Ethology between Empathy, Standpoint and Perspectivism: the case of the Arabian babblers

Ethology between Empathy, Standpoint and Perspectivism: the case of the Arabian babblers
Vinciane Despret
Département de Philosophie
Université de Liège
Argument of the paper
In the middle of the last century Jabob Von Uexküll addressed harsh criticisms to the behaviorists forcing rats to run into a labyrinth: you cannot hope to learn something about a living being unless you ask what the actual meaning of the experiment is for those you want to know about. It took a long time before scientists could afford to follow this advice. Whereas “ animal’s amateurs” would find natural to allocate to their animals a point of view upon the situation, most researchers found that problematic — or anthropomorphic.
Nowadays, we may find evidences that this situation is slightly changing. For some scientists, the animal’s perspective upon the situation should be at the center of the researches.
I propose to address this issue in taking two paths: with the first one, I will draw up an inventory of fields in which this tendency appears. In the second one, I propose to analyze the practices of two scientists working with the same troupe of birds, the Arabian Babblers (Turdoïdes squamiceps) : one of them takes the animals’ point of view into account and grounds his theories upon it while the other works according the classical methods of ethology. The contrast between the two practices, the “subjectivist one” and the “objectivist one” has many effects. Among these effects, we discover that birds do tell very different stories accordingly to the one who observes them.
Ethology between Empathy, Standpoint and Perspectivism: the case of the Arabian babblers
On parrots and philosophers
Why, asks the philosopher — but also dog and horse trainer — Vicki Hearne, do philosophers assume with so much certainty that parrots don’t talk? Let us set up the situation, as Hearne describes it, and you will understand how the story goes. “You go up to a parrot, and he’s probably in a cage and you’re not, so you feel pretty superior, maybe you even think you can feel sorry for the parrot, and you ask the parrot how he is, and he says something gnomic like, « so’s you’re old man » or « how fine and purple are the swallows of the late summer”. Then the parrot looks at you in a really interested, expectant way, to see if you’re going to keep your end up (…) You start trying to figure out what the parrot means by it, and there you are. You haven’t a prayer of reintroducing whatever topic you had in mind.That’s why philosophers keep denying that parrots can talk, of course, because a philosopher really likes to keep control of a conversation”(Hearne, 1994:5). So do all talking parrots: they refuse to let another individual choose the topic of conversation.
The same thing, I should add, could be said of behaviorists, although conversation would not be at the centre of their problem of control, even less at the centre of what really interests them. The fact that parrots have never spoken to any behaviorists testifies to this. The reason for the silence of parrots in this kind of situation is simple enough and makes Wittgenstein partly right, when he assumed that even if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand it — on condition that one takes into account, in re-reading Wittgenstein, not the point of view of the human but the hypotheses the parrots seem to forge. In view of the situation suggested to them, parrots deduce that, if they were to speak, nobody in the situation would understand them. Because — as later research that succeeded in the miracle of having a conversation with them has shown — parrots have a pragmatic rather than a referential conception of language[1]. They cannot speak if they don’t have the sentiment of speaking to someone. And that someone is cruelly lacking in the behaviorist’s experiment. Under the banner of objectivity, everything is constructed in such a fashion as to render the researcher as impersonal as possible, to make of him someone replaceable by anyone — which is precisely the contrary of what defines a person.
All this reminds us of the harsh criticism that the great naturalist and theorist of the Umwelt theory, Jabob Von Uexküll addressed to the behaviorists forcing rats to run into a labyrinth: you cannot hope to learn something about a living being unless you ask what the actual meaning of the experiment is for those you want to know about. And, we should add, insofar as the scientist is part of the experiment, he cannot pretend to say anything that would have a chance of being reliable unless he takes into account the very fact that the animal is trying to make sense, to give meaning to, to interpret, and to respond to what is asked of him/her.
So Vicki Hearne is probably right and this may explain another reason why parrots have not been able to talk with certain human beings: the parrots were more than likely not interested in the subjects.
It is quite another story with cats. Hearne explains that wise experimenters try to avoid working with them — I have also heard that about ravens, for other reasons, but this is yet another story[2]. Hearne heard some older experimenters advising younger ones, saying that cats are generally fairly good at the beginning of the procedure but, they add, things generally go wrong after the first test procedures. If you give cats a problem to solve or a task to perform in order to find food, they work it out pretty quickly, and the graph of their comparative intelligence shows a sharply rising line. But the older experimenters then say (although they will never publish on this subject): “the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher or technician wants them to push the lever, they stop doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it” (Hearne, 2007:225)[3].
In human psychology, such a thing could scarcely happen: first, because most of us respect academic authority and will work out the problem for “the sake of science”[4]. Secondly, because, generally, human subjects in psychological experiments do not know what is expected from them, insofar as the experimenter cautiously hides it — and most often pretends she/he is searching for something else. What is it about cats, then? Vicki Hearne (2007: 225-226) suggests that “the refusal of food is a signal made to the cosmos itself when one despairs of signaling one’s chums that something deep in nature is denied”. Cats, she says, cannot afford situations in which there is only one choice, that of responding in a linear way to human expectations, a kind of “pleasing” that is in fact violation of the cat’s nature. And this is the case because “the pleasures and expectations of human beings are profoundly important to cats”. What science shows us, therefore, is that cats take the task of pleasing us far more seriously than other animals — even dogs — do. Actually, dogs in experiments are fairly compliant — as are rats for reasons that are yet to be explored. And what dogs resist, when they try to resist, unlike cats, is more the lack of expectations, or more precisely, the lack of meaning behind the expectations. This shows us, by the way, how science may transform compliant beings or helpful animals into stupid ones — and we shall see, by contrast, how the same experiment, but with slight modifications, could do exactly the reverse. Let us first see what it is about dogs in laboratories. Hearne (2007:58) clearly points out what actually happens in this scenario when she writes “to the extent that the behaviorist manages to deny any belief in the dog’s potential for believing, intending, meaning, etc., there will be no flow of intentions, meaning, believing, hoping going on. The dog may try to respond to the behaviorist, but the behaviorist won’t respond to the dog’s response. (…) The behaviorist’s dog will not only seem stupid, she will be stupid”.
After re-reading Derrida’s text and Donna Haraway’s (2008) wonderful commentary on his work[5], there is, for me, even clearer confirmation of what constitutes the differences between experimenters who give a chance to their animals to be interesting, active, intelligent and the ones who don’t : The differences lay in the very fact that the first ones are aware that their animals respond to them and they respond back to these responses: in doing so, they made their subjects more responsive, which is a one of the most reliable ways of becoming intelligent. And they do this with care and curiosity, which are the conditions of good knowledge[6].
