How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him (or pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived).

Scepticism about own assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.


[References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.]


Remembering the Founding Text of the Animal Rights Movement (not by Peter Singer)

It’s now forty five years since the book of essays Animals, Men and Morals was published. Its editors were three post-graduate philosophers at Oxford, and several of their fellow-writers for the book were likewise University people. Accordingly some of its chapters are academic studies of one kind or another, though written with unacademic fervour and impatience. Others lay out the facts of factory farming, fur and cosmetics, and experiments on animals. Although it made no great splash at the time, this book proved to be the pioneering text for the modern animal rights movement, in both its philosophical and animals-men-morals-coverits political forms. The chapter on vivisection was written by Richard Ryder, then a psychologist in an Oxford hospital, and since that’s the unhappy subject of this blog I shall say a little more about his part in the book.

Ryder himself had done research work with animals (I politely use that richly euphemistic “with”). Therefore he knew the things of which he came to write. What he first wrote was a pamphlet titled Speciesism, which he published and distributed round Oxford in 1970. He had coined its title-word on the analogy of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, in order to show at a lexical glance that the moral revolution of the 1960s, unfinished as it obviously was, had still another ancient orthodoxy to start to undo. By placing the subject of animal welfare in a political context in this way, he also freed it from its conventional associations with the minor good works of well-off old ladies (i.e. courageous women who meant to get something right done, as fortunately many still do). When another Oxford post-graduate, Peter Singer, reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books, and when he went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), he used ‘speciesism’ as his key word for just those reasons and despite its awkwardness (“the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term”[i]). Defining as it does the essential wrong, Ryder’s word remains a complete work of animal ethics and a rule-book in ten letters.

Singer’s review spoke of Animal, Men and Morals as “a manifesto for an Animal Liberation movement”[ii]. In the event, it was his own book which became that manifesto, and it has been so ever since. But it was the earlier book which had established the proper way to look at the subject: not just as a miscellany of improvised cruelties, calling on the services of kindly people to press for remedies, but as an enormous and systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind. As the book’s ‘Postscript’ says – so much in the spirit of that time, as well as of that project – “we want to change the world.”[iii]

Richard Ryder’s chapter of the book, surveying the law and practice of animal research, was a good deal longer than any of the others. It gives many examples of contemporary experiments, illustrative of what animals might be asked to endure: rats in their ‘Wright Auto-Smoker’, dogs having their legs crushed in the notorious ‘Blalock Press’ (ah, those evocative trade-names!), pregnant baboons in car-crash simulations, and so on. A few of the examples are from Oxford’s laboratories. It’s a disgusting read, and it all sits in the baleful shade of the chapter’s epigraph, taken from the works of one of experimental psychology’s leading practitioners, Harry Harlow: “most experiments are not worth doing and the data obtained are not worth publishing.”[iv]

It is often asked of those who oppose vivisection why they don’t bother about the far greater numbers of animals killed for food. The simple answer of course is that they do. As Animals, Men and Morals insisted, it’s all one subject, though some may specialize within it. But there’s a more unpleasant answer too. Factory farming is itself a product of scientific research. Ruth Harrison showed as much in her chapter of the book, and she had already written, in Animal Machines (1964), that “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The laboratory may exemplify speciesism in an especially stark and modern way, but it also promotes and facilitates it elsewhere.

A popular account of animal research published in 1963 makes this last point very clearly, and also helpfully illustrates the orthodox thinking of the time. The Science of Animal Behaviour was written for the Pelican imprint by P.L.Broadhurst, a professor at Birmingham. He was presumably aiming the book at the lay-person and the aspiring young scientist, and it is clearly and reasonably intended as an advertisement for his profession. There is not much in it about animals as they can be observed in nature. The laboratory is Broadhurst’s preferred setting, partly because that was his own place of work (rats and the misleadingly fun-sounding “shuttle box” were his customary tools), but mainly because animals in themselves do not quite constitute a subject: “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.”[v] 

Accordingly, a high point of Broadhurst’s presentation is the contemporary research of that same Professor Harlow into maternal deprivation as it affected baby rhesus monkeys, and therefore might be supposed to concern humans. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed”, muses our author, himself a family man. “But just how important …?” Harlow’s work with his artificial mothers, carefully graded as to their lovelessness and delinquency, seemed to provide some exciting answers. For instance, as Broadhurst reports, these forlorn babies “preferred a soft cloth model even when it did not provide milk to a hard one which did!” Not just that bumptious exclamation mark, but the cover of the book itself, picturing a monkey in the throes of this pathetic decision, show that the experiment, which ought to bring tears to the eyes of any person of ordinary sensibility, is thought to instance the discipline of animal research at its most thrilling.

I’m sure that Professor Broadhurst was a kind enough man, though of Harlow one can be rather less certain. Both had wives who helped them in their research, if that’s relevant. As Richard Ryder says in Victims of Science, “My intention is in no way to defame scientists, but to question their conventions.”[vi] And the convention in which Broadhurst was working is very clear: it is the old master/slave convention. And not just at work, where what he calls “the lowly rodent and his laboratory master” live out that relationship. Those two are the template for a much larger project, because, so he proposes, the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In the editorial foreword to The Science of Animal Behaviour, this “service of man” is frankly and enthusiastically called “slave labour”.

It seemed natural at that time, at least to Broadhurst and his editor, to cast the scientist as the designer of our future relations with animals. So at the same moment that Ruth Harrison, in Animal Machines, was warning of the horrors of industrialized farming, Broadhurst was telling his Pelican audience that the present role of animals in food production would soon “seem pitifully small” (a most interesting choice of adverb). It’s true that to some extent science has begun to provide its own corrective in the new academic discipline of Animal Welfare (where Oxford University has been taking a leading part). But I believe that Broadhurst and his colleagues in the profession would have welcomed this, as keeping the story within the laboratory and its variants, and in the hands of scientists. Besides, science has not been brought to a pause in this matter. New ways of exploiting animals for food, indeed new animals, are being thought up and made real now for new forms of slavery.

No, it’s not by inventing techniques for the study and measurement of animal welfare that speciesism, as exposed in Animals, Men and Morals and still going strong now, can be understood and undone, and new varieties of it prevented. What’s needed of mankind is a “re-appraisal of his position in relation to the creatures with which he shares the environment” That quotation is from Ruth Harrison’s chapter in the book. It’s the chapter about factory farming, but it’s also the first chapter, and it acted as an introduction to what followed. Her first sentence accordingly takes a fully re-proportioning view of our standing in the natural world: “It is a sobering thought that animals could do without man yet man would find it impossible to do without animals.” This is a radical fact: if you read “could” as a past tense (‘were perfectly able to’), you have the whole tragic history of human/animal relations before you. Animals, Men and Morals was the first full statement of that tragedy as it looked in the twentieth century, and the first authoritative call to put it right.


[i] Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, p.6

[ii] New York Review of Books, vol.20, no.5, April 5, 1973

[iii] Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, Gollancz, 1971, p.232. Later quotations are from p.11.

[iv] Referenced in the text to Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1962

[v] The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963, p.12. Later quotations are from pp.74, 73, 100, 135, and 132.

[vi] Davis-Poynter, 1975, preface

This post is a revised version of an article first published in the Oxford Magazine (the University’s house journal) in 2013.