Lab rats run endlessly through mazes. They are being put through their paces by behavioral researchers who want to discover just how smart mice really are. But what do these creatures themselves think of it?
It is a question for Vinciane Despret (1959). She is a professor of philosophy at the University of Liège and specializes in animal behaviour. in her book What would the animals say if we asked them the right questions? She asks critical and sometimes painful questions about how we treat animals.
Not only does she want to know how the mice experience the experiments, but she also wonders if measurements under duress give an accurate picture of the test animals’ intelligence. Explaining doubts about whether animals are the stupid “monsters” that man and science have long thought they are.
Despret primarily focuses on the mainstream movement in behavioral research, behaviorism. This theory posits that animals respond to changing conditions as a kind of machine. In this, according to Desperet’s reprimand, the researchers discount any animal ingenuity.
When the mayor of New York once asked the great behaviorist Skinner what he should do about an infestation of rats in the city, Skinner replied, “I don’t know, I don’t know a rat.” That was right! He only knew rats running through mazes, the behaviorists’ great specialty. They put the hungry rats in a maze with a reward at the end.Then the question was how long would the rat run a faultless path.When they decided the rats had succeeded, perhaps through the scent traces they left behind, the behavioral scientists began spraying the maze with a hose.So sad! This means that they are actually referring to a rat with their questions: Don’t be a rat!
You criticize the fact that the testimonies of people who work with animals, such as farm owners and zoo workers, are excluded from science as merely “anecdotal.”
I describe it in my new book Live like a bird. The two ornithologists who laid the foundation for the study of the territory were amateurs. Elliot Howard (1873-1940) was a bird-watching factory manager. He found that birds that got along well in the fall started fighting with each other in the spring.
Marguerite Morse Ness (1883-1974) Another amateur, a woman with five children watching birds in her garden. She had the ingenious idea of ”ringing” the birds so she could identify them all. For the first time, these two amateurs considered animals as individuals. They had Also more fantasy than the ordinary world because they were less restricted by scientific taboos.
In a 2017 article, Richard Byrne and Lucy Bates lament the fact that scientists aren’t allowed to publish about animal behavior they’ve observed just once. For example, a primatologist once observed a baby monkey bullying an infant monkey. When the father’s baboon began chasing him angrily, the little baboon reacted by suddenly stopping and looking into the distance, as if he had seen a predator. As a result, the whole group looked back and the chase stopped. So this little baboon was pretending. But such an observation is not publishable because the behavior is one-time. Byrne and Bates believe that such observations should be published, as they show the creativity of animals.”
Why is science so afraid to attribute “typical human” characteristics to animals?
When I got my book Think like a rat publication, some scientists have repeated that rats do not think. This is typical of the “human exceptionalism” belief, the idea that humans are exceptional as the only species that thinks. I don’t even want to argue with that! Perhaps we should, instead, broaden the definition of “thinking”. What amazes me is why mice are so good at mazes. An important consideration may be that rats are “creatures of the maze”: they live in tunnels, sewers, and the spaces between walls. How can a mouse find its nest in it? This is probably because mice are tactile, keeping track of them through their skin. After all, “thinking” is not only in the brain, not even in humans.
Is the way science treats animals changing?
In recent years, many researchers have asked animals to cooperate voluntarily. They’ve been doing this for a long time with talking animals. Trials in which the parrot was forced to speak were unsuccessful. What Irene Pepperberg discovered was that you had to get the parrot interested in talking: she did this by putting him in competition with another “apprentice,” which worked amazingly well. At the Japanese Primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa Research Center, researchers name chimpanzees in the morning. Those who feel cooperative come to the researchers, while others go to play in the garden. That’s impressive.
“There are even researchers today who play hide-and-seek with rats. They want to learn something about the intelligence of animals, because playing hide-and-seek requires strong cognitive skills. Remarkably, rats are not even rewarded: the reward is the ‘discovery’ itself. Such research is more interesting than Searching under coercion. We learn more when an animal is given the opportunity to show what it is interested in. If, like behavioral scientists, you send a rat into a maze, you will always get the same results: the rat succeeds or fails. In new approaches to studying animal behavior, there is a whole host of answers Possible because the animal is freer. This is morally better, although certainly not ideal, because these are still cases of captivity and it is still the person who asks the questions.”
How will future generations view the way we treat animals today?
“The animal suffering caused by industrial livestock farming is very bad. This situation can only continue because people are looking away. If we faced the living conditions of our battery chickens, no one would eat battery chickens anymore. But that doesn’t happen, the meat is served in packages.” For example, we can forget that meat comes from animals that have to live in poor conditions. I think in fifty years people will be ashamed of us. Justified!”
You are inspired by American feminist philosopher Donna Haraway. What’s new in its approach?
“Its focus is on ‘transformation.’ This means that animals can change, and that they are also actors in our history. The great crow specialist Bernd Heinrich claims that crows in Europe behave very differently than crows in Alaska. In Europe we don’t like crows, we associate them with death “That’s why the crows here have become so afraid. On the other hand, in Alaska, crows and humans work together. They hunt together–crows have a sharp eye–and then crows also get a big share of the catch. So you could say that European crows have changed the way they treat us.” with it.
“The reason why a term like ‘transformation’ is so important in the approach to animal behavior is because it turns animals into actors. It gives them an agency. This is how the behavior of the wolf has changed since it became protected. When not yet protected, they hunt at night, and today they visit during the day because they “know” they are protected. As one of the shepherds joked: “They come between the legs with the Bernese tradition.
I also find Haraway’s concept of ‘multiple objectivity’ interesting. We’ve always been in a story where ‘objectivity’ was ‘a point out of nowhere’. But that doesn’t exist!
Haraway tells a great story about primatologist Barbara Smuts. She went to study the baboon and did what she learned: She acted “neutral” and pretended she didn’t exist. But what did the baboon see? An antisocial creature hiding. Only when Smuts walked away from her ‘disappearance’ did she reach out. With baboons. The baboons gave her some advice about her behavior! This is multiple objectivity. Animal behavior is the deciding factor. So objectivity is collective, it is information from multiple points of view.
Haraway also filed a companion species Associated species. This seems to be about the animals that make us our companions: a dog, a parrot or a mouse. But companion species aren’t just companion animals, they’re all species we live with, including viruses and bacteria. Because without the bacteria that started producing oxygen, we wouldn’t be here. Through the concept of companion species, we can reconstruct the world by thinking of other species as our companions.”
Vinciane Despret: What would the animals say if we asked them the right questions? Ver. Mickey Van Hemert and Alice Teckman. The Book of the North, 334 pages, 22.50 euros
Description of Vincien: Live like a bird. Ver. Jane Hollerhock. Octavo. 208 pages, €23.50
Humans and animals are not equal, Thinker Prize winner Paul van Tongeren believes
Humans and animals are both ‘actors’ – but do they deserve equal rights? In modern philosophical debate, the answer is often “yes.” Prize-winning thinker Paul van Tongeren has serious reservations about this.