Fighting for Peace

Is it reasonable to speak of ‘science’ as one project, and ‘scientists’ as if they form not just a profession but a collective in some larger moral or political sense? Well, they certainly do speak so themselves, as, for instance, a letter in last week’s issue of Science illustrates. Arguing that scientists should take better advantage of the huge and instant audiences which some celebrities have acquired through social media, the writer speaks of “we” as needing to find “inventive strategies to educate the public, particularly in critical fields such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and sustainability.”

And there’s a tradition for it. Fifty year ago in that same journal, another letter-writer speaks similarly of a “scientific community”, and gives some reasons why its collective voice ought to be heard – in this instance, on the Vietnam war. Scientists, he says, “probably comprise the most intelligent large group in our society”. They are “more devoted to knowledge and less to wealth and power”, and accordingly “their values are humane and relatively attuned to this complex age.” No doubt he would think so, but it must be true that scientists know more than others do about such important subjects as are specified in that first letter, and also they enjoy a sort of international solidarity as a natural feature of their profession, so their outlook ought to be usefully non-partisan. We might even feel that science has made its own collective contribution to creating these world problems, and therefore might have an obligation to advise us how to address them now. This is at least a reasonable enough feeling in the case of the subject on which the scientific “we” has been vocal for longest, but which has unfortunately never lost its topicality: the subject of nuclear war.

Here, the first notable declaration was the ‘Russell-Einstein Manifesto’, put forward in 1955. Bertrand Russell may be thought of as a philosopher rather than a scientist, but the manifesto was signed mainly by Einstein’s professional colleagues: Max Born, Linus Pauling, Frédéric Juliot-Curie, and others. Out of that Manifesto came the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, with their own public statements, such as the Nagasaki Declaration of 2015. In 2018, a newer organisation, Science for Peace, will be holding its own conference at the University of Toronto with the title ‘How to Save the World’. Yet another such organisation, The Global Union of Scientists for Peace, says on its web-site by way of summary, “For over sixty years, the scientific community has issued vivid warnings about the catastrophic effects of thermonuclear war and has called for the abolition of these world-destroying weapons.”

The 1966 letter-writer was therefore not a lone voice when he urged “Let the scientists speak out as loudly as possible!” In fact that same issue of Science has an article by a scientist very keen to speak out on the peace subject: Dr Roger Ulrich, the head of experimental psychology at Western Michigan University. Ulrich specialized in the subject of aggression, and was committed to making his specialism serve the cause of humanity by showing how aggression might be better understood and managed. This particular article had the title ‘Classical Conditioning of Pain-Elicited Aggression’. We shall return to it, but first let’s meet Ulrich in his role of prophet.

In a short film issued in 1971, entitled Understanding Aggression, Dr Ulrich presented to the general public the nature and implications of his research. The film begins with a sequence of stills from the long history of violence, beginning in the primeval swamp Beckmann, Nightand working through to all the varieties of specifically human ferocity, from pre-historical savagery to modern battles, torture, executions, mob frenzies, and all-out war. Portentously eerie music backs these unpleasant scenes.

Then Ulrich himself appears on-screen. He is an engaging personality, with his sixties-style long hair, white polo-neck with smart-casual jacket, and ideology to match (“you can’t fight for peace.”). Tipping back in his office chair, or leaning informally upon laboratory equipment, he warns his audience about the dangers of aggression in the nuclear age:

We have to stop reinforcing aggression. We have to stop glorifying violence … We have to start teaching and living non-violence, at every level … We can’t say violence is bad and that it has no place in America, and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.

Even the credits at the end of the film urge this message. We are told, of the staff at the Michigan Behavior Research and Development Center, that their “highest achievement is that they practise what they preach; they love one another.” As we knew then, all you need is love.

But of course these are not simply earnest generalisations, impossible to dispute and indeed obvious as they may seem. They are conclusions drawn by Ulrich from the work done in his laboratory. There, aggressive behaviour was being studied mainly by inducing and manipulating it in various species of animal – cats, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys – and under ingeniously varied conditions. The basic stimulus seems always to have been electric shock, but one of Ulrich’s published articles says, by way of introduction to this field of research, that “some of the variables which have been studied in connection with shock-induced aggression are frequency and intensity of shock stimulation, consistency of shock presentation, enclosed floor area, fatigue and shock duration. The effects of age, social isolation, and castration upon reflexive aggression have also been studied.” The complicating effects of heat, cold, and loud noise were also investigated, as was the effect of “combined permanent vision and vibrissa impairment” (i.e. of blinding and removal of whiskers). As one witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection, already quoted elsewhere in this blog, remarked at about this same time, “You’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up.”

