Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Covert Naturalists

Covert (n).

c. by covert: under cover, covertly. in (into) covert: in concealment; in hiding, or disguise, secretly; rarely, in safety. in (the) covert of: in the shelter of; rarely, in shelter from…under covert: under cover, in shelter; in concealment, under a disguise.
3. A place which gives shelter to wild animals or game; esp. a thicket;
4. The technical term for a flock or ‘company’ of coots. Obs.
5. Ornith. in pl. Feathers that cover the bases of the larger feathers on some particular part of the body, e.g. tail-coverts, wing-coverts, esp. the latter.
6 trans. (legal) authority, jurisdiction. Obs.

1. Introduction

This paper investigates some aspects of objectivity in ethology. It does so by exploring aspects of the culture and field-practices of ethologists. I take as read Clifford Geertz’s statement that to understand a science one must examine neither its theories nor its findings, but ‘what its practitioners do’. And while fascinating problems relating to objectivity might be tackled by examining arguments over the selection of units of behaviour, or focusing on the quantitative analysis of ethological data, here I concentrate on those field-practices that are effaced from ethological papers, or, if present, are passed over as self-evident or as mere commonsense.

Importantly, I want to stress that I do not look here at the forms of “unobtrusive” manipulative experiment that ethologists carried out in the field. Ethologists were adamant that such experiments were only to be carried out after long and arduous ‘reconnaissance observation’ of the species in question: and it’s the ways in which objectivity was sought through the field practices of reconnaissance observation that are the subject of this paper.

Using various dictionary definitions of the word ‘covert’ to trace the different senses in which ethologists could be said to be ‘covert naturalists’ is a surprisingly rewarding way of grappling with aspects of objectivity in ethology. I want to concentrate on two aspects of the hunt for objectivity in particular. First, the various forms of objectivity promoted by the use of hides to observe animals. Secondly, taking as my cue Niko Tinbergen’s assurance that observation is itself a scientific procedure, I want to engage with the forms of objectivity promoted through ethologists’ strategies of observation and visual perception. And I end on a speculative note, discussing how ethologists could understand an imaginative empathy with animals to be a credible method of obtaining scientific data, rather than an anthropomorphic and subjective movement.


Anxieties of influence

Before launching into an examination of ethology’s field-practices, I want to set the scene. And to this end, an obsolete, legal sense of the term ‘covert’ meaning ‘under jurisdiction or authority’ is pertinent. For wider questions relating to forms of subjectivity and objectivity in ethology are clearly related to the history of the discipline. Attempting to assume jurisdiction over the field of animal behaviour, early ethologists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz sought to assume the authority to define which questions should be asked of animals and how they should be asked. Ethology was presented as a necessary corrective to and a reaction against the manipulative experimental practices and laboratory-based methodologies of experimental psychology. Psychologists’ experimental testing of behavioural theories on animals, they argued, led to invalid conclusions, for animals could not exhibit true behaviours in such depauperate and artificial experimental conditions. They also challenged the expertise of experimental psychologists; individuals such as de Haan and Skinner were derided as failing to possess that knowledge of and ‘intimacy’ with animals that ethologists considered an epistemological and moral requisite for understanding animal behaviour. Lacking personal knowledge of the animal’s natural behavioural repertoire, the scientists' experimental results could not be adequately judged and were therefore invalid. Lorenz described experimental psychologists as ‘intelligent’ but ‘eyeless’.

Rejecting the generalisable, universal and ‘placeless’ guarantees of objectivity offered by laboratory science, ethologists embraced place to obtain valid data. This is the second meaning of covert I want to raise—that is, ‘covert’ meaning a place where wild animals live. Ethologists are truly covert naturalists: their methodological ideal to assure the accuracy of their observations on animal behaviour by investigating it in a milieu in which the animals behave ‘naturally’ Taking science into the field in this way inevitably generated anxieties over its jurisdiction over a territory whose boundaries cannot be effectively policed. Figure 1, of an ethological field of inquiry, contains cows, for example, and weekend campers, not ethologists, might be in those tents. Clearly, farmers, walkers, birdwatchers, botanists, egg-collectors all have access to this landscape; it’s not restricted to scientists alone.



