Eve of Destruction

One of John Ruskin’s successors as Oxford University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art (see previous post) was the distinguished architect Sir Leslie Martin. There’s some irony in the fact that at the time of Sir Leslie’s appointment to speak about art at Oxford in the mid-1960s he was working on the design of what must be the University’s most hideous structure, the giant Tinbergen Building for the Department of Zoology and Experimental Psychology in South Parks Road.  zoology building

Leslie Martin did produce some much finer buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall in London and, in Oxford, the English and Law Faculties building just along the road from the Tinbergen. But he was a keen and influential champion of architectural modernism, and the Tinbergen Building shows modernism in one of its most uncompromising phases, nick-named ‘Brutalism’ by its own practitioners. The word was intended to mean raw or unpolished rather than aggressive, still less anything to do with animals (there’s another irony tucked away here somewhere). It asserted the commitment of the style’s architects (they would have hated to hear it called a ‘style’) to designs that were plainly functional, to undisguised surfaces like the ‘shuttered’ concrete of the Tinbergen Building, and in general to the absence of all aesthetic apology. Of course, the word ‘function’ covers more than just accommodation and services, or it might do. And thinking of the building in its wider academic function, one online commentator has observed with throw-away sarcasm, “Totally looks like a place animal-lovers and empathic therapists gather”.

I don’t know what therapists, empathic or other, have come out of that building, or what cruelties have taken place there, though certainly the practice of Experimental Psychology has involved some of the most savage misuses of animals in modern science. Nor do I know whether being an ‘animal-lover’ has ever constituted a recommendation for candidates seeking to study life-sciences in that building. But the architecture itself is indeed suggestive of the worst, and the sad thing is that the man after whom the building is named, Nikolaas Tinbergen, would himself have been a proper focus for just such a gathering as the comment pictures, or rather can’t picture.

Tinbergen was a pioneer of ethology, the study and interpretation of animal behaviour as it occurs in nature rather than in the laboratory. He worked originally at the University of Leiden, but he came to Oxford in 1949, and was appointed Professor of Animal Behaviour at about the same time that Leslie Martin became Professor of Fine Art. In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, sharing it with two other notable ethologists, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. The lecture which Tinbergen gave on that occasion was thoroughly characteristic. He noted the novelty of three “mere animal-watchers” receiving the prize, and then, instead of speaking about the area of research in which he had been so brilliantly successful, he deferred to the prize’s title, and set out to show how the disciplines of ‘animal-watching’ could indeed contribute to both knowledge and therapy in human health. The two examples he discussed were autism and the ‘Alexander technique’ of posture and movement. In both of these he had personal experience, but no academic reputation to lean on. In both, also, he was arguing for changes in behavioural practice rather than for medication – ‘empathic therapy’ in fact, before it had that name.

As for ‘animal-lovers’, I don’t suppose that Tinbergen ever expressly put himself in that category (anyway a dubious one, as this blog has argued elsewhere). But that he felt for animals, and admired them, is very obvious in his writings. Speaking of research into the nesting habits of two species of the Ammophila wasp, he writes,

It is hard to believe that these two Ammophilas should be so much more interesting than other digger wasps. I prefer to think that each of the others will be found to be just as rewarding once it is studied with as much care and love as was Ammophila.

Again characteristically, he was not talking here about his own research; he was describing and admiring the work of his students. But his own work showed just those same qualities. Tinbergen

Of course there was more to the work than sympathetic observation: it was the purpose of ethology to learn both the immediate function of animal behaviour and its origins in evolutionary selection. It was here that Tinbergen’s genius lay, but he believed that to analyse the conduct of animals in this way did not, or should not, diminish our respect for them: “So long as one does not, during analysis, lose sight of the animal as a whole, then beauty increases with increasing awareness of detail.” “the animal as a whole”: possibly he was glancing here at so-called ‘behaviourism’, which was then the much more fashionable way of researching and interpreting animal behaviour – that is, as a small repertoire of more or less mechanical responses to stimuli, simple and autonomous enough to be studied in the laboratory. No doubt much was being shown about the structures of behaviour in that way, as well as much cruelty being practised, but its relevance to zoology as Tinbergen understood it was doubtful: “there is an enormous amount of scattered and often unrelated evidence, acquired under such special laboratory conditions that it is at present impossible to say how it is related to the normal life of the species concerned.”

Tinbergen’s work, though it mainly took place in the field, did also involve experimental intervention. For instance, when studying the way of life of black-headed gulls on the Norfolk coast, he wished to learn how the colouring and patterning of their eggs helped to protect them from predation; in pursuit of the answer, he moved, re-coloured, or otherwise doomed some of these eggs. But he didn’t regard science as justifying every convenient transgression against animal life. The gulls’ new-born chicks are likewise camouflaged against predatory eyes; at least, Tinbergen believed that their dotted patterns must have this same effect, but he writes that “although we were quite prepared . . . to sacrifice a number of eggs for our tests, we drew the line at chicks, and so we cannot prove it.” It’s instructive to see how that word ‘cannot’ turns a moral inhibition into an actual impossibility. Whether it has since been ‘proved’ by someone with a less scrupulous respect for these animal subjects, I don’t know.