All this explains that equipment which Ulrich leans against in the 1971 film, and which indeed the film very frankly shows in use. We see young squirrel monkeys inside the perspex-fronted apparatus, receiving electric shocks and retaliating upon each other. Or we see one monkey on its own, trapped by the waist, with its tail connected to an electrical apparatus, furiously mauling a rubber bar as the shocks are administered. From these scenes we learn that pain, or by extension any aversive stimulus, will produce aggression (therefore, for instance, physical punishment doesn’t work). Or elsewhere in the lab, a large and clearly peaceable cat is confined in a small chamber with a rat. The rat, presumably itself peaceable enough by nature, is taught by rewards directed into its “pleasure centre” (a lead of some sort is attached to its head) to attack the cat, until the exasperated cat finally kills it. This tends to show that if aggression is rewarded (“glorifying violence”), it will persist, even against the true interests of everyone concerned.

That 1966 article goes a step further from the obvious, looking for clues to “apparently unprovoked aggression”. Pairs of rats in their box were conditioned to fight each other upon hearing a harmless sound or “tone”, once that tone had become associated in their minds with electric shocks. This association (which constitutes the “classical conditioning” mentioned in the title of the article) had not been arrived at without difficulty. We’ve seen in the film that aggression can be induced easily enough by painful stimuli – this was a staple of Ulrich’s laboratory – but “earlier attempts to develop conditioned fighting by pairing painful stimuli, such as electric shocks, with neutral stimuli” had formerly achieved “only minimum success”. That may explain why it took “2000 pairings of the tone with the shock”, administered every ten seconds or so over a period of about five hours, to achieve a dependable association in the minds of the rats. And the shocks in all these experiments were not simply irritants. In the film, Ulrich explains why his laboratory doesn’t use humans in these trials: they would not be willing, and could not be forced, to endure, even for science’s sake, such “extremes of pain”.

Dr Ulrich briefly and sardonically notes that humans are prepared to impose such pains upon each other in the course of wars and other strife. In fact this sixties liberal (I don’t use that phrase with a sneer) has no high opinion of the human character or record to date: “the most violently aggressive of all species … the king of killers”. Yet he takes for granted our right to use this habit of violence against other species in our search to free ourselves from its effects. No doubt this contradiction is partly explained by his behaviourist model of animal life: as a disciple of B.F.Skinner, he would have discounted inner life in animals, and therefore their capacity to suffer or perhaps even to matter. But then his premise is that human behaviour too is intelligible according to that model: hence the usefulness of animal data, upon which his case depends. And the film’s preliminary pictures of violence show it arising with animal life and reaching its horrible apex in man as one evolutionary history. No, the contradiction makes no sense, and this earnest and idealistic man was simply subverting his own case as he went along. As he himself insists, “We can’t say violence is bad … and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.”

It’s certain that no scientist using animals nowadays would film his or her work with the sort of guilelessness that we see in Understanding Aggression. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the work itself has changed. And although Dr Ulrich’s self-contradiction is especially conspicuous because he was researching the very subject that he was at the same time exemplifying – the human habit of violence – still, the subjugation of other animals for any purpose nullifies non-violence as a practice or ideology.

No doubt the “science community” has important advice to offer on many important subjects, and ought to be listened to, but while animals are forced to serve human interests in laboratories all over the world, there’s no reason why we should feel any special respect for what scientists get together to say about world peace.


Notes and references:

The quotations from the journal Science are at 1 September 2017, p.880, and 29 April 1966, pp.591 and 668-9 (the Ulrich article).

The film Understanding Aggression can be seen at Other reports of Dr Ulrich’s research can be found in Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, Nov.1969, 12(6) and in The Psychological Record, 15, 1965, from which the quotations surveying his field of research are taken.

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be found at  The web-site of the Global Union of Scientists for Peace is at

The quotation from evidence given to the House of Representatives in 1962 is taken from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph) 1971, p.188.

The illustration shows Max Beckmann’s painting Night, completed just after the First World War, a conspectus of contemporary and foreseen violence.





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. Pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived.

Scepticism about our 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.