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«Dilemmas in the Constitution of and Exportation of Ethological Facts Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr. © Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr. Department of History ...»

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Working Papers on The Nature of Evidence:

How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel?

No. 32/08

Dilemmas in the

Constitution of and Exportation

of Ethological Facts

Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.

© Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.

Department of History

University of Illinois

August 2008

“The Nature of Evidence: How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel?” is funded by

The Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC at the Department of Economic

History, London School of Economics.

For further details about this project and additional copies of this, and

other papers in the series, go to:


Series Editor:

Dr. Jon Adams Department of Economic History London School of Economics Houghton Street London, WC2A 2AE Tel: +44 (0) 20 7955 6727 Fax: +44 (0) 20 7955 7730 Dilemmas in the Constitution of and Exportation of Ethological Facts1 Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.

Abstract Early ethologists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz faced a problem: What constituted a fact about behaviour? How reliably must a behaviour be exhibited (and in how many specimens) before it could be said to be species-typical? And how similar do the behaviours of two species need to be before it is reasonable to say that the behaviour is true of both? They sought to convince others of their claims for interspecific behavioural commonalities through a number of means – writings, diagrams, films – and enjoyed some notable successes. But establishing facts about behaviour that would hold across multiple species was a dispute still largely contained within the relatively esoteric discipline of ethology. It was only a matter of time before the species boundaries being crossed were more controversial. For if the problem of establishing that a fact about goose-behaviour is also a fact about duck-behaviour was of limited interest, it was of considerably more significance when one of those species was human. With the publication of works such as Lonrenz’s On Aggression and E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, what had been a marginal issue for zoology was now of considerable political significance, and the original claims for inter-specific behavioural similarities fell under renewed and intense scrutiny – leading to the reexamination of the original facts on which ethology was predicated.

In 1949, the fledgling ethologist Robert Hinde observed a happy interchange between Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the founders of ethology, in their first days together after the Second WorldWar. The location was Cambridge, England. The occasion for the ethologists being in Cambridge was a special symposium on “Physiological Mechanisms in Sections of this paper are based on my book, Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), the research for which was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (SOC78and SBE9122970), the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1992-1993), and the Research Board of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Animal Behaviour,” hosted by the Society for Experimental Biology. The interchange in question happened outside of the official proceedings. As

Hinde recalled:

We were walking down Jesus Lane in Cambridge, and Tinbergen and Lorenz were discussing how often you had to see an animal do something before you could say that the species did it. Konrad said he had never made such a claim unless he had seen the behaviour at least five times. Niko laughed and clapped him on the back and said “Don’t be silly, Konrad, you know you have often said it when you have only seen it once!” Konrad laughed even louder, acknowledging the point and enjoying the joke at his own expense.2 This story is instructive for what it tells about Lorenz and Tinbergen and their relationship to one another. It is also helpful in introducing the subject of the construction of ethological facts. Before addressing the topic of ethological facts traveling, however, it is worth saying something about the kinds of facts in which the ethologists were interested in the first place.

Central to the ethologists’ enterprise was their identification of what they understood to be innate, species-specific behavior patterns. Innate behavior patterns, as Lorenz explained at the Cambridge meeting, are “something which animals of a species ‘have got,’ exactly in the same manner as they ‘have got’ claws or teeth of a definite morphological structure.”3 To Lorenz, the implications of this were far-reaching. The founding insight of his field – its “Archimedean point,” as he liked to call it – was the notion that innate behavior patterns -- just like claws, teeth, or other body parts -- needed to be understood from “the comparative, evolutionary viewpoint.” Instinctive behavior, in other words, could be used just like physical structures not only in identifying species but also in reconstructing phylogenies and assessing genetic affinities. For Lorenz, R. A. Hinde, “Nikolaas Tinbergen,” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 36 (1990): 547–565, quote on p. 553.

Lorenz, “The comparative method in studying innate behaviour patterns,” Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology, 4, (1950), p. 238.

this was the defining feature of his whole enterprise. Indeed, instead of the word “ethology,” he preferred to call his field “comparative behavior study” (Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung).

That said, we also need to consider how the ethologists positioned themselves with respect to other disciplines. Prior to the war, the ethologists were especially concerned with distinguishing themselves from animal psychologists. They had insisted that they were addressing critical biological questions that the animal psychologists were ignoring, most notably the questions of evolutionary history and survival value. In addition, they claimed that ethology represented a more objectivistic approach to behavior than did the approaches of such major, subjectivistic animal psychologists as the Dutch scientist J. A. Bierens de Haan. In 1942, in an early, programmatic statement of what ethology was all about, Tinbergen maintained that ethology’s aim was to understand innate behavior in physiological terms.4 In Cambridge, England, seven years afterwards, the ethologists were in effect hoping to demonstrate how far they had come in this regard.5 The conference had been organized by Tinbergen and W. H.

