of individual recognition, and who assumes that they are not randomly running around but, like us, lead orderly lives, can discover things that the greatest scientists have missed. This quality of the child, of unhesitatingly accepting kinship with animals, was remarked upon by Sigmund Freud:
Children show no trace of the arrogance which urges adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals. Children have no scruples over allowing animals to rank as their full equals. Uninhibited as they are in the avowal of their bodily needs, they no doubt feel themselves more akin to animals than to their elders, who may well be a puzzle to them.
The intuitive connection children feel with animals can be a tremendous source of joy. The unconditional love received from pets, and the lack of artifice in the relationship, contrast sharply with the much trickier dealings with members of their own species. I had an animal friend like this when I was young; I still think fondly of the neighbors' big dog, who was often by my side, showing interest in everything I did or said. The child's closeness to animals is fed by adults with anthropomorphic animal stories, fairy tales, and animated movies. Thus, a bond is fostered with all living things that is critically examined only later in life. As explained by the late Paul Shepard, who like no one else reflected on humanity's place in nature:
Especially at the end of puberty, the end of innocence, we begin a lifelong work of differentiating ourselves from them [animals]. But this grows from an earlier, unbreakable foundation of contiguity. Alternatively, a rigorous insistence of ourselves simply as different denies the shared underpinnings and destroys a deeper sense of cohesion that sustains our sanity and keeps our world from disintegrating. Anthropomorphism binds our continuity with the rest of the natural world. It generates our desire to identify with them and learn their natural history, even though it is motivated by a fantasy that they are no different from ourselves.
In this last sentence, Shepard hints at a more mature anthropomorphism in which the human viewpoint is replaced, however imperfectly, by the animal's. As we shall see, it is precisely this "animalcentric" anthropomorphism that is not only acceptable but of great value in science.
|Prologue: The Apes' Tea Party||1|
|Section 1||Cultural Glasses: The Way We See Other Animals||35|
|1||The Whole Animal: Childhood Talismans and Excessive Fear of Anthropomorphism||37|
|2||The Fate of Gurus: When Silverbacks Become Stumbling Blocks||85|
|3||Bonobos and Fig Leaves: Primate Hippies in a Puritan Landscape||127|
|4||Animal Art: Would You Hang a Congo on the Wall?||149|
|Section 2||What Is Culture, and Does It Exist in Nature?||177|
|5||Predicting Mount Fuji, and a Visit to Koshima, Where the Monkeys Salt Their Potatoes||179|
|6||The Last Rubicon: Can Other Animals Have Culture?||213|
|7||The Nutcracker Suite: Reliance on Culture in Nature||239|
|8||Cultural Naturals: Tea and Tibetan Macaques||273|
|Section 3||Human Nature: The Way We See Ourselves||295|
|9||Apes with Self-Esteem: Abraham Maslow and the Taboo on Power||297|
|10||Survival of the Kindest: Of Selfish Genes and Unselfish Dogs||315|
|11||Down with Dualism! Two Millennia of Debate About Human Goodness||337|
|Epilogue: The Squirrel's Jump||359|
My Double Life
My first taste for popularization came in the 1970s when I worked at the Arnhem Zoo, in the Netherlands. For years, I addressed organized groups of zoo visitors, including lawyers, housewives, university students, psychotherapists, police academies, bird-watchers, and so on. There is no better sounding board for a would-be popularizer. The visitors would yawn at some of the hottest academic issues but react with recognition and fascination to basic chimpanzee psychology that I had begun to take for granted. I learned that the only way to tell my story was to bring the individual chimpanzees to life and pay attention to actual events rather than the abstractions that scientists are so fond of.
Writing popular science books is both a pleasure and an obligation. It is a pleasure, because one writes under fewer constraints than in scientific articles that leave no room for an anecdote here and a speculation there. Peer-reviewed journal articles aren't always fun to produce.
There is a need for popularization. This is where the obligation comes in: Someone needs to explain to the larger audience what the field is all about. This may be hard for some disciplines, such as chemistry or mathematics, but if one works with monkeys and apes, as I do, it is a thankful, easy task. Like us, these animals live in soap operas of family affairs and power politics, so that all one needs to do is dig into their personal lives while attaching whatever scientific messages one wishes to discuss. People relate very easily to primate behavior and do so for the right reasons: The similarities with their own experiences are striking and fundamental.
And so, I began to lead a double life early on in my career. On the one hand, I am now a university professor and scientist who needs to write papers and obtain grants. At the same time, I am a popularizer who tries to see the bigger picture. Initially, I mainly communicated about my own work -- such as in Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates -- but more and more my writings cover the work of others. My later books, such as Bonobo, Good Natured, and my most recent book, The Ape and the Sushi Master, are good examples: My own studies constitute only a fraction of what is going on in the field of primatology.
My mission in The Ape and the Sushi Master is to abolish the traditional Western dualisms between human and animal, body and mind, and especially culture and nature. I don't know why I am so fundamentally opposed to these dualisms -- many other scientists fervently embrace them. It must have something to do with how close or distant one thinks one is to animals. At the very least -- even if I won't convince everyone -- I hope to make my readers reflect on where these attitudes come from: how they are tied to human self-perception shaped by culture and religion.
--Frans de Waal
Posted March 24, 2010
No text was provided for this review.