Talkative parrots, lonely sheep and happy pigs
The interpretations I make from that situation, and the criticisms I address towards behaviorists are historically situated. I probably wouldn’t have made these criticisms in the same way a few years ago. And it is not a coincidence that Derrida (2008) and Haraway (2008) have been interested in such a question so recently. Indeed, we might suggest that we learned to see things from the perspective of an animal from the work of Jacob Von Uexküll. However, if von Uexküll taught us to see things from the animal’s perspective, he never mentioned the fact that the animal construes, interprets, give meanings to the experiment as an intentional procedure requesting something from him/her, and to the human who asks the question. Yes, he criticized behaviorists for not taking meanings into account — for example he pointed out that while behaviorists thought that rats running in a labyrinth were providing answers to the questions of learning, the rats were actually showing how they build what is of utmost importance in a rat’s world, that is a “familiar path”. And, yes, Von Uexküll also learned that social beings construe and give meanings to other social beings with whom they have relationships. That is why Tschock, the jackdaw hand-raised by a human, (Lorenz in this case), gave to his human gardian the meaning ‘socius’, followed him everywhere, tried to feed him with worms and (though with less success) tried to teach him to fly. And this is also why, Von Uexküll explained, the jackdaw displayed the whole jackdaw’s repertoire of courtship for the benefit of Lorenz’s maid. And yes, Von Uexküll led us to take into account new perspectives, insofar as he practiced a kind of “alter-subjectivity”: a subjectivity that cannot be reached by means of simple analogies (a “like us” kind of thought), but by a system of contrasts and differences that searched for, and were grounded in, differences: animals do not feel and think like us; they do not share our point of view. However, as far as I know, Von Uexküll did not go as far as asking experimenters to take into account the animal’s point of view regarding the experiment itself, regarding the experimenter’s demands. Neither did he consider that animals respond — of course in ways that need translation — to what is proposed to them.
Of course, Hearne did this years ago and took into account the very perspective of each animal she was dealing with: but Hearne was a trainer and, as she reminded us, trainers do that all the time. This is why scientists have discounted trainers for having an anthropomorphic and morally loaded language. This shows us that scientific thinking could not afford to address this question — partly, as Marion Thomas (2003) has shown, because they have historically built their practices and theories against the “amateur-naturalist” ways of thinking. Indeed, the old experimenter saying that cats do not perform their experimental task if they feel they are not given the choice might act as counterevidence against that: we could construe it as the possibility of the behaviorist taking an animal perspective seriously. However, no one has ever published on this matter[7]. Moreover, if this experimenter was really taking that fact seriously, how could he still trust his experimental set-up and his results as long as this finding would lead him to concede that cats — as well as all other animals — do not answer the question that is addressed (about learning) but instead answer another question, for example, the question “what am I able to do, and in which conditions, to fulfill a particular human desire?”
It now seems possible for scientists to answer this kind of question (though not all scientists, not yet). This is particularly true for scientists who, sometimes for the actual purpose of their research, are engaged in a close relationship with their animals — among those, wolves, bears, ravens, dogs. Interestingly, although we may not assess with certainty what is cause and what is effect, the practices and the narratives of these scientists are, in some ways, very similar to those of the amateur — or to the 19th century naturalists and amateurs if we compare them with the 20thcentury animal psychologists[8]. The scene is full of beings, both human and animal, who credit each other with intention, will, perspectives, meanings and who respond to each other.
These scientists do not study what an animal is, rather what an animal becomes in responding to the way he/she is questioned, in responding to what is expected from him/her. The situation is a co-inventive situation of knowledge, which creates opportunities for new behaviors. The animal’s perspective upon the situation is, for these few scientists, at the center of the whole matter. This is, I suggest, the area in which I can detect things changing slightly in the world of animal sciences.
I will, however, not try to explore what, in our present socio-cultural and political context may explain these changes. I will merely propose that something is becoming possible, and that this “something”, whatever form it takes in different aspects of work with animals, is interesting. I will simply assess how it makes scientific work more interesting, and how it may change the way we perceive animals in the future — as well as showing how it has already changed the way we perceive animals, for example through the researches in the fields of animal welfare.
The trend is not sharply drawn in these fields, but we may notice that some of the “welfare scientists” have recently reoriented their work in that direction. “See things from their perspective”, as the New Scientist’s issue of September 2006 entitled one of its articles reporting on a conference held at the Royal Society of London (Coghland, 2006). This topic is clearly on the agenda. In France, some of the researchers from the INRA (National Institute for Agronomic Research) have recently published articles that seem to take this orientation.
Xavier Boivin (2003) is one of these scientists working in the field of animal welfare. The criticisms he addresses towards the way research regarding stress and fear in animals is conducted makes me turn to him to find evidence of the process I have identified. Most of this research, he notes, aims to assess the effects of human-animal relationships. The author considers it surprising what the scientific literature assumes constitutes a relationship between a man and an animal. Fifty-nine original papers from 1986 to 2002 dealing with the relationship between sheep and humans were analyzed and classified. Most of them, Boivin notes, actually investigated thereactions of sheep to handling procedures such as shearing, muzzling, laparoscopy etc. and measured the general reactivity of the animals (fear and stress). These findings, Boivin concludes, illustrate how the human-animal relationship is only perceived by the scientists to occur through handling procedures and not as a real relationship between two individuals. Moreover, most of the time, the human involved in the test was unknown to the sheep and the variables measured were interpreted as a general reactivity or fear towards humans. None of them studied, for example, the relationship between shepherd and sheep. How can we say that the simple response to an unfamiliar human is in reality highly correlated with the animals’ reaction to a handling procedure such as shearing by a familiar shepherd?
All these criticisms and more, and particularly the author’s conclusion, show which kind of new trend of research we may be beginning to see emerge: “it is important,” Boivin writes, “to describe the stockperson-farm animal relationship not only from the human point of view but also through the perception of the animalsWelfare is not the human perception of the animal state but really how the animals perceive their environment.” (2003:12)
In another paper, Boivin adds: “Concepts of ‘relationship’ and ‘animal’s perception of the humans are not only relevant for the animal welfare aspect (…), they allow us to address the complex motivation of the animal when interacting with a human. It is important to understand that when we are watching animals, they are also watching us.”[9] It seems that the concept of “response” is at the core of what I would label as a “philosophically responsible” story, the story Boivin wants both to reveal and to create between scientists and animals. It is the responding, the “looking back”, which, as Donna Haraway (2008:19) so beautifully put it and as Boivin asks his colleagues to take into account, reminds us of the etymology of respect — respecere, to hold in regard, to respond, to look back reciprocally[10].