Tinbergen’s consideration for the animals he studied seems to have derived partly from a certain diffidence about the character and role of the scientist. That phrase in the Nobel speech, “mere animal-watchers”, belongs to a habit of professional self-awareness, even self-deprecation, in his work. As he himself wrote, “it is always worth observing oneself as well as the animals, and to do it as critically and as detachedly as possible.” One may thereby discover, for instance, that learning about animals is not quite as dis-interested a procedure as we flatteringly assume; proving things about them may be felt, discreditably, as a kind of triumph: “people enjoy, they relish, the satisfaction of their desire for power.”

This was and is especially a danger in the laboratory, and a predecessor of Tinbergen’s at Oxford had once spoken of it with memorable force: “every kind of original research [is] a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness”, so Professor George Rolleston had told the Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875, and the risk was particularly acute where the subject was “the lower animals, who have no friends to remonstrate for them.” When such animals were subjected to experimentation before a student audience, he went on to say, “the sight of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism” made an involuntary but powerful appeal to the instinct of cruelty. Rolleston quoted something that had recently been written about audiences at Roman gladiatorial shows: “then burst forth the sleeping devils in their hearts.”

This powerful warning from the nineteenth century isn’t just a historical digression here. As that Nobel speech showed, Tinbergen believed in the importance of ethology in the understanding of humans as well as other animals. Not, of course, by crudely extrapolating things discovered in those others in order to explain human conduct, for indeed Tinbergen knew that humans, “our own unfortunate species”, were uniquely problematic. While animal behaviour in general showed or implied a gradual adjustment to fit slowly changing ecologies, the human species was creating dizzily changing environments for itself, in which it had nevertheless to get along with roughly the same evolutionary design as had served Cro-magnon man. In fact man had become “a misfit in his own society”. And belonging as he did to “the only species that is a mass-murderer”, this “unhinged killer”, now with access to atomic weaponry, needed understanding and putting right as a matter of urgency.

Tinbergen discussed all this in an essay of 1968 titled ‘On War and Peace in Animals and Man’. Speculating upon the possibilities of sublimating or usefully re-directing human aggression, he proposes a solution which his fellow-ethologist Konrad Lorenz had also considered. Science itself, in particular as a project of self-discovery and self-healing, “would seem to offer the best opportunities for deflecting and sublimating our aggression”, especially if “the whole population” could somehow “be made to feel that it participates in the struggle”. If this seems a rather professionally grandiose concept for Tinbergen to subscribe to, it at least shows his engaging idealism. But he was not naïve: he knew well the intractable irrationality of the human (in the Second World War he had been a prisoner of the Nazis). Therefore this project of self-understanding, so he concedes at the end of the essay, might only mean that, when the final self-destruction came, we “could at least go down with some dignity, by using our brain for one of its supreme tasks, by exploring to the end.”

Anyway, the Tinbergen Building is itself about to be destroyed, as many other brutalist monuments have been. In this case, a refurbishment scheme revealed that asbestos had been used throughout the structure. That wasn’t Sir Leslie’s fault – asbestos was very commonly used in buildings at that time – though one may more readily blame him for not foreseeing how badly his concrete would weather, or how poorly it would insulate the interior. Now waiting to occupy the vacated space is an world-class.JPGeven larger structure, intended to house Zoology, Experimental Psychology, and Plant Sciences. Will this new building inherit the dedication to Tinbergen? Nothing official has been said about that. More importantly, might the building reflect, in its form and in its academic functions inside, the sort of humane science for which Tinbergen’s name might well stand? There’s a big notice on the hoarding, promising that whatever comes next will be “world-class”. This banal and wholly un-Tinbergen-like brag is not a good omen.


Notes and references:

The online comment appears on the Reddit web-site, which briefly notices the Tinbergen Building here: https://www.reddit.com/r/brutalism/comments/7q05hv/tinbergen_building_zoology_and_psychology/

Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize lecture can be read here:  https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/tinbergen-lecture.pdf

Tinbergen describes some of the research conducted by himself and his students in his book Curious Naturalists, Penguin Books, 1974: quotations here are from pp. 29, 85, 119, and 194. His other writings quoted here are Social Behaviour in Animals, Methuen, 1965, p.vi (on laboratory studies), and his essay ‘On War and Peace’, originally published in the journal Science, and re-printed in The Sociobiology Debate, ed. Arthur Caplan, Harper and Row, 1978 (quoted at pp. 80, 86, 89-90, and 97-8).

The term and concept ‘animal-lover’ is discussed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Konrad Lorenz discusses the idea of science and scientific education as a corrective to tribal aggression in all its forms in the final chapter of his book On Aggression (1966).

George Rolleston’s evidence to the Royal Commission is published in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, pp.43-5. In it, he quotes (“sleeping devils”) from Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia.

The detail from a photograph of Nikolaas Tinbergen is from the archive of the Max Planck Gesellschaft.


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.