Methodological Mind Games: Is Behaviorism Ever Valid ?

The year is 1905 and you are sitting in a Swiss patent office, restlessly waiting to learn if your first electromagnetic contraption has finally been awarded copyright. The patience-o-meter situated in your pre-frontal cortex is running precariously low as you enter the third consecutive hour of waiting. Rather than assist you, the young man behind the counter has fully devoted himself to contemplating the new issue of Annalen der Physik, a scientific journal dedicated to publishing the latest and greatest research in physics. Aside from occasionally muttering to himself, the patent clerk’s only discernible behaviors are his automatic ones—breathing, twitching, blinking, etc.  The office is deafeningly silent, the sole noise you detect is a mish-mosh of idle chatter and tip-tapping from outside. Suddenly and horrifyingly, the clerk jumps up and erupts in joy, exclaiming something to the effect of “I understand everything now!” and “it’s all so vivid and clear!”


Albert Einstein; One of the Greatest Minds of Our Time

You would find out years later that the young man’s last name was Einstein, and without so much as a behavioral rustle, that patent clerk forever changed the way we understand the universe. The above story is unabashedly fictitious, yet it is almost self-evident that we cannot always infer an animal’s mental state from its behavior. Why do we not extend the same cautiousness and skepticism to non-human creatures (hereafter referred to as ‘animals’ for simplicity) when conducting scientific research? In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to justify behaviorism in animal research using a mix of pre-existing concepts and a few original ideas. I conclude with a remark on how science is really being done today, with a neat example from the world of marine biology.

Occam’s Razor in Animal Research:

“How can they just make that assumption, what if I don’t behave that way?” We misfortunate few who have had to withstand the soul-crushing tedium of introductory economics and psychology courses know this quibble well. Scientists make simplifying assumptions all the time, sometimes they are bewilderingly wrong (for example in the case of decision theory, briefly mentioned in my previous article) and other times calling them useful is a gross understatement.


William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey.

But what about in the study wild animals? In the case of bestial research, is it reasonable to assume that two organisms separated by a relatively small distance on the phylogenetic tree should have similar mental processes? This assumption, expounded and coined by Dutch primatologist Frans de Wall, is called evolutionary parsimony; and, as the heading of this paragraph states, it is a prototypical instance of Occam’s razor.  Without explicit saying so, virtually all animal researchers agree with and apply this assumption in their day-to-day work. Bypassing the messiness of rigor, it enables them to take up a behaviorist approach to animal psychology—one which has been all but obliterated from the study of the human mind.

Behaviorists traditionally argue, in backlash to the mentalist movement of the early twentieth century, that the mind’s mysteries can be revealed only by observing the attached organism’s behavior. As we saw in the introductory paragraph, someone watching Einstein work through his famous papers would not have been able to deduce what he was thinking—but is this rejection of behaviorism in human psychology valid for animal research?

A Philosophical Proposition:

I posit that, in the case of wild animal research, behaviorism is justified and sometimes necessary. In order to defend this claim, I should like to present three main points: First, when dealing with animals, the extent to which we can apply the principle of parsimony is inversely proportional to the amount of evolutionary development separating us. In other words, it is rational to assume that if a closely related animal (such as a chimp or bonobo) is exhibiting a behavior reminiscent of one of our own, it is for reasons psychologically similar to our own. This is essentially the view held by Frans de Waal.

Second, the reason wildlife research has achieved any success is because we humans, the ones conducting the research, have a theory of mind, i.e. an understanding that other humans and creatures have minds independent of ours, and that we do not take a behaviorist approach to studying our own psychology. This is really the crux of my argument: the observation that at some point down the logical trail between connecting animal and human psychology, the mind is not being explained in behaviorist terms. I call this methodology, which, as mentioned earlier, is being unknowingly applied throughout the field of animal research, indirect behaviorism. I define it as follows: If organism A ( shortened oA) is a close evolutionary relative of organism B (shortened oB), and the species to which oA belongs has a theory of mind and studies its own psychology through cognition rather than behavior, then it is reasonable for oA to infer oB‘s mental states from its behavior (by comparing oB‘s behavior to its own).

Third, for animals evolutionarily far removed from humans, we can apply the fact that there exist a few ‘base’ behaviors (such as certain aversive behaviors) which all animals exhibit. These behaviors are in accordance with the gene centered view of self-preservation. For example: while the physiological mechanisms underlying escape might be different, both octopuses and humans show an aversion to being harmed; and from the mighty blue whale to the modest amoeba, all animals have to receive a steady intake of food to survive. On the basis of these two facts, it is rational to assume that all organisms feel hunger and something like fear, broadly defined.

Of course, the problem here is: what do I mean by fear and hunger? Surely an amoeba or a lobster doesn’t regret not kissing its lover one last time, like we do, before being obliterated? An octopus doesn’t lust for and relish the suckered-touch of its mate, does it? This is actually one of the foremost problems of philosophy today, and for a multifaceted and piercing insight into the issue, I highly recommend the late David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster”.

A Cool Innovation and Concluding Thoughts:

All this talk about methodology and the limits of behaviorism, while interesting, does not accurately reflect how real scientific research is conducted. The methods of old are never sufficient to solve the problems of new. Each passing day, scientists from different and unexpected fields are developing more clever means by which we can explore the world. Most laypeople are aware of humanity’s great engineering and physics achievements (i.e space shuttle launches, deep field radio telescopes, quantum mechanics, special and general relativity etc etc,) but what about a more modest example, say, in a field like dolphin research?

Dolphin w Fish

In the mid-90’s graduate student Kathleen Dudzinski was filming dolphins in the Bahamas for her PhD. Her entire dissertation was about trying to match dolphin noises (squawks, squeaks and squeals) with their movements and general behavior, in an attempt to extract some meaning from their ‘language’. But because sound travels 4.5x faster in water than in air, her audio-analysis system could not precisely pinpoint which dolphin was making what noise in her videos. What does the speed of sound have to do with anything, you might ask? Well, have you ever wondered how we humans are able to know precisely which direction a noise is coming from on land, and turn our heads toward the source in a split-second? To find out the answer, imagine a slow-motion sound wave traveling directly towards the right side of your head. Part of the wave ‘goes inside’ your right ear, vibrating your eardrum, while the ‘rest’ of the wave wraps around your head into your left ear, where it hits the other eardrum. The time is takes between the right-eardrum vibration and the left-eardrum vibration, along with the ‘pre-programmed’ knowledge of the speed of sound through air, is used by the brain to locate exactly where the sound source is. That is one of the reasons why underwater dolphin encounters are so disorienting for most people, the sounds they produce seem to come from everywhere at once—our slow processing brains are only used to the speed of sound being 343 m/s, and not 1500 m/s. Old under-water audio equipment (hydrophones) reflects our own shortcomings.

The ingenious and simple solution proposed by Kathleen’s PhD adviser, Bernd Wursig, was to take the average human ear span, multiply it by 4.5, and put the hydrophones that far apart. This amounted to an overall stereo separation of about three feet. Their rig (which cost under $2000) worked seamlessly, and allowed Kathleen to earn her PhD in Marine Biology.

The point of this story is that research isn’t done by following some kind of instruction manual (although according to an extremely reliable source this author has in California, some scientists are indeed blind technicians —even the ones working at top-notch universities). Science is done by complicated and fallible human beings, always developing new instruments, constantly making more accurate measurements, pointing out uncertainties and error margins in those measurements, and ultimately finding patterns where none are obvious.

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