What is ethology, its history, and its present conditions? This is a complex question involving a hazy division of labor. If ethology is broadly defined as attention to animal behavior, one could go back to Aristotle and Theophrastus, with their cataloging of animal and plant life on the island of Lesbos and its lagoon, or Leonardo da Vinci, with his attentive fondness for animals and patient observations of bird flight. Of course, the modern foundations of the study of animal behavior begin with Charles Darwin, especially in Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). All subsequent ethological endeavors take their cue from the basic Darwinian evolutionary insight that there is biological continuity in nature from which we can undertake comparative study of human and nonhuman animals. The field of modern ethology—or, confusingly, since the cognitive turn, “classical” ethology—officially takes shape along the late nineteenth century up through the twentieth century (since I make epistemic analogies between modern art and ethology, I retain “modern” instead of “classical”).1 Biology is the umbrella discipline under which zoologists, comparative psychologists, and amateur scientists in the field all contributed to the early formation of ethology in a transatlantic network.
Richard W. Burkhardt Jr. has written the definitive Western history of this “ragbag” discipline in his Patterns of Behavior (2005).2 He traces the conditions for the emergence of Lorenz and Tinbergen, often described as the “fathers” of modern ethology, whose work from the 1930s onward paved the way for the theoretical and experimental underpinnings of the discipline, such as the concept of imprinting, instincts and drives, fixed action patterns, and innate releasers. The point of departure for Lorenz and Tinbergen is that animal behaviors can be studied phylogenetically in the same way physiological adaptations and homologies are studied, so that instincts and organs develop in the same way. From the very beginning, ethologists privileged the study of living animals in the field in opposition to traditional zoological taxonomy, which based its knowledge formation on dead specimens in natural history collections, accrued largely through colonial explorations. Ethology also bucked the trend of behavioral psychology, which studied (and continues to study) living specimens confined to purportedly controlled laboratory settings that betray a Cartesian view of animals as mere responsive machines. As Burkhardt shows, while the history of laboratory behavioral work had much stronger institutional alliances and support, a number of key figures developed a field practice of animal observation, including Charles Otis Whitman, Wallace Craig, Jakob von Uexküll, Edmund Selous, Henry Eliot Howard, and other field ornithologists. To a fascinating degree, early ethology was formed by amateurs and outsiders.
Yet the picture is not so simple as closed behavioral control on one side and open field study on the other. After all, ethological scientists working with animals today might employ both forms of study on a sliding scale of control—for example, Frans de Waal’s studies on capuchin monkeys are in the lab, whereas Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s work with Kanzi and other bonobos took place in more of a hybrid indoor–outdoor scenario. Even the advent of modern ethology is internally riven. Lorenz’s approach has been likened to farming in his study of hand-reared animals on his property as a domesticated topology of observation, whereas Tinbergen’s method is likened to hunting in its search for observations in the “wild.” Donna Haraway is right in saying that “the privileged place to conduct an ethological analysis” is in the field, while the laboratory has been its “scene of its refinement.”3 Zoos and aviaries should also be added to this disciplinary refinement.4 That said, it is nevertheless useful to make a broad distinction between two paradigms of animal behavior studies: those employing highly controlled conditions, like today’s neobehaviorists, and those situated within an ecological system, like today’s behavioral ecologists, whose subjects carry on with various levels of self-direction, be it in the “wild” or in a more confined sanctuary setting.
