Classic National Geographic… yikes….

18 01 2007

Tonight was the first recitation for my Behavioral Biology course, during which time the class watched Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, which recounted the 5 years Dr. Goodall spent in Gombe studying the chimpanzees there. I had heard plenty about Jane Goodall during the course of my life (I’ve yet to read any of her books or research; it’s on my to-do list), her and Diane Fossey held up at the two paragons of virtue in behavioral studies, but while watching the film I was struck at how irresponsible some of Dr. Goodall’s interactions with her subjects were. The documentary as a whole was rather shoddy, clearly a re-enactment and not actual footage of Dr. Goodall’s research, and I even spied a faked behavior in the film; a leopard yawning in a tree was made to be roaring madly towards the beginning of the film, but anyone who owns a cat knows the difference between a yawn and a snarl. I also took issue with the narration and musical cues used in the film, put in to elicit “awwws” or laughs during certain showings of behavior by the chimps, aggressive displays made during a rain storm described as a “rain dance.” Ugh.

Back to the point. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is most often discussed in terms of physics (or it’s misunderstood popular incarnations), stating that there is a mathematical limit to accuracy to what can be measured in a physical system. Although physics and behavioral biology are not the same by any means, I believe there is a similarity in that it is impossible to take into account everything needed to know to describe behavior with unlimited precision, past events, thoughts, genetics, unseen stimuli, and other variables that may not even be considered can affect research. This isn’t to say such behavioral studies are worthless (if they were, I would have essentially just convinced myself to pick a new area of research), but it’s important to account for such things and not underestimate what can change observed data. This can be paired with the “Observer Effect” (different from the Uncertainty Principle) whereby merely observing anything changes it to greater or lesser degrees, adding to the natural variations that we cannot account for. While many biologist go out into the field, we are not like ghosts, unable to influence our surroundings. No, we leave footprints, our scent carries on the wind, our presence disturbs various creatures and is the causation for behavior (regardless of whether it’s being studied or not) and such considerations should be taken into account when studying in the field. Be that as it may, we are not to simply throw our hands up and not study nature, but we would do well to consider as many factors as we can for the reasons of honesty, accuracy, and possible later illumination (perhaps that deer you scared out of the bush ran into the path of a tiger, giving it a meal it may not otherwise have had). Dr. Goodall’s work falls within these parameters for the first 1/2 of the documentary, but her desire to get close to the chimpanzees unsettled me a bit. Yes, she did make some amazing discoveries about chimpanzees diet, tool use, and social behavior, but when she was done were the animals still truly wild?

The documentary makes sure to show us Dr. Goodall playing around with her subjects, even stating that her behavior is possibly endangering herself (chimps are quite strong, and if they realize they’re stronger than you it can mean trouble if they find reason to be aggressive), but the sequence involving the bananas disturbed me most. The chimps come into the camp, whereby one is given a banana, and you know what that means; all the rest must have their own. As the narrator (Orson Wells, if I’m correct) points out, it’s a “banana orgy,” with chimps stuffing as many bananas as can fit into their mouths. It’s important to note here that the bananas given to the chimps are not found in Gombe, nor are they natural (bananas as seen in the supermarket were actually created by man, the natural fruit being quite disgusting on various levels), and the rucus caused by their delight soon attracts the more numerous baboons. I have not heard of chimps fighting with baboons previously (a good search came up with nothing so far), but the baboons want bananas as well and fight the chimps for a share, thus showing that Dr. Goodall created as unnatural a situation as there could possibly be.

I do not wish to be too rigid or uptight about Dr. Goodall’s work, and as I said before she made some wonderful observations, but I am concerned with the current state of wildlife conservation/ethology where the prevailing desire can be interaction rather than observation. Even darting and radio-collaring animals to track is altering their behavior (and probably the behavior exhibited to them by other animals), but we keep telling ourselves that these creatures are no less wild than those untouched. It is true that, like surgery, we must be somewhat invasive if we are to save our “patients” but it would at least be nice if the researcher’s effects on the subjects was taken into account and new methods developed that allowed animals to live more natural lives, rather than experiencing what to them might seem like an alien abduction (“I was chasing this gazelle, see, when there was this pain in my butt and these two weird things started poking me… I couldn’t move or anything and when I could I had this stupid heavy thing around my neck…”). Such is anthromorphosizing the animals a bit, but the point is the same; we should strive for objectivity and admit when it is not possible or may be compromised.


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