Figure 1. Ethologists hiding in the field

The restriction of social access to laboratories is a powerful symbolic guarantee of credibility, and Rob Kohler, among others, has explored how the social diversity of the field deprives field scientists of this automatic credit. Ambiguous identity and anxieties about credibility literally come with the territory.

These problems were particularly problematic in the early years of the discipline. Establishing ethology’s scientific credentials through demarcating it from cognate field-activities such as birdwatching and casual nature appreciation was a particularly crucial task, for ethology arose from the social milieu, moral economies, and field practices of these activities. It was crucial for early ethologists to convince their audiences that ethology was a scientific discipline and that their observations were credibly objective.

Yet because both the spaces, the subjects, and the technologies of ethology—the use of hides, binoculars, and so on—were shared with the avowedly ‘non-scientific’ activities of photography, hunting and birdwatching, scientific credibility was necessarily assumed by displacing objectivity away from instrumentation, away from dedicated research subjects and laboratory spaces restricted to ‘science’ and onto the expertise and professional identity of the individual ethologist.

Lacking dedicated instruments, subjects and scenes of enquiry, ethologists assumed objectivity, crucially, through strategies of observational practice: forms of looking, forms of attention—as well as forms of intimate knowledge of animals and, ultimately, I will argue, ethologists fostered interpretive strategies founded on professional, legitimate forms of empathy.

These strategies operate in intriguing counterpoint to another strategy crucial to ethology—the effacement of the scientist—and I shall discuss this later in the paper. First of all, I want to look at the forms of objectivity sought through the use of hides—how scientists made themselves disappear.

Self-effacing scientists

1. Effacement through invisibility

The first form of disappearance I want to discuss is a literal one. Covert naturalists are hidden naturalists. Covert means dissimulation, disguise, secrecy, and being covered or concealed, and all these senses irresistibly refer to the ethologist’s use of hides (figure 2).


Figure 2. “Examples of observation hides” (from Pettingill, 1970, Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, reprinted in Lehner, p. 67)

These self-effacing technologies are designed to absent the scientist from the phenomenal world of the animals investigated. Hides create a disembodied observer with no consequential presence. They are an architectural attempt to guarantee the epistemological reliability and truth of behavioural data through an assurance that the scientist in no way affects the behaviour of the animals observed. In a related sense, the hide literalises and concretises that ascetic withdrawal from the immediacy of the observed phenomena which is at the heart of the positivist-pragmatic ethos—translating a methodological, cognitive freeing from subjective involvement to a literal freeing from involvement. What trust is in participant observation, invisibility is in ethological observation; both strategies aim to prevent subjects from hiding or distorting information—in ethnography because the subjects do not trust the researcher or the ultimate purposes of the research—and in the ethology because the animal’s ‘true’ behaviour will be distorted if the observer is present.

2. Objectivity through interchangeability

The second form of disappearance promoted by hides is an effacement of individuality. Unlike participant observation, where trust is earned by individual fieldworkers through a dialogue with their subjects , the invisible hide-bound expert ethologist is in principle interchangeable; provided they possess sufficient expertise to judge, to paraphrase Niko Tinbergen, ‘when nature carries out experiments in front of one’, it does not matter which individual scientist sits behind the canvas blind. This form of ‘interchangeability’ clearly connotes an aperspectival objectivity. And indeed, a literal interchangeability is manifest in the way hides are used—before valid observations of animals can occur, they must be ‘tricked’ into thinking that there are no humans in the hide. G. K. Yeates explained that the typical ethologist’s strategy in works because, quote, ‘A bird’s ability to count is lamentable’. Thus, in a situation like that shown in figure 1, two or three people enter the hide at the same time, in full view of the animals—and then after a short period all but the actual observer leaves, assuring the animals the hide is empty. After all, it is the presence of the scientist’s body that would alarm the animal, and it is the scientist’s bodily presence which is effaced,