Boivin is not the only scientist working in the field of animal welfare who makes us hope for some changes. Another team of researchers, for example, has recently redefined what welfare should mean: it should mean happiness. Recent papers show this new trend of research: welfare, Alain Boissy and his colleagues write, should not be reduced to the absence of negative experiences but should include positive affects or emotions, such as pleasure. What, from a pig’s point a view, might be a positive emotion? What makes a pig “happy”? Interestingly, all these scientists raise the very questions Vicki Hearne asked 20 years ago, the very anthropomorphic question, in the morally loaded language that trainers generally speak, the question that has been so long to come to scientists: what is animal happiness? The amateurs’ questions are back. And they have become philosophically responsible (Hearne, 2007:14). Still more interestingly, the responses of the amateur-trainer and the scientists now converge: animals are happy when they do well what is difficult for them (Hearne 2007:12; 1991)— scientists, of course, call that “coping” and “challenge”[11].
In the field
Can we imagine these new trends emerging in field studies? Of course, some difficulties may arise that could seriously preclude the possibility of such a change. One of the most obvious among these difficulties is the way ethologists consider both objective science and nature, objectivity being defined in this case as: anyone in the same place should observe exactly the same behaviors. Like obsessive comedians, animals should always play the same role, whatever the audience. This means that there is no interaction between the observer and the observed. Trained in the conventions of objective science, scientists try to be as neutral as possible. As Haraway puts it (2008:24), good scientists are those who, learning to be invisible themselves, can see the scene of nature close up, as if through a peep-hole.
In such a situation, when two observers end up observing radically different behaviors for the same animals, the possibility of the animal’s subjectivity is immediately discarded in favor of another interpretation: the differences may be totally explained by the observer’s subjectivity, whatever this concept refers to (Despret, 2002).
This happened, for example, when primatologist Thelma Rowel (1966) came back from her field work in Uganda and claimed that the baboons she observed did not behave the way baboons had hitherto behaved everywhere else. From her very first descriptions, at the beginning of the 1960s, Rowell’s observations contrasted sharply with those of her colleagues working with similar animals. Baboons had hitherto been unanimously described as extremely competitive, intensively aggressive towards each other and involved most of the time in fights over food or females. In Rowell’s troop, males were extremely peaceful: they formed a coherent cohort, constantly aware of each other’s movements, but with scarcely any aggressive interactions. Not only were Rowell’s baboons peaceful, but the males were bizarrely uncompetitive. There was much positive or friendly interaction. Aggression was rare, even in feeding places: baboons almost never stole food from each other. “The dominant impression of interaction between males”, Rowell concluded, “was that of active cooperation.” (Rowell, 1972:44).
Zuckerman, one of the most respected silver-back primatologists, assumed that these differences were solely a matter of observer differences:“among field workers, he claimed, the observer’s own temperament and sex might be an important filter in determining, for example, the amount of agonistic behavior observed and reported in groups of primates” (Rowell, 1967:222).
We are reminded of Bertrand Russell’s (1927) astonishment at the high incidence of animals conforming to the behavior expected of them by observers. Before Rousseau, he notes, they were ferocious beasts, subsequently conforming to his noble savage cult. During the Victorian period, primates were virtuous monogamists; during the post-Freudian era of sexual liberation, one would have been appalled by the considerable deterioration of their moral standards. These are the arguments usually put forward by experts in scientific studies who conclude that animals are guided by the expectations of those who study them.
However, one may think that it is hard to compare the open field and the laboratory: expectations should work differently on the one hand in laboratories and on the other hand in the open field. In laboratories, bonds are inevitable — even if scientists try to avoid them. Therefore, if we assume that scientists, in the open, are invisible — or, almost invisible, or at least, that they try not to interfere — how might we explain the differences between two observers studying the same animal? Scientific experts have almost always assumed that the differences lie in something other than the animals themselves, such as interpretations, expectations, narratives, standpoint, empathy, ideological bias, or political preferences in reading nature. And this was, in fact, the hypothesis that led me to the field station of Hatzeva, in the Neguev Desert, to meet the Arabian babblers and their Israeli ornithologist, Amotz Zahavi — a hypothesis that I will radically revisit today. These birds did not behave like birds usually do; they didn’t act according to what could legitimately count as the typical bird’s script[12]; besides that, their ethologist did not describe them as ethologists usually do — except when they produce popular writings[13]. Something was wrong in that situation; a good case for philosophy (Despret, 1996).
Babblers and babblers
The Arabian Babbler (Turdoides squamiceps) inhabits extreme deserts and is the only bird species in Israel that lives in groups year round. These groups are territorial, with numbers of birds per group generally being between 3 and 5 individuals, although they can range between 2 and 22. Each group usually contains one breeding pair; young birds do not disperse for one to three years, during which time they act as helpers. Babblers are long-lived and may reach the age of twelve or fourteen. Babblers seemed to be very peculiar birds: not only do they help at the nest, all members of the group taking care of a single nest, but they also cooperate to protect their territory against neighboring groups of babblers and non-territorial individuals (refugees as Zahavi calls the latter). The birds’ dealings with each other involve providing a great deal of assistance to others. They offer presents to feed each other — seeds, insects, flowers — before they are full themselves: when offered a crumb of bread right after they have fed their fellows with a similar crumb, they will eat with relish — something, Zahavi explains, that satiated babblers do not do. They endanger themselves by mobbing raptors and snakes. They imperil themselves by coming to the rescue of group members who get caught in a net or by a predator, or by enemy babblers during a fight. They play together. They also dance together in the morning, sometimes after bathing. In short, through their whole life, they cooperate. And if they sometimes compete with each other, and they actually do, they also compete to act as sentinel of the territory or to feed their comrades. Babblers, in fact, are very interested in the issue of prestige (Zahavi 1990)[14]. When one babbler feeds another, he/she draws attention to him/herself: he/she emits a special thrill and lifts his/her beak above the beak of the one he/she is feeding. But generally, a babbler tries to avoid being fed by another bird of about the same age: he/she might try to escape or, in some cases, close his/her beak tightly, despite being hungry — and, Zahavi says, he/she will eagerly accept one of the observers’ crumbs of bread immediately after refusing a juicy insect from another babbler. If a lower ranked individual attempts to feed a higher-ranking one, he/she might be beaten up. The babblers will construe the proposal as a declaration of open revolt. They may fight: but they fight seriously with a member of their group only once in their whole life — if ever.
First, it should be mentioned that each bird observed (nowadays among 250) is individually identified: they are all tagged with a combination of 3 colored bands and 1 numbered band. They are all habituated, (i.e. “used to our presence”) and observers may walk among them without scaring them — “as far as they are concerned, we are not so different from the herd of goats and camels with which they share the desert” (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997). Observers working with Zahavi usually give the birds tiny amounts of breadcrumbs. Most often, when going to the field and trying to find a particular group, Zahavi calls them with a whistle… and they come — which is, he explains, rather easier than trying to find them or run after them. Babblers seem to prefer to live on the ground and are slow flyers, which makes the observations still easier.
