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.

Culture and Gender do not Dissolve into how Scientists “read” Nature: Thelma Rowell’s Heterodoxy

Culture and Gender do not Dissolve into how Scientists “read” Nature:
Thelma Rowell’s Heterodoxy
Vinciane Despret
Published in O. Hartman et M. Friedrich, eds. Rebels of Life. Iconoclastic Biologists in the Twentieth Century.(2008) New Haven : Yale University Press, pp. 340-355.
Rebel Animals
“The males of nearly every social primate play a special role in challenging predators, particularly if an infant is threatened”, primatologist Alison Jolly wrote in her 1972 book The Evolution of Primate Behavior.  More precisely, “defense seems to be a male role throughout at least the monkeys and apes. Furthermore it may be concentrated among the dominant males, as in macaque troops, or even be the clearest sign of dominance, in the cebus monkey(…). When a savanna-living baboon troop encounters a big cat, it may retreat in battle formation, females and juveniles first, the big males with their formidable canines last, interposed between the troop and the danger.” This beautiful pattern, however, Jolly concluded, has one exception: “Rowell’s forest-edge baboons simply run away to the safety of the trees, each at his own speed, which means strongest males first and females and infants lumbering at the rear.”[1] In the case of these baboons, as Thelma Rowell herself later states, there was no heroism going on at all.[2]
Jolly mentions also that among Rowell’s baboons, young male infants get more attention from the males than do young females, a fact that has never been described in any other baboons.[3] But the strangest thing comes out when Jolly compares the social behavior of these baboons with those that have hitherto been observed in all studies. 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.”[4]

Sheep do have opinions

“Sheep do have opinions
Vinciane Despret
Article publié dans B. Latour et P. Weibel (éd.), Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy (2006), Cambridge (USA) : M.I.T. Press, pp. 360-370. 
For the past few years the inhabitants of a hamlet on the outskirts of the village of Ingleton in Yorkshire, England, have been witnessing a strange exercise every morning. A woman, said to have been one of the most renowned primatologists in the English-speaking world, spends her day in a field in front of her house, observing animals that she has put there. As she did during her many years of field work in Africa studying apes, primatologist Thelma Rowell patiently notes all the movements, anecdotes and tiny events making up the daily social life of the animals to which she is currently devoting her time. Admittedly, these animals are different to the ones she was used to spending time with: the relations are not characterized by the same intensity, the behaviors are peculiar to the species, the communication does not always pass by the same channels, and the events seem to take place at another pace. But as far as their social expertise is concerned, these animals are certainly on a par with apes. To put it simply, they are organized – so much so, in fact, that they warrant the title recently awarded to dolphins, hyenas and elephants, of “honorary primate”, even though they have no link with apes. These “honorary primates” that have become so fascinating since Thelma Rowell started questioning them, are sheep. And, owing to the scientists’ patient work, these sheep have changed considerably.

The body we care for. Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis

The body we care for
Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis
Vinciane Despret[1]
Published in 2004, In M. Akrich et M. Berg, (éds.) Body and Society. Special Issue on « Bodies on Trial ». Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi). Vol. 10 (2-3) : 111-134.
What really exists is not things made but things in the making.
William James[2].
One morning of September 1904, in Berlin, thirteen gentlemen belonging to different spheres of social life, came together in a courtyard in Griebenow street, in the north of the town, to work together. They had never worked together before. Some of them had never even met. One of them was director of the Institute of psychology, Professor Stumpf; another was director of the local zoo, Dr. Heck. Mr. Hahn was teacher at the Municipal school; Dr. Miessner was veterinarian; one of the gentlemen was a Major retired from the army; another was an aristocrat. Paul Busch was simply a circus-manager. The courtyard they were working in belonged to another citizen, Mr. von Osten, a former teacher of mathematics at the Berlin Gymnasium. This gentleman was also present at the meeting. Throughout the day, all these persons asked questions to one of the famous pupils of this time, the pupil of Mr. von Osten, Hans. They asked him to solve multiplication and division problems, and to extract square roots. Hans was also requested to spell words and, among other tests, to discriminate colors or tones and intervals in music. Not only did Hans answer with good will, but he also answered most of the questions correctly. He was around 4 years old. However, the most astonishing fact was not his young age. Hans answered questions by tapping his right foot on the floor. Hans was a horse.

Responding and suffering bodies in human-animal worlds

Responding and suffering bodies in human-animal worlds
By Vinciane Despret



Skin and gut the mice, but do not remove the heads; wash then place in a pot with enough alcohol to cover the carcasses. Allow to marinate for about two hours. Cut sowbelly into small cubes and fry slowly until most of the fat has been rendered. Now remove the carcasses from the alcohol and roll them in a mixture of salt, pepper and flour; then place in a frying pane and sauté for about five minutes (being careful not to allow the pan to get too hot, or the delicate meat will dry out and become tough and stringy). Now add a cup of alcohol and six or eight cloves. Cover the pan and allow to simmer slowly for fifteen minutes. The cream sauce can be made according to any standard recipe”.[1]