We are lucky

Some members of my family probably still don’t believe that, but well: you can now make livng out of studying animal behavior. There is a non-zero chance that you will get funding for your research on social behavior of mice, song development of songbirds or decision making in sponges.

What is more, studying behavior is becoming popular – even those very clever guys who study brains finally admited that behavior might be actually quite interesting for them as well; moreover, behavior nowadays does not mean hungry rats running trough plexi mazes that are not in fact mazes – thanks to even more clever people with computational background, we are able to quantify behaviors in a much more precise and complex way – and it seems that soon we will be able to study behavior of animals in their natural environment, just like some people claimed recently (albeit it seems so sci-fi scenario, some other people claim that the idea is much older; well, decide by yourself).

But before you will pack your instruments and go to Australia to study neurobiology of koala’s sleep, please take a while to recall the harsh history of our trade. Józef Piłsudski, one of the fathers of Polish independence and a grandfather of its fall, said once that the nation that forgets about its history is doomed. And the history of our field is full of misery.

Wallace Craig, from Burkhardt and Burkhardt , 2018

Take Wallace Craig as an example. If your knowledge of ethology is limited to some textbook cliches, you might think that the first person who ever attemted to study instincts was a friendly – looking Nazi that liked to be followed by geese. This is obviously not true; and Craig was one of the persons who came before. He was a student of Charles Otis Williams, another important guy that you most probably don’t know. Craig started his career as a zoologist, yet soon observed that his manual skills were too deficient for a work that required a lot of manual operations. He proceeded to study behavior of pigeons in it’s entirety – from sexual behavior to vocalizations.

He authored a famous paper in which he made an important distinction between apetitive and consumative behavior and criticized tha claim according to which instinctive behaviors are composed of series of chain reflexs. His theories were an important influence for Lorenz.

But his career was a harsh one. At some point he was unable to get a funding for his research; he had to devise a strategy that would allow him to satisfy his research interests and not to die of hunger. Idea was simply – animals whose behavior is intreresting are sometimes also edible. As he wrote to his friend:

“We must keep hens; while I watch their behavior we can eat their eggs, and
later we can put the specimens themselves in the pot. I must keep
large pigeons as well as doves; we can eat the squabs.”

If you ever played Stardew Valley during your PhD, you know that farming and research are very hard to combine. After a short time Craig wrote again:

“Probably I could maintain a bird farm and make it pay, but it would take every minute of my time […] and I am, after all, more in need of time than I am of money.”

William Craig to C. Adams (Burkhardt, 2005)

He was very unlucky. At some point his main occupations were teaching and studying pigeon vocalizations. Both of them turned out to be impossible to conduct after he started to become deaf. He left the University of Maine in 1922 and died in obscurity in 1954.

His work was immortalized by its incorporation in Lorenz’s theory. What is interesting, Craig himself managed to immortalize an object of his study, a passenger pigeon. This bird, whose population is estimated to reach billions of specimens (historical accounts depict flocks of passenger pigeons so big that their flight over the town was taking a week) got extinct in 1914; the reason being an excessive hunting that should be most accurately described as a massacre. Craig was studying its calls and produced a note transcription of a pigeon’s vocalizations that you might use to recreate the voice of something that do not exist anymore, a feeling similar to one you might have during listening to those reconstructions of ancient greek music that are so unpleasant to listen.

Note description of a passenger pigeon calls, by Wallace Craig (Wikipedia)

Well, it seems that we are now in a much better position, right? No need to eat your rats; grant agencies will be happy to ensure your survival while you spend your precious time doing research. You are no longer a part of obscure community; neuroscience needs you.

You can now pack your neuropixels, openEphys boxes, hard drives full of open software and go to study your koalas in the wild. Or can you?

Well, it is definitely worth it. You will probably join Wallace Craig and the growing group of scientists whose object of studies became extinct. But in one hundred years your recording of koala’s brain activity might be for next generation just like the notes above: a proof that something you know only from drawings or museum specimens was someday alive and behaving.

Bibliography

Burghardt, G. M., & Burkhardt, R. W. (2018). Wallace Craig’s Appetites and Aversions as Constituents of Instincts: A Centennial appreciation. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 132(4), 361–372. https://doi.org/10.1037/com0000155

Burkhardt, R. W., Jr. (2005). Patterns of behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the founding of ethology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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