Zahavi’s description of the birds is rather unusual in ethological discourse: “Because they are habituated to our presence,” Zahavi explains, “we can hear the soft, widely varied calls they use to communicate, calls that don’t carry more than a few yards. Some individuals are talkative, others taciturn, and still others grumble all day long. When a higher-ranking individual approaches a lower-ranking one, the latter often makes a soft sound to acknowledge the other, as if saying ‘Yes, sir’.” The theory itself is still stranger: babblers do help, do assist, do protect, do feed others in order to gain prestige. For example, Zahavi explains, a babbler who finds food may not swallow it right away but instead may hold it in his/her beak and look around to see whom he/she can feed. If he/she sees only individuals whose rank is higher than his/her own, he/she may waver briefly, then swallow the food. “When the beta male, the number two male of a group, goes up to the top of a tree to stand up as sentinel, we often see the alpha male, his superior, busily looking for food; he then gives it to the sentinel in full view of the other members of the group and replaces him on guard duty. In many cases, we can tell when the sentinel notices the alpha male’s preparation to feed him from the direction of the sentinel’s gaze, and often because the sentinel abandons his lofty post before the alpha male arrives to displace him” (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997:126).
In the field, I also met Jon, an ethologist who had studied at Oxford. Jon was young but he was already an experienced ethologist. He was also (and still is) a sociobiologist. He was there while I was visiting and he was also working with babblers. Jon definitively does not agree with Zahavi’s theory. According to Jon, if babblers help, it is because they want to maximize their inclusive fitness (or because altruism has been selected for). In helping close kin, each individual may expect to pass on part of his genetic pool.
Following and listening to either Jon or Zahavi gave me the feeling that we were not dealing with the same birds. The first difference between Jon and Zahavi was obvious: they totally disagreed about what could be said, or more precisely what could count as a true hypothesis. For Zahavi, a hypothesis about babblers is true in some way because babblers provide evidence of it. Or, to put it another way, humans may assume a particular hypothesis about babblers because babblers never act without good reason. For Jon, a hypothesis is true only if you can prove it. And to prove is to experiment. In other words, Zahavi trusts what the babblers show; John trusts the experiment that will make them behave in such a way that it confirms a hypothesis. Zahavi follows, moves inside the group, listens to the babblers, and explains, for example: “we move easily among the babblers; we see what they are looking at and become aware of their intentions”. He has learned to pay attention to each tiny difference of vocalization: why does a babbler shout so loud when it threatens another one? Of course, we shout when we are angry. But in the case of the babblers, the shouting is not aimed at the purported listener but rather at other babblers that are farther away: the shouting makes them witnesses[15]. Only confident babblers can afford to shout their threats in front of the crowd. “This principle, Zahavi adds, is well-known in politics: a publicly declared intention is likelier to be carried out than one agreed upon in secret”( Zahavi and Zahavi, 1997:75). Why do babblers sometimes spring their wings upward when approaching a snake — making themselves more visible? They must have good reasons to act in such a dangerous way: babblers want to show off their courage to other members of their group; that is why they call their attention to themselves in that situation.
I would suggest that Zahavi may be very confident because his theory claims that signals are always reliable, or honest. “What you see is what it’s worth” could define the way babblers behave, according to Zahavi, since signals for prestige are costly. Feeding others, or acting as sentinel involves time and resources: if a babbler cannot afford it, he/she will be prevented from doing it[16]. By showing off how much they can invest in standing guard, in feeding others, in taking serious risks, babblers show off their ability to win in a fight and their desirability as group-mates. In other words, “the altruist’s investment in the altruistic act offers a reliable, concrete index of that ability.” (Zahavi & zahavi, 1997:142)
From Jon’s point of view, you cannot simply claim whatever you want in order to explain the birds’ behavior if you cannot yourself experience it— i.e. make an experiment about it. For example, in order to prove that the behaviors of helping at the nest and feeding chicks are not governed by motives of prestige, you would need to show that these behaviors are determined by other rules, in that case by sociobiological rules of kinship selection. Jon aimed to show that helpers and parents provision for nestlings at similar rates, irrespective of sex or dominance rank within the group. If, for example, the nestling were very hungry, parents would enhance their effort; on the other hand, helpers-at-the-nest, if this were solely a matter of prestige, wouldn’t be sensitive to the change of conditions. Jon put the hypothesis to the test: some playbacks of tapes showing chick-begging enhancing the feeding from both the parents and the helpers-at-the-nest showed evidence that the helpers have the same provisioning rule as the parents and therefore do not use nestling feeding as an altruistic signal to gain social prestige.
When I asked Zahavi about experimentation, he told me “of course we do experiments with babblers. We ask them to come, and we tell them what we want them to do and the question we are dealing with. And they do it”. I will never be sure Zahavi wasn’t serious.
Flying primates or vehicles for genes?
But interestingly, especially in the field situation, what might be expected often happens in an unexpected way, and turns out most of the time to be much more worthwhile than what could have been originally expected (Latour, 1991). With Jon, we could be sure the birds wouldn’t be thought to be acting like a human, albeit a scientist, nor would they be led by anthropomorphic motives. Things are sometimes more complicated. Once, both Jon and I were observing a group of babblers feeding at the nest. At one particular moment, I noticed that one of the bird made the vocal signal that, according to Zahavi’s theory, calls the attention of their nearby comrades to the effort they are making. But I was almost sure this babbler was not offering any food. I asked Jon. He told me I was right. Therefore, I wondered why the bird had done that — if I could see that the babbler was deceiving, surely the other babblers would not miss this either. “Very easy to understand,” said Jon, “this bird is carrying out a real experiment. He just wants to assess the real state of hunger of the chicks, so he just modifies one of the variables”. This story shows us that what scientists call anthropomorphism is always “someone’s anthropomorphism”, i.e., “common sense” anthropomorphism, or more precisely the lay-person’s anthropomorphism. I other words, if the birds are acting and thinking as a scientistwould think and act, this is not anthropomorphism; it is nature’s rules — naturomorphism is not a sin.
