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The surprising scientific value of national bias

Emotions seem by their very nature to defy scientific analysis. Private and evanescent, and yet powerful and determining, feelings resist systematic observation and measurement. We are lucky to catch a glimpse in a facial expression or inflection of speech. The emotions of animals are all the more difficult. Without words to communicate what might be in their minds or on their nerves, animals–ranging from the complex to the simple–remain nearly a closed emotional book for even the cleverest experiment. A century ago Robert Yerkes, then at Harvard, registered these frustrations. Little is “of more obvious importance scientifically than affection,” he wrote in his Introduction to Psychology, in 1911, but its study lags behind investigation of “cognitive consciousness.” Convenient as it might be to assume animals are machinelike anyway, our behavior in the laboratory, he observed earlier in his Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology in 1906, betrays our logic. “Even those who claim that animals are automata do not treat them as such.”

Shrewd as Yerkes was about his specialty of animal behavior, he would have been puzzled by the idea that national loyalty influenced his science. His research ethos was empiricism: Infer conclusions from carefully collected facts. As he succinctly advised in 1904 in the same journal, “experiment much and speculate little.” Other Americans agreed. John B. Watson’s “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” of 1913 proposed to make the field “purely objective” by jettisoning the “yoke of consciousness.” That a conscious mind exists at all, in Watson’s view, was mere supposition. It makes sense that it was the German-born émigré ornithologist, Ernst Mayr, who recognized the American devotion to practicality as a national bias. When his Dutch friend, Niko Tinbergen, planned lectures for a US tour in 1946, Mayr wrote to him that “American scientists do not care for too much speculation but like thorough analysis of observed phenomena.” Indeed, deficient experimentation and excessive theorizing became a polemical weapon in international debate. Intellectual precision was–and is–the mark of good science, but American investigators of animal sensibility once claimed it as their special national possession.

Although the danger of scientific myopia nurtured by pride is obvious, these Americans’ faith in their superior practice ironically became a path forward toward internationalism. Their zeal for conducting animal behavior experiments produced real insights into affective experience. They had something to contribute abroad. In the process, they traveled the world for fieldwork, made far-flung professional acquaintances, and opened the door to refugee scientists displaced by the twentieth century’s political turmoil. Scientific passion stoked nationalism, but also gradually undermined it.

Researcher L.W. Cole works with a raccoon, 1905. Used with permission from Yale Library.

Animal experiments became one area of American expertise. Nonhuman subjects, by their very lack of language and inability to deceive in self-reports, were a perfect fit for a method based on external observation. The variety of species studied included the proverbial white rat, but many others as well. Although Yerkes spent three decades after World War I focused on primates, he had earlier measured learning in newts, frogs, mice, crows, and pigs. His colleague Edward Thorndike watched chicks, cats, and dogs escape from puzzle boxes, and Yerkes’s student L. W. Cole did the same with raccoons. So much scrutiny of animals expanded the researchers’ appreciation of their personalities. Intelligence, understood as skill acquisition, was the original question. Mood and temperament were annoyances. A tired rat knew where to find the bit of bread, but stopped running for it. It is not surprising that the emotions themselves eventually caught scientific interest. Donald Griffin rattled his field in The Question of Animal Awareness of 1976 when he declared, against reigning local wisdom, that animals are conscious. They have “not only images and intentions, but also feelings, desires, hopes, fears.” His revolutionary claim was the endpoint, however, of a typical American career. Three decades before, Griffin discovered how bats maneuver in the dark by echolocation, a kind of intelligence. His wonder at the animal mind deepened over the years.

To be sure, American scientists never had a monopoly on insight into animal behavior. The counterexample of Darwin is enough to deflate any sense of supremacy. Their enthusiasm for controlled animal experiments produced so many competent studies, however, that they may have had an outsized influence. One British book of 1915, Investigation of Mind in Animals by E. M. Smith, borrowed nearly all of its illustrations from American publications. Although the Americans favored laboratory work for its rigor, they increasingly went into the field to witness the vast number of species in native habitats. Yerkes traveled to Senegal in 1929 in pursuit of great apes, and Griffin to Venezuela in 1952 to observe the nocturnal navigation of oilbirds. Often welcomed as respected authorities, they were also exposed to the world’s problems. Walter Cannon of Harvard celebrated “free intellectual intercourse without respect to national boundaries” in his plenary speech at the International Physiological Congress in Leningrad in 1935, published by the state press as Chemical Transmission of Nerve Impulses. His trip by train from Vladivostok to reach the meeting, however, was a sobering political lesson. Seeing prisoners laboring at gunpoint along the tracks in Siberia made for “a queer kind of horror that seizes you now and then,” his wife Cornelia wrote of the trip. Cannon may well not have had immediate doubts about the virtues of his own country, but he surely registered the pressures of nationalism at the borders of science.

Scientist C. R. Carpenter setting up equipment in Thailand in 1937 to record gibbon calls. Used with permission from Penn State Library.

World War II fully exposed the catastrophic cost of national arrogance. International science advanced in its wake. Supported by American colleagues, Mayr achieved US citizenship in 1950 after a decade of government surveillance as a suspect alien. Although the new politics of internationalism was influential, just as crucial was the internal dynamic of science to push its practitioners beyond parochialism. The same high standard that impelled these Americans to apprehend animals in all their complexity–including animal emotions–underwrote growing internationalism. Precisely because the American science of animal behavior was embedded in political life, it had the power to change minds.

Featured image from Pixabay.

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