Why Study Animal Behavior?

Some months ago, I wrote a little essay called “What’s Next,” in which I talk about my evolving views on why studying animal behavior is worthwhile. This post continues that musing, by considering animal behavior’s position in a larger political project of human liberation (which I get at a bit in this recent piece on trauma and standpoint theory).

I’ve been imagining what it would feel like to have a research program determined by the community. I would love to go out to ask people who live near me, “What’s something you’ve noticed in nature that you would like to know more about?” and then use their answers to define my work. Participatory Action Research for organismal biology, if you will. In a 2017 interview in with David Steen for this piece, we talked about what it would look like to formalize such community-based science into our funding institutions. Steen is a herpetologist and science communicator across various media, and we began by talking about his experiencing fielding many strangers’ questions about reptiles and other creatures. Here’s some of our conversation (my questions in bold, Steen’s replies in italics, edited for length and clarity):

So what are some of the themes or topics that seem to come up repeatedly, that you think people are interested in but maybe don’t get quite as emphasized by scientific research or funding?

They want to know how big something gets, and where do they spend the winter and how their populations are doing in their area, and that’s not really stuff that’s easy to parse from a scientific paper, even if they had access to it.

And do you think that just comes from people just being curious about what’s around them?

I think so. I think that people are fascinated by animals around them. Sometimes that manifests in a real appreciation and interest, sometimes that manifests in fear and loathing, but they’re all interested and fascinated by these creatures.

…[other questions were asked and answered]

And so given all of the experience that you have with talking to what people are actually interested in, people who are indirectly funding most of our research, what would you say to scientists or to funding agencies about what you think our priorities should be, or could be, and ways to get more buy-in from people who are not scientists?

Yeah. So I should…I haven’t studied this, I don’t know the intricacies of the policy, I don’t know the people making this decision, so it’s just kind of one person’s opinion, brainstorming. Okay. I think it would be neat if, in addition to these really rigorous committees of elite scientists that currently decide who gets funded and who doesn’t, with public funds, what if the public was involved in at least a subset of that? Because we do know that scientists are best equipped to figure out what’s cutting edge research, what is best to fund to advance human knowledge, but it doesn’t always relate directly to what the public is interested in. Maybe if we involved them to a greater extent in the process, it might also alleviate some of the controversies about, you know, some of the political upheaval that we hear about regarding the NSF and NIH and all that. What if there was some process that the public got to vote on, you know, some proposals, or worked with scientists to talk about what they’re interested in, or what they would want to fund. That might be an interesting way to get them involved in the process. Again, this shouldn’t be the only way to fund research, but it might be neat.

That’s a really great idea, and it makes a lot of sense because then it could be locally or geographically based, so there’s automatically [more] buy-in from the local communities, in whose lands or in whose surroundings we’re conducting this work. That would be really cool.

It would be cool, especially with outreach components to the study.

Yeah it’s sort of flipping on its head the idea that you do research first and then do outreach. This is almost sort of going from “outreach” to defining the research problem and conducting the research. And now this is just me agreeing with you, but that sort of research is so much cheaper than a lot of the research that gets funded, that’s more molecular based, or more sort of genomics-heavy, and so it seems like it wouldn’t be that much of an investment to try and do this sort of thing.

Oh I agree. I mean, if people want to know how many turtles are in a pond, you just need some nets and some cans of sardines. You don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, so yeah, that could be a much more affordable option. Things like—and again, I’m just one person, this is just my opinion. You know, full disclosure, I haven’t had any success about getting NSF funding, so I’m a little jaded and bitter and all that, so all that said—I think that they’re not really funding the stuff that they should be…I think we’re really divorcing ourselves from the ecology of wild systems, and just figuring out what’s out there and how they’re interacting with each other in those natural systems. All of the work is important, but I think that we should be paying more attention to that stuff.

I love this, I love everything about it. But a part of me also thinks that if I were to go out into the communities that surround where I live, telling folks about my job understanding animals, asking them what they think I should study, I am quite likely to be told in response that maybe I should worry first about their access to food, housing, and health insurance. In part, my ability to do curiosity-driven research in the face of pressing political concerns comes from not being accountable to the people around me, and the less insulated I become, the more I wonder about the purpose of the work of animal behavior. Maybe I should just go ask, and see what happens. I suspect I’d have to build real relationships with the people around me before it would even make sense to ask these questions, before I can hope for genuine answers.