But this also shows us the real contrast between two ways of thinking: Jon and Zahavi inhabit the two extremes of a continuum between “scientist” and “naturalist” ways of construing behavior: you may find their position on that continuum by taking into account the role of models, the question of methodology, or the issue of anthropomorphism. However, the issue of anthropomorphism, which is generally what gives most of the characteristics to this continuum, has slightly shifted from its usual conception. Jon does not reproach Zahavi’s babbler for thinking like an “anthropos”, he reproaches the bird for thinking like a naturalist: Zahavi’s babblers neither follow regular rules nor seek them; they trust what they see; they live anecdotically— all naturalist’s way of acting and thinking. By contrast, Jon’s babbler, as a matter of fact, does not think like an “anthropos”, he/she thinks like someone who obeys cognitive rules of nature — he/she thinks and acts like a good scientist.
More generally, it was clear that Zahavi’s ways of observing and thinking were very close to the naturalist’s style, whereas Jon was working within the classical ethological tradition. Zahavi talks about his babblers as anthropologists talk about their human subjects: they have agency, intentions, hopes, desires, and he may adopt their perspective. Jon’s descriptions are highly abstract and technical — for example: “Arabian babblers provide an interesting focus for discussions regarding unselected helping, because this system involves apparent costs and benefits of helping that are very similar in scale to those of parental provisioning (…)” (Wright, 1999).Moreover, Jon’s babblers are determined by simple and rigid rules: according to kin selection theory, the variation in chick-feeding efforts by helpers reflects their evolutionary interest in provisioning the young. Helpers increase their effort “in accordance with the net fitness returns from “investment” in the brood. Hence, more related chicks should be fed at higher rates, and helping should be adjusted according to both its energetic cost and current brood demand for food.” (Wright, 1997:1440).
Eileen Crist (1999:89) remarks that, despite their intellectual continuity, there is a great disparity between ethologists and naturalists with respect to their use of language. “In contrast to the naturalists’ language of the life-world, ethologists use a technical vocabulary, in part constructed by themselves and in part appropriated from behaviourist psychology. The linguistic and argumentative edifice created by the pioneer ethologists led to the representation of animals as natural objects. Yet it is quite certain that neither Tinbergen nor Lorenz wanted to “desubjectify” animals[17]. In using a technical, highly theoretical language, they aimed to establish the study of animal behavior as a rigorous science; they presupposed a specific idea of “science”, on the model of natural science as well as of comparative psychology (…). The inexorable if unwitting consequence of applying a technical language was the epistemological objectification of animals and ultimately their mecanomorphic portrayal”. Sociobiology has driven this tendency to the extreme: models are the main goal of field studies[18].
Zahavi, by contrast, is very close to the figures I gathered together earlier to show how some scientists were changing. He is more interested in individual differences than in models. And he assumes that he ought to be interested in individual differences because that is of the utmost importance for the babblers themselves. They endlessly seek and show off differences between themselves. Indeed, Zahavi’s way of thinking and construing behavior is entangled in a model, a sort of “common sense” model — which, as a matter of fact, seems very close to anthropomorphism. But Zahavi’s strong interest in individual differences leads him to refute theoretical models, be they from classical ethology or from sociobiology[19]. We find a clear example of that when he criticizes the use of “species-specific patterns” to identify members of a group “after those patterns have evolved to show off differences among individuals within the group” (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997:72). This last sentence may help us to speculate about how Jon and Zahavi may observe such differences between birds. Jon is seeking a model, and he is therefore paying attention to the behaviors that can either be integrated into or that will fulfill or confirm the model. He probably actively selects. Far be it from me to suggest that Zahavi is not selecting: he does select, but he selects different events. Jon is selecting “variations” in patterns; Zahavi is selecting “varieties”. Jon’s approach is close to the experimental way of collecting data. I like to think that Zahavi is a true successor to Darwin: he collects facts that do not fit with classical theories, he looks for varieties — in anecdotes, in little stories, in individual bird biographies. He compares the experiences of humans and birds, and as we shall see, for example, those of dogs and birds, assessing the “good reasons” they have to act in some odd ways. He fills their life with motives, intentions, singular aims. Jon asks the babblers to be experimental objects, the experimental device mirrors the work of nature: birds are being controlled and constrained by the same external rules; Zahavi reconstructs their experience, and he safeguards authorship and meanings. He works and thinks like a naturalist: “Naturalists’ attention to the detailed nuances …”, Eileen Crist writes (what she calls episodic descriptions)“… and variations of actions is connected with their focus on episodes of animal life. In documenting animal life, they choose to narrate concrete behavioral events, episodes actually witnessed.” (1999 :73).
In focusing on different events, Jon and Zahavi construct different narratives in which still more different events matter and may be observed. Jon, for example, concedes that he might not have paid attention to some subtle events while he was observing, and that (the fact of not taking these events into account) might have (but in reality has not) favored one hypothesis (babblers’ help at the nest is kin-oriented) over another (babblers compete for prestige and for feeding nestlings). In the same vein, he raises a question much studied by another scientist observing babblers at the site (Roni Osztreiher), whether the close presence of the observer may or may not influence the way babblers behave (Roni relates that once, a dominant bird felt forced to act as sentinel because of the observer’s presence and he therefore could not feed the chicks). In order to assess this possibility, Jon — as a good experimenter — compared observations at different distances and found no differences[20]. But the question of the observer’s influence, if we can put it that way — as I have suggested, as an experimental question — makes another difference less visible. The difference is not only between observers; it rests between the ways observers take into account the differences between groups and how their questions will enhance or decrease these differences. For Jon, all groups behave in approximately the same way,with regard to his hypothesis. This means that the hypothesis may easily discard as innocuous parasites the differences between groups, and that these differences will not be perceived. For Zahavi, by contrast, each group is unique. Of course, each group faces the same problems and they find similar solutions, but each group has its own style of facing the problem or of achieving this solution. For example, Zahavi explains that the relationship between the first and the second males is not the same in all groups. It depends a great deal on the make-up of the particular group. Even when the two males are brothers, this relationship varies from group to group. The prestige of one vis-à-vis another may be radically different from one group to another, which dramatically changes the way they behave. Since prestige means, for babblers, “the respect accorded an individual by others”, it also changes the behavior of the whole group.
Groups have their own style, depending partly on the respect accorded, and babblers have according Zahavi, personalities or temperaments. But we also found evidence that Zahavi adopts the perspective of the animal he observes; moreover he embodies those perspectives. If one re-reads some extracts from his work, one will see that the methodology includes this very embodiment and that it is a kind of bodily identification: following the gaze of the sentinel and knowing exactly what it should do next (and what the observer should look at next), thinkingwith it, looking with the bird rather than looking at the bird, and knowing its intentions. Babblers and humans share something in common, built by the work and the narratives of the ethologist: body posture, the shifting of glances, common anticipations (what happens next?), and last but not least, common stories.
