Editorial: Them bones, them bones
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1997:
Twenty-four years ago, toward the end of an active scientific career that spanned
half a century, the late Konrad Lorenz was honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology
and Medicine, in recognition of his development of the science of ethology.
Ethology is studying how animals work, including humans, by studying behavior.
Lorenz formed important theories about human marriage and parenting, later affirmed
by direct observation of human subjects, through studying greylag geese. Ethology encompasses
social science, including sociology and psychology, and physical science, from
anatomy to zoology, but most essentially, ethology applies ecological principles to the
study of individual species. Unlke the disciplines of science developed by taking things
apart, which attempt to segregate, categorize, and define, ethology recognizes that living
beings act and evolve in continuous response to ever-changing conditions. Instead of asking,
“What is this part?”, the ethologist asks “How does this action relate to the whole?”
That to understand animals we should study them in their totality doesn’t sound as
if it should have taken a Nobel Prize winner to realize, yet before Lorenz, most investigations
of natural history were, as he put it, exercises in necrology, the study of death.
Though Charles Darwin was an ethologist and is now so recognized, despite working long
before the invention of the term, scientific reputations in the so-called life sciences were
otherwise established almost exclusively by cutting things up. Biologists perhaps never
saw a live animal in their work, except to kill and dissect. Birdwatching had advanced
from a casual hobby to serious science, a century previous, but from the days of John J.
Audubon and Alexander Wilson, “scientific” birdwatching was done with a shotgun, never
mind how far it scattered and mangled the evidence, or how much harm it did to the most
fragile species. There were no field guides until, influenced by Lorenz, the also late Roger
Tory Peterson introduced his first, amid much skepticism, in 1930. Concern for living
beings, within life science, was considered unscientific and unmanly sentiment.
As female readers who have helped to transform the culture of veterinary schools
over the past decade may quickly affirm, manliness was until very recently regarded as
such an important attribute of life scientists that long after women distinguished themselves
in physics, astronomy, and other abstract sciences, they were discouraged from pursuing
life science careers, especially in research, and female field biologists were almost
unheard of. Among the first of distinction were the primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian
Fossey, and Berute Galdikas, along with oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Each also pioneered
field ethology, working with notepads and cameras instead of the guns, nets, traps, and
scalpels favored by mostly male colleagues. Considered scientific lightweights early on,
they got the last laugh. Gun-net-trap-and-scalpel work still dominates the biology done by
state wildlife departments, but scientific advancement at that level stalled long since at the
level of learning how many bears poop in the woods. The life science superstars are those
who understand and apply ethological principles, whether by radio-collaring wolves,
tracking whales by hydrophone, observing the influence of molecular biochemistry on
behavior, the influence of behavior on epidemiology, or the evolutionary implications––
past and future––of DNA tracing and manipulation.
Konrad Lorenz published his most influential treatise, On Aggression, in 1966,
the same year that the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE, from an instinctive feeling that
killing an animal for the sake of study was wrong, stunned his high school teachers and
counselors by opting out of college-track science, as a straight-A science student with otherwise
mediocre grades, to avoid dissection. The editor had never heard of either Lorenz
or organized opposition to vivisection, nor very likely had the school authorities. The
choice was accepted as religious idiosyncrasy, consistent with family vegetarianism.
Similar choices later circumscribed hopes of achieving a university minor in ecology: one
could not formally study life in a living environment, apparently, without inflicting death.
Enlisted as a volunteer to assist research projects in chapparal and oceanographic ecology,
the editor was appalled to belatedly discover that snakes and fish carefully captured and
brought back alive were killed on arrival at the laboratory; the sole purpose of live capture
had been to preserve the tissues.
Hours spent examining the taxidermic exhibits at the nearest major museum of
natural history did have considerable educational value, because of the efforts the staff
made to depict the deceased animals in “natural” if also dead habitat, but visiting zoos that
were then just collections of dispirited beasts in bare cells of cement and steel proved so
painful that the editor didn’t go back until he could take a camera and put the conditions on
page one of a daily newspaper, demanding change. He recognized the paradox that science
education then consisted of making dead animals seem “alive” while rendering live animals
spiritually dead. There had to be a better way.
And there is. Beyond dramatic advances in the quality of nature videography and
cinematography, which provide background but not the first-hand experience of an actual
animal, the more ambitious zoos followed the better museums in experimenting with natural
habitat exhibits, discovered that they were both immensely popular and better for animal
health, and have accordingly changed so much, mostly of their own volition, that conditions
then considered A-1 might now fail American Zoo Association accreditation standards.
The central understanding of modern zoo management is that the more an exhibit is
like the wild, the more the animals act wild, and––so long as they can be seen––the better
the public likes it. The ethological realization is that the educational value in seeing an animal
is greatest when the animal is seen in the context of the surroundings in which the
species evolved; a good zoo offers surrogate ecotourism, for those––like most
families––who have limited budgets and traveling time.