3. Heroic effacement of the body

A third form of effacement is more complex in nature. Ethological fieldwork begins with extended ‘reconnaissance observation’ the purpose of which is to familiarise the observer with the behaviour of the animal; this necessary groundwork results in an ‘ethogram’. This ‘set of comprehensive descriptions of the behavioural repertoire of the species’ (Brown, J. L. The evolution of behaviour, Norton, NY 1975) is considered both to be of scientific worth in itself, and as a crucial grounding for further research. Sustained reconnaissance observation is the method by which expertise is gained by the ethologist, and it is far from the casual strolls of amateur birdwatchers or nature enthusiasts. Ethologists sharply differentiated ‘watching’ animals from ‘observing’ them – the former the province of the amateur, the latter a professional activity and the mark of the ethologist’s eye. Observing was considered a rigorous, scientific activity. Marler describes it as ‘the most arduous and demanding aspect of behavioural study’. Lorenz, too, stressed how it makes ‘great demands upon the observational capacity of the investigator… the investigator must live with the animals, day after day’ . Lehner (1979) sees animal behaviour study as dependent on

‘weeks and months and years of careful stalking, hiding and painstaking observations…hours are spent in a hide under less than ideal conditions, with inclement weather making you physically uncomfortable and your view of the animals poor and the inactivity of the animals frustrating. Your binoculars get beaten about and rained and snowed upon, and the pages of your field notes become limp and stuck together.'

These extended observations are generally made from the isolation of a cramped, closed hide. Not only are valid observations guaranteed through the strategy of visually effacing the scientist’s body, but also by effacing the body physically, too—the weaknesses of the body must be transcended by the application of heroic self-discipline in the field.

In sum, hides supply the ethologist with other forms of effacement than mere invisibility. Field scientists have long incorporated the trope of the explorer-hero in their assurances of objectivity; a movement by which trust and credibility is attached to scientific witnesses by virtue of the courage, self-sacrifice or physical endurance they have undergone in the field. In sum, this heroically achieved moral authority is premised on a triumph over embodiment—a different form of effacement—ethologists transcend the limits of human endurance to obtain scientific truth, truth guaranteed by the suffering involved in obtaining it.


Figure 3: Niko Tinbergen building a hide for reconnaissance observation in the late 1920s

4. Photographic objectivity

All this self-effacement recalls Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s point in their paper ‘The Image of Objectivity’ that at the heart of mechanical objectivity lies non-intervention, rather than verisimilitude; they have discussed how the machine came to embody a morality of self-discipline and restraint, the producer of pure images, authentic images, images uncontaminated by interpretation.

I want to argue here that ethologists assumed forms of mechanical objectivity not solely through bodily effacement, but also through ‘borrowing’ mechanical authenticity from photographic discourse. Numerous ethological field methods, including the use of hides, were derived directly from early twentieth-century wildlife photography. Niko Tinbergen, was himself a keen photographer, like many early ethologists, and in the 1920s, he announced that wildlife photography was growing in scientific stature. No longer content with easily obtained images of birds on their nests, photographers were seeking new technical challenges; they were now attempting to capture representative animal behaviours on film. To do so, they had to sit for many hours in hides waiting for birds to show ‘interesting’ behaviours such as displays and other forms of interactions between individuals. Sustained observation and sustained critical attention had to be paid to the animals in order to obtain the ability to predict when such photogenic behaviours might occur. This is exactly the form of predictive capacity described as essential to the ethologist by Lehman in 1955, who explains that after considerable experience of watching animals, ‘the observer can get a feeling of what is going to happen next, which is compounded in different degrees of the intellectual experience of relationships that are involved on one hand, and, on the other, of building yourself into the situation’.

Now, photographic conventions clearly influenced the ways in which ethologists broke down sequences of behaviour into a series of gestural or postural units, but there is a much stronger point to be made here. Functional analogies between the eye of the ethologist and the camera lens are crucial, for they influenced the ways in which ethologists understood their own cognitive and experiential processes when they observed and interpreted animal behaviour. Put simply, the effacement of the ethologist in the hide, the strategies of non-intervention, the replacement of the camera lens with the eye—these all allowed ethologists to characterise themselves as functioning like scientific instruments, their ‘nervous machinery’, in principle free from the subjective temptations of aestheticising and theorizing, was able to supply as objective and accurate a portrayal of reality as of its functional cognate, the photograph.