When Zahavi tells us, for example, that babblers compete for rank or in order to lay eggs, stories proliferate. Both humans and babblers seem to enjoy the narrative this competition produces, and they enjoy just as much the sharing of the same questions about these narratives: “Such contests are complex and fascinating.” Zahavi writes,“Each is a unique story, reminiscent of historical epics, Shakespearean dramas, and biblical tableaux. In one case three males were copulating with four females, all of whom laid eggs. It was impossible for anyone — human or babbler — to tell which of the fledglings in the common nest were whose offspring; it would have take DNA analysis for us — the babblers themselves had no idea” ((Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997: 130).
Although babblers may fiercely compete, an adult fights seriously with another adult only once, if ever — since, as already mentioned, the quest for prestige has replaced fighting. The “real” fight almost always occurs between the most dominant male or female and the one next in rank: “there is no point in risking everything for anything less than the top position”. Such a fight is savage. It starts all of a sudden, and Zahavi explains, most observers fail to see any sign that it is imminent. “It is as though all grievances and suppressed antagonisms between two brothers or between a father and son who have lived together peacefully for years burst out in this one life-and-death fight” (Zahavi & zahavi, 1997:130-131). Each story is a scene full of actors, inhabiting an existential world, living adventures that give them a history, a bibliography, a personality, and a full repertoire of will, intention, and agency: “In one case (…) an eight-month-old female tried to feed her ten-month-old sister; the latter stood up, snatched the food out of her younger sister’s beak, forced her to crouch like one begging for food, and then stuffed the food down her throat. Once the younger bird had swallowed the food, the dominant sister pecked her until she fled. The frustrated younger sister then took another crumb and went to feed her subordinate younger brother, who was hunting quietly for food some thirty feet away (…) Babblers behave as though it was the act of giving, rather than the benefit given, that matters” (p. 138).
This conclusion is worthy of our attention: this is the actual question we are searching for in the field, the question that makes the perspective something other than simply a problem of point of view: for Zahavi, the right question to ask his animals, the question that produces interest is this very question: what matters to babblers?
A final babbler eccentricity will clearly illustrate this. They dance. Why does it matter?
Why do babblers dance?
The most impressive social activity of the babblers is the morning dance. It happens only once every several days and it takes place almost exclusively at the first light of the day. One of the babblers suddenly stops at a “suitable dancefloor” and starts preening himself nervously or sprawling with his throat touching the ground. Sometimes, there is no response, and there is no dance. But a second babbler may come and join together with the first, preening his own body. This is an invitation for others. The dancers form a line (sometimes a circle) and they press against each other, squeezing under and over and between their partners.
This dance has raised another controversy. This time, it involved another scientist we have already mentioned: Roni Osztreiher. According to Roni, babblers dance mostly in the spring and before the mating season. For him, it is clear that the dancers try to get at the center of the line formed by the dancers, by jumping over each other — his comrades try to prevent him/her from doing this by squeezing firmly with their body. According to Roni, the dance is used by the babblers to attest and assess their respective strengths: this a ritual that will determine each babbler’s rank in the hierarchy, and this is why it is done when coming out of the nest and just before mating time.
Zahavi, on the other hand, emphasizes the particular moment and the particular place chosen for the ritual: babblers dance in the open, near a bush, even though they could dance more safely under trees and they do it before sunrise. This is the most dangerous place and the most dangerous time of day: the danger from raptors is greatest, since they can exploit the low light and surprise the babblers with relative ease. This is also the best time for babblers to feed, since many night creatures are still active — termites, insects, … . According to Zahavi, this explains why babblers dance: they do it at the most inconvenient time and place because to undertake this is the most reliable way of showing their reliable commitment to their group. “The dancing of babblers,” Zahavi writes, “reminded us of stories our parents’ generation told about the dancing of members of pioneering kibbutzim in Israel in the earliest, most difficult and exhausting years: For months we had nothing to eat, but we danced all night…” (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997: 117).
Dancing is a way to test the quality of the relationship and to reassess it. Even dogs do this with their human partners. Large dogs like German shepherds, Zahavi explains, use their weight to test the bond with humans. “They approach and stand next to a visitor in a friendly manner, leaning against the visitor’s legs, gradually transferring more and more of their weight, until they are pushed off. How much of this treatment a visitor will take before pushing the dog off enables the animal to assess the visitor’s attitude toward it” (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997: 112). Once again, Zahavi’s style looks like that of a naturalist: socially sophisticated babblers are compared to bright dogs well equipped with agency, to explain how social animals invent creative ways to assess, to undertake and to reinforce the links they are entwined in.
The importance of a partnership to its members and the relationships between partners depend on many factors that can easily change, which makes frequent testing of the social bond essential (Zahavi, 1976:1). The testing not only assesses the bond and its reliability, it creates it. Rituals perform social links.
Mixing together in the same story babblers, human beings and dogs is not solely a practice similar to the amateur’s. It is an embodied practice that, I would suggest following Haraway’s analysis, recreates similarities between scientific and mundane practices, an embodied practice that redefines work with animals as companionship. Primatologist Barbara Smuts explains that she has been struck by the frequent enactments of brief greeting rituals, be it between the baboons she observed for years or between herself and her dog Bahati. Among baboons, both friends and non-friends greet one another all the time, “and,” Haraway comments, “who they are is in constant becoming in these rituals” (2008:26).The way Smuts construes ritual greetings — or the way her baboons enact them — is very similar to the way Zahavi and his babblers understand them. Haraway writes, “an embodied communication is more like a dance than a word. The flow of entangled meaningful bodies in time — whether jerky and nervous or flaming and flowing, whether both partners move in harmony or painfully out of synch or something else altogether — is communication about relationship, the relationship itself, and the means of reshaping relationship and so its enacters.”
Therefore, in dancing, babblers have literallyembodied the meaning of their rituals. And they appear closer and closer to the baboons who taught Smuts how to dance — as we will see — when we read her writing: “With language, it is possible to lie and say we like someone when we don’t. However, (…) closely interacting bodies tend to tell the truth”. “This is,” Haraway continues, “a very interesting definition of truth”. She is not referring to “the tired philosophical and linguistic arguments about whether dogs can lie, and if so, lie about lying. The truth or honesty of nonlinguistic embodied communication depends on looking back and greeting significant others, again and again (…) Rather, this truth telling is about (…) holding in esteem, and regard open to those who look back reciprocally. ” (2008:27).
With these words, I eventually found the question I could explore in laboratory practice. Might animals not only be seen seeing by the ethologists who observe them — as Derrida put it — but also be asked about their response to the asking? In other words, might ethologists think animals respond to them, might they take a position with regard to the situation that one proposes to them, and might they give an opinion about what is being asked? Eileen Crist (1997) is right when she says — anticipating Derrida’s criticism of Descartes — that the difference between response and reaction is not simply a matter of language : it structures the way we see animals as passive reacting beings — driven by instincts, motivations, evolutionary rules or genes — or as active beings who invent their own life, create, give meanings to events, anticipate, and I would add, who co-invent the practice of knowledge about themselves.