Classroom education often lags decades behind. Because ANIMAL PEOPLE
covers the now ubiqitous struggle against classroom dissection, we are painfully and frustratedly
aware that ethology has yet to replace necrology as basic curriculum in many and
perhaps most educational venues. Necrology is, after all, more easily done in a specific
place and time, at the convenience of the instructor. It is more easily standardized and
graded, too, and the same curriculum can be taught over and over, because dead creatures
don’t change their behavior. Necrology, finally, is politically safer than introducing a
new teaching method that might look less serious: parents not introduced to ethology in
their own school days might not understand how playing with a cat can be used to teach
evolution, and parents opposed to evolution might be unhappy even if they do understand.
Recent visits with our son Wolf to the Vancouver Science Museum and the children’s
room of the Peabody Museum at Yale indicate that natural history teaching to some
extent might have gone backward. In the purported interest of encouraging hands-on learning,
the life sciences at those and similar institutions are again taught and demonstrated
much as they were in Darwin’s time, with shelves and racks and drawers full of dismembered
pelts and bones––which predictably appalled Wolf, as well as many other children,
who instead of handling them gravitate instead to drawing or interactive play areas. Perhaps
no section of the Vancouver Science Museum attracted fewer visitors and less lingering than
a corner with mounted skeletons of housecat and puma, in comparative postures, and the
skins of bears, beavers, raccoons, and skunks. We watched Wolf and other children pretend
to be wild animals in a hollow tree trunk and make-believe beaver lodge out of one eye,
and with the other watched them race, one or two at a time, into the charnel corner, where
most recoiled upon recognizing the remains and didn’t go back. The museum volunteer
who was supposed to show off the bones mostly just stood, looking hopeful.
The Peabody mounted collection upset Wolf terribly, as would the collection at
the science museum the editor visited as a university student 25 years ago, but at least it
conveyed the message that the creatures should have been living, and if living, might have
done thus-and-such. The pelts and bones were just dead, teaching nothing.
Ironically, it was the Peabody, beginning 60 years ago, that introduced the “natural
habitat” movement by commissioning wall-length murals to depict alive the fossil
dinosaurs and early mammals whose bones are on exhibit in the central part of the museum.
Forensic necrology, on remains not killed just for the exercise, does have an
important place in life science education––as does paleontology, the study of fossils. Of all
the life sciences, paleontology is among those kindling the most amateur interest, especially
among children, and yet is left by most schools at skits that anthropomorphize
Tyrannosaurus rex. Perhaps because paleontology is largely an elective study, compelling
“teachers” from outside the educational system to compete for an audience, it tends to be
taught more creatively in museums than most other life sciences, as well as through computer
programs, books, charts, videos, and––especially––toys and games.
Paleontologists recognize paleontology as the science of last resort, the study one
does when one lacks living subjects. Their ambition is to resurrect extinct creatures through
discovery and informed imagination. Paleontology––enhanced by DNA analysis, where
possible––is the only means we have of investigating the greater portion of the evolution of
life and therefore our only hope of learning much about the overwhelming majority of individual
species, including our own. Paleontological findings of just the past six months, of
landmark importance in our understanding of who we are, where we come from, and how
we might fit into the ecology of the universe, include traces of microscopic life in Martian
rock; traces of 3.85-billion-year-old fossil life in Greenland, dating virtually to the first
moment that Earth could have sustained life; traces of fossil animal life 1.2 billion years
old, half a billion years older than any previously known and almost as old as the oldest
traces of plants; an ape fossil 18 million years old, the oldest yet, in Turkey, soon followed
by the discovery of an 18-million-year-old ape’s tooth in South Africa, at a site
which may tend to confirm a theory that our own ancestors were once an aquatic ape
species; a 2.33-million-year-old fossil of the genus H o m o, our earliest distinctly human
ancestor; evidence that N e a n d e r t h a l and Homo erectus both created art, and that
Neanderthal persisted in Spain, Homo erectus in Indonesia and Australia, contemporaneous
with our own species, until as recently as 34,000 and 27,000 years ago, respectively;
and an apparently Caucasian skeleton 9,000 years old––older than any local remains of
Native Americans––in Washington state, thousands of miles and an ocean away from the
nearest point Caucasians were known to dwell.
Add to these a wealth of discoveries about the avian nature of dinosaurs, new
species of dinosaurs, the origins of birds, and even the hypothetical possibility that
Pteranodons and Pterodactyls were bat-like mammals, perhaps in a distant branch of our
own family tree. (The bat bone connects to the lemur bone; the lemur bone connects to the
monkey bone; the monkey bone connects to the ape bone; the ape bone connets to us.)
As the use of DNA manipulation to modify species and even create species
expands, with small likelihood that the urge to tamper can be restrained, paleontology joins
microbiology in both suggesting and warning what might be done. Whatever nature has
once created, humans might be tempted to recreate, or use in new combinations.
With the wide potential of ethology, paleontogy, and microbiology emerging
before us, continued classroom “sacrifice” of animals for endlessly repetitive necrologic
dissection is not only inhumane but also an unconscionable sacrifice of educational opportunity.
Killing animals is simply not what breaking-edge life science these days is all about.