Lorenz extolled the ability of the mechanical, unconscious processes of ethologist’s ‘nervous machinery’ to produce perceptions that were a valid source of knowledge. Blackboxing the unconscious processes by which these truths were obtained; he maintained that the ‘systematic intuition’ of the zoologist relies on a high degree of accuracy through processes which are unamenable to conscious examination, in which a large number of variables are unconsciously weighted and analysed’.

However, he agreed that this might ‘seem highly suspicious to some scientists’. And unsurprisingly he identified these scientists as ‘a school of orthodox American behaviourists who seriously attempt to exclude direct observation of animals from their methods. It is a worthwhile task to prove what we have seen’ he continued, ‘ in such a way that these and other ‘eyeless’ but intelligent people are bound to believe it’ Tinbergen wrote in a similar vein, stressing the normative aspects of using one’s nervous machinery as a means of credible witnessing. The ‘experienced observer’ of animal behaviour, he explained, can judge from the basis of ‘extensive previous observations’ when the ‘experiments’ nature is carrying out are valid ones, and that ‘in principle such a selective technique is no different from discarding a ‘jump’ of a barometer due to the slamming of a door’. He continues:

But we cannot be surprised if non-ethologists are not prepared to concede its validity […] though it may be regrettable that so many scientists are unduly impressed by the exactness of their mechanical measuring instruments, and insufficiently impressed of the potential performance of our own nervous ‘measuring equipment’, we must take account of this widespread attitude.

Lorenz, Tinbergen and others present manipulative experiments as the rhetorical underlining of truths that had already been obtained by the ‘nervous measuring equipment’ of the ‘expert’ or ‘clinical eye’. The capacity for accuracy of this ‘expert’ or ‘clinical eye’ was considered directly proportionate to the amount of time the ethologist had spent observing animals; in other words, the ethologist’s nervous machinery was calibrated through long exposure to the research subject. F. B. Kirkman’s description of his long-term study of black-headed gull colonies in the 1940s traces the ‘autobiography of the clinical eye’ succinctly. In the early days of his research Kirkman explained that he ‘filled about 60 pages of a notebook in four weeks’ while in later years he ‘covered the same number in two or three days’. Where once he had experienced ‘tedious intervals of many minutes…seeing nothing of interest and marvelling at the folly that had brought me there’, in later years ‘the problem was not to find something to pass the time but to find the time to note down all I wanted, for almost every bird had come to be significant. I saw, where formerly I looked; and the difference lay not in front of the eye, but behind’.

Using such nervous machinery necessitates a split in the cognitive duties of the ethologist. A recent ethological textbook reinforces this splitting of the ethologist into both a mechanical recording device and a self-conscious analyst of the data it offers. ‘Observers’ writes Lehner, ‘must be more than a visual recorder…one must be disciplined enough to know when to be a machine-like recorder of data and when to contemplate what is happening or has happened’. Ethologists metaphorise themselves as scientific instruments—transparent, reliable, calibrated through long exposure to the subject of investigation—but they also require themselves to be expert assessors of the data so provided through a process of critical self-analysis. Niko Tinbergen’s pioneering studies of behaviour in herring gull colonies contains clear descriptions of this process. If ‘nature carries out experiments in front of one’ he explains, the observer is required to ‘be alert, to appreciate the significance of what one has seen.’ Ethological understanding involves a gradual process of understanding the fine nuances of ‘a multitude of very slight movements’ which, to the novice observer, are noticed ‘unconsciously.’ The construction of the observer-proper, however, involves a ‘conscious analysis of his own perception’

Delight and love

Now, I’ve described how ethologists saw the accuracy of their ‘nervous machinery’ as guaranteed through those long hours of sustained and rigorous reconnaissance observation. The notion of the ethologist as a self-policing instrument calibrated by long exposure to animal behaviour seems to offer a view of the relationship between observer and observed as one of pure disinterest, freed from the taint of subjectivity. Ethologists, however, often stressed that no individual could possibly subject him or herself to the necessary rigours of observational practice without a strong emotional attachment with the animal observed. ‘I contend’ wrote Konrad Lorenz, that not even a person with the almost superhuman patience of a yogi could look at animals long enough to perceive the laws underlying their behaviour patterns’. ‘Only a person who looks with a gaze spellbound by…inexplicable pleasure’ can achieve such a feat, and thus generate valid knowledge. This gaze, writes Lorenz, is founded on ‘delight and love’ in the object.