If I put it in another way, my question becomes more concrete: which kind of practices, theories, or ethologists could make that shift possible? Theories do not only affect what scientists think they should see, and therefore what they actually see: theories affect what they do, who they are, and therefore the way animals see their scientists seeing them; the way animals respond to their scientists[21]. Which kind of theories or practices could afford to take that into account?
Not surprisingly, we may find some answers to this question in primatology. Hans Kummer, for example, explained that he had succeeded in habituating his Hamadryas baboons in Ethiopia — after months and months of unsuccessful approaches — only when he was able to ask, and to answer, this very question: how do these baboons judge us? How do they see us? Similarly, Thelma Rowell considers that habituation is not due to the work of the scientist, but rather to the way animals perceive the very practical role of their observer. She told me in an interview that, when she was working with blue monkeys, she noticed that the eagles — which usually eat blue monkeys — were around overhead, “but,” she added, “if they look down, of course they have very good eyesight, they see a face looking up (Rowell shows the gesture of looking up with binoculars), which is very off-putting if you are thinking of catching a monkey. And then, they went and caught other monkeys, somewhere else. I think actually to the point is whether a reason why a monkey eventually got tamed was because in some sense they realized that, by allowing us to be with them, they were being protected from the eagles.” And then she concluded: “There is much more awareness than the people watching them are aware of.”
However, the clearest example in primatology is given by the analysis Donna Haraway offers on the work of Barbara Smuts — not so surprisingly if one remembers Haraway’s response to Derrida’s lack of acknowledgement of the few scientists who have been able to meet the gaze of animals. Smuts tells us that when she began her first fieldwork with baboons, she did exactly what she has been taught to do in order to habituate her animals to her presence: according to the conventions of objective knowledge, she was advised to be as neutral as possible, to be “like a rock, to be unavailable, so that eventually the baboons would go on about their business in nature as if data-collecting humankind were not present”. Haraway remarks that, in these kind of situations, scientists “could query but not be queried”: “people could ask if baboons are or are not social subjects, or ask anything else for that matter, without any ontological risk either to themselves, except maybe being bitten by an angry baboon or contracting a dire parasitic infection, or to their culture’s dominant epistemologies about what are named nature and culture.” Progress in habituation was painfully slow: the baboons frequently looked at Smuts, and the more she ignored their looks, the less satisfied they seemed. Ignoring social cues is far from neutral social behavior: “I imagine the baboons as seeing somebody off-category, not something,” Haraway writes, “and asking if that being were or were not educable to the standard of a polite guest”. (2008:24-25)
So the question that weighed most heavily in the field was probably not “Are the baboons social subjects?” but rather “Is the human being a social subject?”. And the answer was probably “No”. Do people have a face? The baboons would have had some doubts about it. The monkeys inquired whether the woman was a good social subject, whom one could understand and with whom one could have a relationship. Smuts therefore had to learn to be polite, in the ethical, political, and epistemological senses of the world. She learned to respond, to acknowledge, to look back, perhaps to greet. She learned to respect and to make this respect the core of her practice, the condition of learning.  And, as she tells us, her own being was transformed: “I… in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me, including the way I walked and sat, the way I held my body and the way I used my eyes and voice. I was learning a whole new way of being in the world — the way of baboons”. She explains that, having learned the way baboons express their emotions or intentions, she could respond to them and be understood. As a result, the baboons started to give her very deliberate dirty looks, which made her move away. This signaled a profound change: Smuts was not treated like an object (to avoid), but was recognized as a subject, a reliable subject with whom baboons could communicate, who would move away when told to do so, and with whom things could be clearly established.
Of course, this is primatology: a practice that deals with animals who can resist to a certain extent and who may have good reasons to resist this will to be “no-one” that would prevent any interaction. Baboons may have supposed we could do better than that in social matters — and we should acknowledge their perplexity in regard to us, and their lack of fear of “baboonomorphism”.
Might we, however, imagine that if babblers have become so interesting, this might be partly due to the fact that Zahavi takes into account the opinion babblers may have about the questions scientists address to them? In that case, in some way, Zahavi and the babblers may be said to be responding to each other, and to be acting according to the questioning and the response of the other. They would be making each other more responsive: Zahavi’s anthropological-like practice — meeting, feeding, “biographing” and calling his babblers — could for example explain the fact that babblers act so interestingly. They do more things. In other words, Zahavi’s practice with “his” babblers, if we draw the contrast with Jon’s babblers, gives those birds a greater chance to be interesting[22].
I do not have any clear evidence of that, and it might look like generous but candid speculation.
Among the hypotheses, we could first consider the peculiarity of Zahavi’s practice and suggest that Zahavi is undertaking with his babblers a hermeneutic approach grounded in common rationality; a kind of “If I were him/her” way of thinking. This of course might also be suspected of heavy anthropomorphism: instead of putting himself in the babblers’ shoes, Zahavi would actually be asking the birds to wear human shoes. The perspective would not be the babblers’ one, but would only reflect a human situated standpoint[23].
In addition, since Zahavi calls the babblers, “invites them” and offers presents to them, I could suggest that each encounter in the field actually looks like a request: “Come and show me what you can do” — as if babblers were actively being requested to cooperate — when Zahavi says that babblers give help to the experimenter, isn’t he himself suggesting this hypothesis?
However, these two hypotheses miss something that Smuts did not miss: she was able to acknowledge the hard work the baboons did to obtain from her a response to them. With my two hypotheses, babblers are not seriously involved in the change. How can we formulate that from the babblers’ perspective? A consideration of the theoretical framework could help us to find a more polite way to assess both the perspective of the babblers and their active interest in the research. This framework may be construed as being, in some way, similar to the device that made Alex, the parrot, talk; it meets the animal’s interest.
The hypothesis could be formulated in two ways. First let us take the babblers’ perspective. Because babblers are so fond of exhibition, and because scientists, thanks to Zahavi’s signal theory, are looking for babblers to exhibit, babblers are “requested” to do what they do “well” and what they feel at ease in doing. Babblers, then, might be more sensitive to being seen and to seeing who is seeing them, since scientists are responsive to what they do. That is why the birds come so easily when Zahavi calls them. It is as if he is saying to them “Come, babblers, and show me”. Of course, there are crumbs of bread. Saying that makes me think that the behaviorist’s animals are still the only animals we deal with. Behaviorists made us forget that to give is a relationship per se, and I think that, sadly, they succeeded in making starving animals (artificially starving animals) the norm — as if animals were only interested in food. Might the babblers be construing Zahavi’s offer as a greeting? Do they greet the scientist? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I strongly affirm that Zahavi is clearly greeting his babblers. And he does that with a present, with his body when he tends his hand, with his gaze, with his voice. And babblers do understand that the question of prestige is not at stake between them — if one remembers that they eagerly accept food from their scientists after having resisted a congener’s offer.