Intriguingly, this distinction between laboratory control and open field work can be grafted onto certain histories of Western art practice unfolding roughly at the same time, spanning from the 1940s to the 1970s. It can be argued that the reductionist behavioral paradigm betrays an impulse for abstraction as a form of zeroing in and distilling, akin to Robert Motherwell’s definition of abstraction. Analogical examples from the history of animal behavior studies include locating a fixed inherent instinct—a la the Lorenzian ideal—or isolating an animal to reach the zero degree of its capacities, as in the operant conditioning chambers of the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner and the notorious depravation experiments by another psychologist, Harry Harlow. Working out of the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, Harlow developed an indoor breeding program of macaques on an unprecedented scale to produce immunologically clean monkey bodies for undergoing tests (which, note, already entails an abstracted body in some sense). These included affectional tests with “surrogate mothers” and sensory deprivation tests in contraptions like the “well of despair.”5 The basic procedural paradigm was to isolate subjects to reduce their developmental capacities in relation to fixed stimuli so as to mold the subject into desired form. Echoing ambitions of social engineering, Harlow described the difficulties of this procedure: “The challenging problem is to produce laboratory environments in which the feral animal transcends its feral capabilities. What man did for man he should be able to do for monkeys.”6 It is difficult to imagine a more fitting laboratory example of the animal factishe. It is also unsurprising that Harlow’s work augured “learned helplessness techniques”—shock treatments induced in monkeys and dogs across various laboratories decades hence—which would become well-remunerated fodder for a couple of psychologists contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the purposes of breaking down terrorist suspects during this century’s so-called war on terror.7
It is remarkable, then, to think that during the 1940s and 1950s, the New York School of abstract expressionist painters was interpreted as isolating and abstracting visual experience in similar ways. In both behavioral psychology and formalist art criticism, there is a desire for an autonomous entity plucked from its sociocultural conditions—one living and animate, the other painted and inanimate. Both betray forms of sublimation—one of animality into something controllable, the other of emotions into something beautiful. The foremost formalist critic Clement Greenberg’s repeated allusion to Kant, namely, that modernist painting revealed the “conditions of possibility” inherent to its medium, can be applied to Harlow and his misadventures in finding (though ultimately factishiously producing) the conditions of possibility for maternal affection or depression. In both cases, the act of distilling amounted to a filtering of external noise, with the laboratory and studio as compatible sites of control seeking to bracket off the outside (the same could be said about contemporaneous first-order systems theory and New Criticism). Yet, as so many postformalist art historians have since noted, contrary to Michael Fried’s devaluation of “theatricality” in “Art and Objecthood,” his canonical essay defending formalism, the search for autonomous visual experience amounts to a disavowal of the ambient unfolding of objects and subjects within their social, political, and ecological contexts. This is the price paid for autonomy and isolation, be it on a canvas or in a lab. In both cases, the reductive results were recoded at will. In Harlow’s hands, for example, monkeys would reinforce the U.S. heterosexual family unit, as Haraway argues in her classic Primate Visions, whereas in the Museum of Modern Arts’ (MoMA’s) hands (not without some help from the CIA), abstract painting would reinforce U.S.-style individualism and freedom.8
The other paradigm of studying animal behavior, namely, field ethology or behavioral ecology, finds its aesthetic correlate in the disparate neo-avant-garde impulses for collapsing life into art, which would thumb their noses at modernist autonomy. Staying for the moment in a U.S. context, Robert Rauschenberg’s and John Cage’s work represented a clear challenge to art modernism in its embrace of ecological variants and chance effects. Rauschenberg’s early paintings are prime examples, especially the white paintings of 1951, with their material openness and generosity to their surroundings—from settling aleatory dust to viewers’ fleeting shadows.9 It is unsurprising that Rauschenberg’s subsequent combines would attract and incorporate wildlife, famously a stuffed goat and bald eagle (however nonethologically), or that his dance performance Elgin Tie (1964) involved a living cow. As for Cage, his “silent” avant-garde piano piece 4’33” (1952), which was inspired by Rauschenberg’s white paintings, might be described as an ethological experiment of human behavior within an aesthetic moment of sonic deprivation that gets unavoidably disturbed by its restless participants. Both Rauschenberg and Cage challenged modernist autonomy and the drive for isolation and abstraction in their generosity to material plasticity and ambient conditions. Living movements and behaviors in their reach were aesthetically interpolated, often in a Zen-like openness to even the most minor of variations, unknowingly echoing the early ethologist and ornithologist Charles Otis Whitman’s “modes of keeping quiet.”10
The breakdown of modernist autonomy is rather like the modern ethological sciences ultimately finding it impossible to absolutely localize animal behaviors under study. The moment a researcher shifts her paradigm away from isolating animal subjects or traits toward an embedded paradigm of variable social and ecological contexts is the moment any hope of abstracting an autonomous subject evaporates. This is the becoming avant-garde of ethology, which, in many ways, field ethology had always been without fully knowing it, as was the case with Tinbergen in his research on various seagull species beginning in the 1950s. With the observational help of his students in the field (many of whom were women, a notable detail deserving of further study), he had to admit that animals hold certain character developments in their ecological niches that go beyond simple automated instincts. Attesting to cognitively sophisticated behavior, kittiwakes’ idiosyncratic removal of eggshells from their sea cliff nests were interpreted to be site-specific antipredatorial maneuvers. Herring gull chicks, for their part, were observed pecking to receive food through a variable set of triggers in their demand for food—and not simply the “natural” red dot on their mothers’ bills. A number of alternatively tested stimuli did the trick—at times even more effectively.11 A surprised Tinbergen described this as “supernormal stimuli,” and in his Deleuzian extrapolation of this supernormality, Massumi convincingly argues that even within the rules of Darwinian evolution, instinct has to outstrip itself. Were this not the case, adaptability to ecological realities would become fixed, which would eventually put an end to said adaptability. Tinbergen’s and Massumi’s creatures turn out to be a serious challenge to any established scientific demands for tidy classification and generalizability in their propensity for creativity, improvisation, and variability.