A simply prodigious amount of time, spent in presuppositionless observation, is necessary in order to collect and store the factual material which the great computing apparatus needs in order to be able to lift the gestalt from the background. Even a Tibetan priest schooled in the practice of patience would not be able to remain stationary in front of an aquarium or adjacent to a duck pond or even in a blind constructed for observations in the open as long as is necessary to accumulate the data base for the perceiving apparatus. Such sustained endeavours can be accomplished only by those men whose gaze, through a wholly irrational delight in the beauty of the object, stays riveted to it. (Lorenz, The foundations of ecology, p. 47)


This seems thoroughly at odds with the disinterestedness commonly considered the hallmark of objective scientific inquiry. Yet it is far from unusual; reading ethological literature one repeatedly encounters similar statements. Tinbergen described ‘intent observation’ as leading to an experience of ‘imagining that I could feel what a wild animal must feel’. What form of scientific objectivity allows this form of empathy?

Returning to the dictionary one makes the happy discovery that an earlier, quite etymologically unrelated meaning of the term ‘ethologist’ means a ‘mimic’: ethology is the practice of mimicry. And with this in mind, I was delighted to find, in a recent textbook on ethological method by Philip N. Lehner, a series of imaginative and visual exercises designed to teach students the correct strategies of visual perception in ethological observation. Lehner instructs the student of ethology to to watch an animal intently for minutes at a time before shutting their eyes and tracing the animal’s outline in their mind’s eye. Lehner says that the desired result is a feeling that the student has become the animal he or she is observing. ‘It helps if the animal is not overly active’ explains Lehner. ‘You might find it better to begin with a stuffed animal…then go through the entire procedure with a live animal’

For centuries, hunters have described their ability to achieve a close identification with the hunted animal as leading to the experience of them feeling they were the hunted animal. Tinbergen, at least, saw the experiences of hunting and ethological observation as closely allied. ‘Knowing from personal experience how it feels to have killed, cleanly and without cruelty, one of those extremely alert Arctic seals after a long stalk over the fjord ice’ he wrote, ‘I can testify that the experience of the genuine hunt…is indistinguishable from that of watching, unseen, from a well-built hide, the natural behaviour of, say, a family of shy hawks’. Yet ethologists needed to make their own animal knowledges more credible than such non-scientific understandings.

Lorenz also offers analogies between hunters and ethologists in his popular work, Man and Dog, although here they are far more implicit. Lorenz theorises that ‘stone-age hunters’ had the ability to establish social contact with dogs because these hunters had ‘a finer perception of animal expressive movements than a present-day town dweller’ . It is hard to not immediately identify these ‘stone-age hunters’ as Lorenz in disguise: he was, after all, famed for his own social contact with animals (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Lorenz, literally effacing his body, with two greylag goslings.

Is Lorenz suggesting that the ethologist’s facility for perceiving animal expression is an innate capacity of the human species, one that is atavistically present in modern day ethologists? The reading is tempting, particularly since Tinbergen repeatedly refered to his own ‘innate’ love of landscape and his ‘congenital’ love of natural beauty as spurring him to study animals in the field. Yet such a conclusion would deny that the forms of empathy used by ethologists were founded on credible premises. Lorenz carefully explains that this facility for perceiving animal expression was, for the stone-age hunters, ‘part of their professional training, for a stone-age hunter who could not distinguish a peaceful from an angry mood in a cave bear would indeed have been a bungler. This faculty in man was not instinct but a feat of learning’ . Lorenz is at pains to present the interpretive ability of the stone-age hunter as a mark of professional expertise. It is crucial for the project of ethology that its understanding of animals is a professional understanding, a legitimate empathy.

Negative Capability

In their paper The Image of Objectivity, Daston and Galison quote Ernest Renan (1890) on the scientific virtue of strong ascetic self-discipline. Holding out against the temptations of theorizing, aestheticising and pouring evidence into preconceived molds: one should, Renan maintains, ‘deny oneself’ the headlong haste of human inclination to reach after a definitive solution; heroic scientists should ‘forbid themselves all premature philosophical thought’ . I want to set Renan’s statement against another nineteenth-century call for the abstention of subjectivity—that of John Keats, which is of considerable and unexpected facility in trying to understand how ethologists could view empathy as an objective interpretive ability.