Let us now take the second perspective, that of Zahavi. I might suggest that because Zahavi is so interested in display, because his theory is almost entirely grounded in exhibition, he has had many more chances to assume that the babblers were responding to the scientist who was interacting with them. I have noticed, in my own recent research (Despret & Porcher, 2007) with farm breeders, that animals taken to participate in contests or exhibitions are very responsive, and that breeders are as acutely sensitive to the way animals may be self-conscious as they are prone to credit their animals with a clear consciousness of what is at stake: “When cows go to contest, they know they are beautiful”, they “pose for the camera and know exactly that they are seen”,“they are proud”,… . The same may be said about trainers and their dogs. And the same happiness transpires.
This hypothesis delights me particularly. Not so much because it talks about happiness, rather because it gives a new meaning, a new constructivist and non-relativist translation, to that famous and rather tired assertion: the behavior of animals is the product of the observer’s vision.
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[1] See the work of Irene Pepperberg (1995).
[2] Bernd Heinrich (2001) writes that his mentor advised him not to work with ravens, because they are, as he said, too clever for scientists: ravens screw up their data— as soon you have a theory about them, they behave otherwise 2001). About “recalcitrant” objects as being what scientists working with living beings should search for, see both works of Isabelle Stengers (1993) and Bruno Latour (1999).
[3] So, what the cat’s curves (raising and falling) let us discern is not the cat’s power of deliberation about a given task (as assumed by psychologists likeThorndike), but the power of deliberation about the demands about this given task. See below.
[4] See Ian Parker (2000) and his survey of Milgram’s subjects forty years later. Why did they do that — giving electric shocks to other persons, in a so-called (and fake) test improving learningship?
[5] The title of her book When species meet, sums up Haraway’s approach to human relationships with animals. She talks of “becoming worldly” through “becoming with” other species, saying that humans are transformed in their encounters with members of other species, as well as are animals with humans.
[6] See Haraway (ibid) who says that in animal’s welfare researches, objective answers can only be found if one is curious and one cares, p.337, note 27.
[7] But see Crespi for another and more convincing counterevidence. In 1942, Crespi reported that rats for which the quantity of reward has just been increased run faster than do rats having always received the large quantity food reward. He talked about “elation” for this positive contrast and about  “deception” for a negative one (less food reward).
[8] See Eileen Crist (2000) for a very an illuminating contrast.
[9] « Stockmanship and Farm animal Welfare », p. 9 of the manuscript.
[10] See Derrida’s critics about two kinds of representations, one set from those who observe animals but are never seeing themselves being seen, and even if they were inadvertently, did not take that into account — “they never meet their gaze”— and the other set who engages animals only as literary or mythological figures. What I am doing here, in someway, follows and tries to continue Haraway comments on Derrida (2008:20-21): « For those readings I and my people are permanently his debt. But with his cat, Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what a cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning ». Nor was he curious of the work of some primatologists who actually met the gaze of their animals, and « in response undone and redone themselves and their sciences ».
[11] We are here reminded Pemberton’s (quoted by Haraway, 2008: 59) suggesting that « we cannot understand how scientists discipline their experimental organisms without understanding how these organisms also discipline scientists, forcing them to care ».
[12] My Psychological thesis (1991) was about altruistic behaviors in birds. So, I had some ideas about what one could expect from “average” altruistic birds.
[13] Interestingly, Zahavi’s style (and the stories he tells) is exactly the same in his scientific papers (from 1975) and in his book. Even in seminar Zahavi was considered as an eccentric, sometimes making his colleagues very nervous, sometimes enjoying them (like Thelma Rowell who told me that when Zahavi was attending at a meeting as orator she would not miss it, it was always amusing).
[14] In his earlier papers, Zahavi did not talk about prestige but about « status »: status, he explained, was different from hierarchy and was gained through altruistic actions. The term prestige appeared in the 1997 book. We may find some very similar intuitions about ravens in the work of Bernd Heinrich.
[15] Thelma Rowell makes similar hypothesis about fighting in sheep. « I think, she says, that one of the functions of the fighting is coordination, or the result of fighting is coordination. The females take a keen interest to the fight. When you are doing this ( T.R. hits her hands loudly) it makes a lovely loud noise. And if somebody is fighting here, the ewes will come running to watch. And so I said, all right, let us say that it is not a fight, this is a display. How could a sheep make a loud noise by himself? It is a sound one-hand clapping, you can’t do it, but with 2 of them, you make a spectacular noise and the visual display. And it is very exiting to the ewes, and they all coming and eat together, and then, it’s all over” (My interview, June 2003).
[16] This theory is called the « Handicap Principle theory ». (Zahavi,1975). Zahavi explains that, for example, you may find the rule of honesty in the encounter between a predator and its prey when the latter apparently seems to warn its congeneres. « Why does a gazelle reveal itself to a predator that might not spot it? Why does it waste time and energy jumping up and down (stotting) instead of running away as fast as it can? The gazelle is signaling to the predator that it has seen it; by « wasting » time and by jumping high in the air rather than bounding away, it demonstrates in a reliable way that it is able to outrun the wolf. The wolf, upon learning that it has lost its chance to surprise its prey, and that this gazelle in in tip-top physical shape (…) may decide to look for more promising prey ». (Zahavi and Zahavi, 1997:xvi).
[17] But see Marion Thomas for a more radical criticism.
[18] See Crist, who talks about a descriptive style characterized as « frequency-laden », (1999:148).
[19] Of course, I would not deny that Zahavi’s model is sometimes as despotic — as it aims to explain all behaviors or all strange behaviors— as others are. But this model seem to work case by case, taking each time other paths, other motivations, other experiences, in sum, other « details ».
[20] If babblers are actually as subtle as human observers all suspect, the « no differences » hypothesis between group might deserve a full anthology of explanations.
[21] See for a first formulation of that in Despret (2006) « Sheep do have Opinions« .
[22] See about giving a chance Latour, B. (2002).
[23] It was one of the suspicion that lead my first analysis, for example, when I heard Zahavi telling me that babblers had to solve the same problem than pioneers of first Kibbutz: how to solve the dilemma between the necessity of cooperation and the need to compete? Competing to cooperate (and to enhance each own status) would have been the solution for the kibbutz, he then said. But the world has changed and has enlarged, and people are not satisfied anymore with local prestige.
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