Most striking is when nonhuman animals are observed to be very unmodern in their behaviors and capacities that no longer place them safely on the other side of culture, communication, and politics. The moment a researcher sees herself in the animals she observes and feels the creaturely continuum that exists between them is even more revealing. When this happens, ethology becomes radically avant-garde, if not downright ecofeminist and new materialist. If modernism, in both art and science, presumed the viewer (or scientist) to be transcendent and outside the artwork’s (or the experiment’s) autonomy, then the collapse of this paradigm opens a necessary path toward the posthumanities, which allows for manifold human–nonhuman entanglements.12 The merit of the posthumanities is that they excel in insisting on the fictiveness of the humanist subject—which, nonetheless, has had very real historical effects, not least of which has been supplying the ground for both modern art and science alike. The precept of a posthumanist world finds the artist, the scientist, and the viewer inextricably immanent to and conditioning the artwork or experiment in various ways. Most impactful here is the avowal of other minds beyond the human. Lorenz and Tinbergen were invested in lending credibility to ethology in the eyes of the hard sciences, which led them to deny nonhuman inner cognitive life in its purported unobservability. Instead, they sought to establish a discipline with no preconceived notions outside tractable objective facts. Tinbergen explicitly turned away from dealing with nonhuman mindedness: “I realized that the further analysis of the physiology of behavior would have to dig into the nervous system. Here I balked; I was not really interested in poking inside a system that seemed much too complex to me.”13 The philosopher Laurent Dubreuil’s description of a discipline prefiguring “the knowable at the very moment it raises its first questions” could not be more apt.14 The nonhuman animal mind is occluded by the very discipline begging to proffer some insights.
The decisive paradigm shift in ethology arrived with the pioneering work of Jane Goodall in the 1960s and her In the Shadow of Man (1971) and with the work of Donald Griffin in the 1970s, who is often considered to be the founder of “cognitive ethology,” having written The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience (1976). Both scientists opened the field to allow for mindedness, emotions, and social complexity. This is not a historical straight line, however, as one could invoke the British amateur ornithologist Henry Eliot Howard, who maintained that nonhumans have an aesthetic sense, or Darwin and his followers, like George Romanes, who, as “anecdotal cognitivists,” made many more allowances for the complexity of animal life. And yet, for all its advances, cognitive ethology can also be isolationist and abstractionist when mindedness is reduced to the brain and nervous system—in a word, to the “cognitive.” For example, the analytic philosopher Colin Allen and cognitive ethologist Mark Bekoff offer a compelling naturalist defense (i.e., that mindedness is fully part of the physical world) of cognitive ethology in what they argue to be a more objectively tractable version of Griffin’s cognitive ethology. In doing so, they take recourse to neuroethology, which hopes to account for the evolution of nervous systems in relation to their behavioral functions.15 Complications arise, however, when we note the extracognitive realities that condition the mindedness of both humans and nonhumans. The enteric system alone—with its microbiomic affects and digestive noise along the gut–brain axis—sends any isolationist claims of mindedness as reducible to the cognitive into crisis. For these reasons, we need a way of researching and coming to terms with other minds in ways that are more capacious than the cognitive alone. This is one of the major contributions of Dubreuil’s work on “the intellective space.”16 His conception of the intellective—which calls on literature, analytic philosophy, Continental philosophy, and the cognitive sciences—represents an indispensable starting point for my present study.
The posthumanist avant-gardism of ethology I am describing here has played a serious, if still controversial or not fully avowed, role in the recent history of cognitive ethology, primatology, and behavioral ecology. Some scientists and researchers still cling to the modernist paradigm and its inadmissibility of sophistry in favor of a strict positivism of tractable phenomena. Others are more generous and open to a richer conception of nonhuman alterities. Mirroring the old debates of art modernism I gloss in the preceding pages, it is telling that this latter group often grasp a bigger picture of the social, political, and ecological stakes involved. Like Allen and Bekoff, this group is likely also adamant that the study of animal behavior necessitates an interdisciplinary approach: “It is our view that the best way to understand mental-state attributions across species boundaries is within the comparative, evolutionary, and interdisciplinary framework provided by cognitive ethology.”17 Not only does this amount to admitting that ethology cannot be a discrete and autonomous modern science but it also points to my central argument that cognitive ethology is necessarily posthumanist, even if it does not know it yet. This is so in the two interrelated ways I have just outlined: as a disciplinary field, it cannot possibly be isolationist or abstractionist, which is why even the term cognitive needs to be expanded, and its human researchers are fundamentally immanent kin in relation to the nonhuman creatures they hope to understand.