In a letter to his brothers of 1817 Keats described the mysterious faculty of ‘Negative Capability’, the mark of the poet and artist; a state in which a person is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Negative Capability is founded on a form of ‘chameleon capacity’ , the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment'.

This quality of attention, this capacity to exercise strong self-discipline to suspend theorizing is precisely the form of observational technique valorised in ethology. As Lehner describes it, observation is ‘as much a state of mind or awareness as it is a technique’. I suggest that we should read the observational strategies of ethologists in terms of a professional negative capability. Early ethologists were particularly keen to dismiss anthropomorphism, the attribution of human mentalities or motives to animals, as subjective and dangerous. However, they commonly described empathetic forms of emotional projection as necessary epistemological strategies for comprehending the alterity of another organism’s life-world, or Umwelt. Can empathy be objective? Apparently so. For this strategy of imaginative projection is not perceived as a subjective collapsing of animal into human or human into animal; it is presented as a measured, interpretive act based on strategies of effacement and forms of rigorous, precise observation. Empathy for the ethologist is an actor-oriented interpretive act founded on professional expertise.

The ethologist seeks to understand, as the title of Tinbergen’s collection of essays, the animal and its world – the animal’s Umwelten. ‘The ethologist must’ wrote Dyer and Brockman, view the animal as the subject of its Umwelt, and … imagine what it would be like to be the one at the centre of that world’. They continue:

Progress in understanding [processes that influence animal behaviour] come from imagining what it might be like to be the animal, not only possessing its sensory apparatus but also being attuned, both in perception and in response, to the objects and relationships in the outside world that are most relevant to its survival…freed from the anthropomorphic assumption that animals perceive the world in much the same way as we do, early ethologists uncovered sometimes astounding capacities of animals to detect and respond to environmental features that we can detect only with specially designed instruments.

This redefines the nature of ‘the field’ for the covert ethologist. For if ‘covert’ means a place where wild animals live, it ultimately relates to the animal’s own Umwelt, a concept of profound importance in ethology, premised on the concept that animals inhabit unique, species-specific perceptual worlds. Thus the term ‘covert’ refers ultimately not simply to ‘the field’ as a scene of inquiry to be contrasted with the laboratory, but to the perceptual world of the animal and its salient environmental features.

Ethologists are truly covert naturalists for this is the world they seek to bring forth, to comprehend an animal’s world – from the point of view of the animal. Through undergoing a variety of methods of effacement and through a gathering of professional expertise, the ethologist is thus credibly freed from the temptations to anthropomorphise and may legitimately use empathy as an interpretive method. It is a professional empathy in principle unobtainable by those who have not undergone the rigorous effacements of subjectivity discussed above. In this final effacement of subjectivity, the ethologist seeks to assure us that objectivity is indeed letting nature speaking for itself—through the ethologist. In this case, to conclude, credibility is thus assumed in the form ‘Trust me, I am the animal’.


(For refs and bibliography ask me if you're in need. I have most of them here)


5 comments:

Anekeia said...

Sigh. I'm smiling (particularly at the "hide-bound" ethologists). But I fear this piece mostly reminds me how sad it is to keep finding Helen-shaped gaps in the conferences I attend.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of Helen-shaped gaps these days. Please God she is all right.

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Quills said...

I could respond to your work on the "Covert Naturalist" on so many levels. I could respond based on the social science research classes I took many years ago. Or I could respond based my delight on reading of the "love and delight" of the ethologist. It is a delight I have felt when I watched the nesting bald eagle pair on my property, straining to see their movements as the sun set each evening. Although my observations were hardly heroic considering I could see their nest out of my front window. Or I could respond based on the parallel between the trained empathy of the ethologist using negative capability and the trained empathy of the clinical psychologist maintaining a nonjudgmental perspective. I also wonder what the heroic ethologists of history would think of the streaming nest cameras and nature cameras that are so common now. Qh well, I won't respond in detail, because that would take considerable effort for something that might never be read.