I know, firsthand, that doing the work of studying animal behavior has allowed my understanding of myself to blossom and transform, and so of course I want this opportunity to exist for others. In fact, it should exist for anyone who wants it, which is why the goal of making science equitably accessible is worthwhile.

But going further, I have told myself for a long time that this transformative potential of studying the natural world scales and generalizes, through the scientific stories we tell about ourselves and other earthlings. As I wrote about in What’s Next, I believe that studying animal behavior is worthwhile because it informs our understanding of what is ‘natural’, and thus shapes how we understand ourselves as natural beings. And the causal arrow flows the other way too–how we understand ourselves shapes how we study nature, and by thus naturalizing our values and social mores, we reinforce them. So interventions into this process of inquiry from explicitly liberatory standpoints, such as those of feminism or socialism, can have far-reaching consequences for our self-conception. At present, it is the politics of the status quo that largely shapes scientific inquiry, including how we understand the lives of animals, and the status quo demands pushback. I believe this, but also I wonder if this is enough of a project? To what extent have I concocted this justification that allows me to continue my life in the social position of knowledge-creator-and-legitimizer?

In other words, I don’t trust my own reasons at the moment in my search for meaningful work. And so I’ve been turning elsewhere. Often to spirituality, and this morning I began reading Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. I was surprised to see in his words a persuasive case for engaging in exactly this liberatory intervention into the stories we tell about ourselves and our true nature. Early in the book, he says

“Despite our widely shared experience and beliefs about compassion [a shared eagerness to claim compassion as a virtue], we fail to give it a central role in our lives and in our society. In our contemporary culture, we tend to have a rather confused relationship with values like kindness and compassion. In the secular West [and, I’ll add, the culture of the home I grew up in], we lack a coherent cultural framework for articulating what compassion is and how it works. To some people, it’s a matter of religion and morality, a private concern of the individual with little or no societal relevance. Others question the very possibility of selflessness for human beings, and are suspicious of sentiments like compassion that have other people’s welfare as the primary concern. A well-known scientist [evolutionary biologist and philosopher Michael Ghiselin] once remarked, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.””

Jinpa goes on to say,

“As a society, we have long ignored the fundamental role our compassion instinct plays in defining our nature and behavior. We have bought into a popular narrative that seeks to explain all our behavior through the prism of competition and self-interest. This is the story we have been telling about ourselves.

The thing about a story like this is that it tends to be self-fulfilling. When our story says that we are at heart selfish and aggressive creatures, we assume that every man is for himself. In this “dog-eat-dog world” it is only logical, then, to see others as a source of rivalry and antagonism. And so we relate to others with apprehension, fear, and suspicion, instead of fellow feeling and a sense of connection. By contrast, if our story says that we are social creatures endowed with instincts for compassion and kindness, and that as deeply interdependent beings our welfare is intertwined, this totally changes the way we view–and behave in–the world. So the stories we tell about ourselves do matter, quite profoundly so.”

There is a question here for every evolutionary biologist, behavioral and evolutionary ecologist, ecologist–how are we complicit in telling and legitimizing through science a single story about the nature of what’s natural? To what extent is that story aligned with the hegemonies of our sociopolitical status quo?

Since my work on anole territoriality followed by interdisciplinary work on the nature of territoriality writ large, since our collaborative work on the evolution of same-sex sexual behavior, since reading The Dialectical Biologist and delving this year into the links between the logics of neoliberal economics and adaptationism, I can’t escape this answer: our fields are very complicit, and this complicity is baked into the very core of our theoretical constructs. This isn’t an especially cheery answer, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I can imagine a different science, one with a primary goal of understanding interconnectedness, one with a sense of purpose that truly serves democratic interests as opposed to a nebulous and colonial sense of discovery that seems often to be a veneer for preserving hegemonies. I can imagine it, and it looks pretty excellent. I can imagine a biology department, a university, where we work on problems of interest and concern to those living around us. Where it’s my job to study the behavioral dimensions of these problems and when my behavioral answers lead me to development or cell biology or genetics or ecosystem science or political ecology or philosophy, I pop over next door and pass the problem on to another scholar, and receive other problems in exchange. Where we regularly give our answers back to the people who asked for them, and every few years we step back to fit our work into some broader theoretical picture. Where generalizability is a happy happenstance, and not a goal. This means a different sense of purpose and responsibility.

And I think when we do science this way, we’ll have the room to understand and experience real interconnectedness, both in what we study and how we study it. That is our part to play in changing the stories we humans tell about ourselves and our world, which is the work of liberation.

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