Thorpe, the Cambridge entomologist-turned-ethologist. They wanted to set up a venue where ethologists could present the results of their research to physiologists. Later, in the 1950s, the ethologists’ primary target would be the American behaviorists.

The historical point to be stressed here is that with respect to facts described, questions asked, methods employed, and theories ventured, ethologists looked toward a number of different disciplines, at different times, with an eye to impressing or influencing practitioners in those areas.

Over time, they broadcast the nature of their work through interdisciplinary seminars and conferences, public lectures, articles, books, films, and so N. Tinbergen, “An objectivistic study of the innate behaviour of animals,” Bibliotheca Biotheoretica, 1 (1942), 39-98.

The conference is discussed in Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, pp. 306-325.

on. A number of scientists in other disciplines facilitated their efforts, while still other scientists criticized or ignored them. Among the examples of ethological facts traveling to be mentioned here, some were boosted in their travels by the images associated with them, others were aided by the activity of individuals friendly to the ethologists’ cause, and others failed to reach their intended destination when the particular package in which they had been embedded was rejected as unwanted.

To be sure, the ethologists were not interested in transmitting just facts. The Cambridge conference of 1949 was where Lorenz presented his famous psycho-hydraulic model of instinctive action. There too Tinbergen presented a model of his own, that of the hierarchical organization of behavior. All the while, however, the ethologists took pains to stress the factual foundations of their models. Lorenz acknowledged the “extreme crudeness and simplicity” of his psycho-hydraulic model but insisted that the model symbolized, in his words, “a surprising wealth of facts really encountered in the reactions of animals.”6 In addition, he emphasized the strong, empirical inclinations of ethology’s forefathers. Identifying the American biologist Charles Otis Whitman and the German ornithologist Oscar Heinroth as the two great pioneers of comparative ethology, Lorenz allowed that their achievements were due primarily to the fact that they were animal lovers and empiricists. Whitman’s passion was pigeons;

Heinroth loved ducks and geese. As Lorenz cheerfully described their work, Happily ignorant of the great battle waged by vitalists and mechanists on the field of animal behaviour, happily free from even a working hypothesis, two “simple zoologists” were just observing the pigeons and ducks they loved, and thus kept to the only way which leads to the accumulation of a sound, unbiased basis of induction, without which no natural science can arise.7 Lorenz, “The comparative method in studying innate behaviour patterns,” p. 255.

Lorenz, “The comparative method in studying innate behaviour patterns,” p. 222.

Probably everyone in Lorenz’s audience recognized this as hyperbole. If not, they should have. Whitman was indeed a lover of pigeons, but he was also thoroughly engaged with the broadest questions of biology. Issues of evolution, heredity, and development constituted the raison d’être of Whitman’s pigeon studies. The portrait of a happy empiricist does not suit him in the least. Heinroth, on the other hand, fits the picture better. He and his wife Magdalena, in their classic study on the birds of central Europe, operated on the assumption that what was innate and what was learned in different bird species could only be determined by means of experiments conducted on a species-by-species basis. Their painstaking multi-year project involved rearing individuals of every different central European bird species by hand, from the egg, and watching how each bird behaved from the time it hatched all the way to its adulthood.8 Even Heinroth, though, was capable of looking up from his facts to see a broader vision. In 1910 he expressed what might be called the “sooner or later” motif of animal behavior studies, that is to say, the belief that such studies would ultimately have something of value to offer for understanding human behavior. At the international ornithological congress of 1910 he

closed his paper on the ethology of ducks and geese with the prediction:

“The study of the ethology of the higher animals—unfortunately a still very untilled field—will bring us ever closer to the realization that in our conduct with family and strangers, in courtship and the like, it is more a matter of purely inborn, more primitive processes than we commonly believe.”9 Heinroth, Oskar and Magdalena Heinroth, Die Vögel Mitteleuropas in allen Lebens- und Entwicklungsstufen photographisch aufgenommen und in ihrem Seelenleben bei der Aufzucht vom Ei ab beobachtet, 4 vols. (Berlin: H. Bermühler, 1924-1934).

Oskar Heinroth, Beiträge zur Biologie: namentlich Ethologie und Psychologie der Anatiden,” in Verhandlungen des 5. Internationalen Ornithologen-Kongresses in Berlin, 30 Mai bis 4. Juni 1910, ed. Herman Schalow, pp. 589-702 (Berlin: Deutsche Ornithologische Gesellschaft), p. 702.

All translations from the German are by the author.

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