Recognizing that the study of animals necessitates an extrascientific companion discipline can be found at the advent modern ethology—and from an unlikely source: C. Lloyd Morgan. His eponymous “canon” is often cited as the joy-killing law decreeing to researchers that they should never appeal to higher mental states when lower ones can do the job. Yet, in a 1912 correspondence with Henry Eliot Howard, in which they consider the phraselike structures of bird song, Morgan appeals to aesthetic experience:
I often think that a sort of unanalyzed sympathetic artistic sense set a man nearer to the secret of the animal mind than scientific thought which is at home in the midst of a more intellectual mode of psychological development. But it’s very hard to express oneself comprehensibly in this matter.18
Much later, Jacques Derrida will say something similar in claiming that “thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry.”19 Both Morgan and Derrida—one with respect to science, the other to philosophy—question the limits of their disciplines and appeal to an artistic supplement. In both instances, this supplement is mysterious and only uneasily integrated within the comparatively more “rational” discipline. With this we arrive at the broadest issue driving this book: what happens to ethology and the study of animal behavior when the contours of its creaturely subject-object of study can only be traced, alluded to, formulated, touched, and communicated by an artistic jump or, perhaps, even leap of faith? If this is the case—that is, that certain ontological and epistemological truths can only be ciphered through judicious aesthetic fictions—then is this not what art practices can bring to ethology? The opposite question will also have to be posed, namely, what can ethology bring to art? And what if ethology already holds more affinities with art history than originally thought? Perhaps interpreting the living interiority of an animal is akin to unpacking the historical interiority of an artwork: both entail negative epistemologies of knowledge gleaned from opaque contexts that nonetheless point to a truth we cannot experience directly—one in a living body before us, the other in a historical past behind us.
In fact, there is a considerable and untapped history of artists thinking and practicing like ethologists, as well as scientists working with aesthetic knowledge, beginning with Darwin and his suggestive advice to analyze painting and sculpture as part of his six methods for studying emotional expressions.20 Answering these sizable questions would entail a team of art historians, science studies, and critical animal studies scholars. A particularly useful starting point and compendium for this endeavor would be the exhibition Animal Art 87 in Graz, Austria, which comes with an invaluable cataloging of disparate artistic practices invoking the creaturely, roughly from the 1960s to its present day (a similarly ambitious exhibition from the subsequent three decades, which ideally would be more global in scope, is much needed). Nearly every position vis-à-vis the animal I have demarcated so far is represented: performance artists trafficking in atavistic ritualism with animals; installation artists whose projects double as behavioral psychology experiments; artists working in the field like modern ethologists; and, most compelling, artists who fit the mold of posthumanist ethologist whereby any subject–object distinction is thrown out the window.21
One thing is for sure: artists are simply freer than scientists. Making creaturely claims through an aesthetic practice has less (or different) institutional and epistemological constraints than making scientific claims. In this way, artists can be more daring in their expositions of animality and less daunted by aporia when face-to-face with nonhuman life. Aesthetic practices also have a different relation to the truth and the real, both being had or known through more metaphoric, oblique, asymbolic, and affective procedures. Yet, it should be said, art is as pharmakological as science—both poison and cure, help and hindrance—and in such a way that makes their relationship chiasmatic: if science is more rigorous, thereby paying the price by wielding a restrictive set of rules for making truth-claims, then art’s comparatively freer protocols can, for its turn, lead down a slippery slope of lacking rigor altogether or of using scientific knowledge in shallow or irresponsible ways. Leaving aside the many thoughtless incorporations of animals in art, the risk here is of making naive or exorbitant claims about nonhumans or arriving at a mere aestheticization of science, something for which Élizabeth de Fontenay has severely criticized bioart in what she deems its puerile experiments.22 If artists employ scientific techniques for noninstrumental ends—be it gene technology or ethology—it will have to press beyond mere novelty. Most crucially, artists will have to say something about science that science categorically cannot say or see about itself.