Tuesday, January 24, 2006

My Cats Told You To Read This

I found the recent article by Charles Seibert on animal personalities in the NY Times really exciting. For several years I've been disheartened by the disconnect between modern science and the respect of animals as individuals. As the article acknowledges, while scientists have been loathe to "anthropomorphize" animals by admitting they have responses beyond the purely instinctual for some time, to any person who has had the simple experience of living with animals "the assertion that they have distinct personalities seems absurdly obvious." But now advances in fields like genetics and molecular and evolutionary biology have led researchers to try to understand the bioevolutionary reasons for behaviors. In learning more about these, Seibert suggests, "[t]he more detailed and specific our knowledge has become of the animals and of the many differences between them and us, the more clearly we can see what is analogous about our respective behaviors."

This should be obvious. Even if one is a staunch atheistic evolutionist, it is hard to convincingly argue that all human and animal behaviours stem from neurological/genetic on/off switches derived from the survival of the fittest. Nurture must be taken into account as well as nature, and both are incredibly complex. Even if you believe other animals are less complex than humans, finding out how they react to both genetic and environmental changes as groups and individuals can only help us to understand how we do. After all, even among small creatures like insects born at the same time into the same environment and stimulated in the same ways, different patterns of behaviour emerge. Why is this? If you don't believe in a "spirit" that guides them and/or us and random chance is not sufficient to explain it, then there must be some sort of individual type or personality at play. From the article:
Andy Sih, like most of his colleagues at Davis, views personality differences in animals in a Darwinian context. He considers specific behaviors and preferences from an evolutionary perspective and tries to determine how various traits affect the long-term survival of a given species. And in the course of his research on everything from water striders to salamanders, Sih has become fairly obsessed with what he calls "stupid behaviors," ones that don't seem to make any evolutionary sense whatsoever.

"You'd expect animals to be doing smart stuff," Sih told me one evening over dinner. "The whole tradition in most of evolutionary ecology has been to emphasize adaptation where organisms do smart things. But I've been making the case for a while that the most interesting behaviors are actually the stupidest."
Of course, anyone who's read the Darwin awards or watched television for five minutes can understand that. But the example given in the article is that, among a certain type of spider, there are some females who are such aggressive hunters that they eat males of their own species before they can mate with them. The highly aggressive "personality" or type is advantageous in important situations such as surviving in times where there is little food, but if the spider can't help but hunt her mate, it's not evolutionarily wise in terms of producing offspring. So, is this just a genetic mistake, repeated despite evolution out of chance? And how does that help us to understand human behaviour? Again, from the article:
In animals, it is now becoming evident, there is a certain degree of evolutionary inertia when it comes to their behavior, wherein the very behaviors that accord some members of the group a distinct evolutionary advantage in one set of circumstances can do them in in the next. They are stuck, to some extent, with their distinct ways of being. We humans, on the other hand, tend to think of our personalities as protean, mutable entities that, unlike our physical selves, we can shape to suit shifting circumstances. Sih disagrees. He says he thinks that our behaviors, no matter how complex the human social contexts that help to shape them, are not nearly as pliant as we believe them to be.

"Behavioral ecologists actually tend to model animals and humans as both being very flexible, as being capable of changing their behaviors as necessary to do the right things in all situations," he said. But in our own day-to-day experience, he said, we recognize that humans don't really behave that way. "We all know that overly bold person," he pointed out. "We have friends like that. They do things that are just like: Hey, this can get you killed. What are they doing that for? And there are people that are shy, and they're missing out on opportunities they could have had."
This set of ideas, Sih told me, suggests new questions that are rarely posed about humans. "Like why do we even have a personality?" he asked. "Why do we have a relatively narrow range of responses as opposed to a full range? Why can't we all be bold when we need to be and cautious and shy when we need to be? Then we'd have no identifiable personality, and that would free us all to become optimal."

For Sih, the answer seems to be that our personality is a manifestation of a complex interplay between genetic inheritance and environment and early-life experience.
So, what we're looking at here is not only how personality develops and manifests, but how malleable it is. This affects everything from how we treat each other in our daily lives to how we avoid self-destructive habits or treat the criminally aggressive or mentally ill. What's more, it shows us just how similar to and connected with other creatures we are. Although our social interactions may be different or our thought patterns more complex, are we really that different? And, if we are not so different, must we not empathize with and respect animals more?

This hits all my buttons, both in the context of my love of and curiosity about animals and my interests in both sociology and psychology on large and intimate scales. Pre-industrial civilizations often used animals as symbolic representatives of different qualities and states of being humans could use to learn from and adapt to in order to understand and cope better with the world. Now we are learning not only that such analogies may still be useful, but that understanding animals on an individual basis my also help us to understand and improve ourselves. Fascinating, inspiring stuff.

I hope you all find the article as interesting as I did. In the meantime, I'll be looking up more information on these types of studies, and what the new discipline of animal personality research is all about.

1 comment:

katie said...

I really enjoyed that article, too. It reminded me of an earlier article in that magazine about chimps used in research and entertainment, and where they go when their useful lives are over. It seemed to show a lot of understanding of animal personalities, too. Did you read that one?

Although wrt to the most recent article, I have to admit that the image of giant octopi being able to squeeze through a hole the size of an apple has stuck with me the longest.