hjmartin (hatch@RICHMOND.INFI.NET)
Thu, 25 Jul 1996 17:02:05 -0400

Adrian Tanner sent a thoughtful reply to my original post on gorilla
altruism. My post was, to paraphrase it, that " aspect of
sociobiological explanations of non-human behavior that has always disturbed
me deeply is the attribution of motivation and intentionality in the absence
of verifiable understanding." I went on to say that "[Such] explanations are
equally uniformative and equally suspect, to me. What the...motives were,
or even if they have motives, I cannot know. What they intended, and
whether they have intentions, is likewise obscure.

In the course of the reply, Tanner made several points that I think are
useful. First, she (he?, sorry, I don't now know) wrote " the
situation of knowing another's motivation all that much different when we
turn to members of the human species, of whom we are able to make verbally

True enough. Evidence supporting this thought is readily at hand in
methodological texts that discuss designing survey questions. Those who
make a living surveying are constantly confronted with twin difficulties:
Designing a question that is understandable in only one way and (this is
important) determining that respondents are indeed answering on the basis of
that, and not some other, understanding. If it sounds Byzantine, well, it
is. But, the point here is that inter-personal communication in highly
controlled contexts with minute attention paid to the meaning of concepts in
both question and answer does not necessarily result in complete
understanding; it may result in decreased, in the statistical sense,
sampling error if some measurement showing increased homogeneity of
understanding is made. This is a conclusion based on communication among
members of one society who are communicating about highly restricted
subjects in an often formal setting.

Anthropologists have a much harder task than pollsters, it seems to me. (My
comments are not a slap at people who need to design & use surveys; having
taken the time to read & think about questionnaire-based survey methods, I
recognize that the job is not simple and is, in fact, fraught with
considerable epistemological difficulty). Sociobiologists have an even
harder row to hoe.

Adrian Tanner also comments on the role of the observer (judge, market
researcher, ethnographer, scientist): "In legal cases, for instance,
judgments are routinely made in which a person's motivation is judged to
have been quite different than the one which the person verbally presented
to the court."

Again, true enough, and her (I have decided that she is she) remark can
stand in quite well for a lengthy argument depicting any activity in which a
person decides what is what. The CCP dictum, seek truth from facts, does
not sound so extraordinary anymore. The keys here, I think, are education,
evidence and judgment. (I will not get into the postmodern debate about
privilege, authority and description; somebody else can do that.) The point
Adrian is making is that we, as observers, desire to collect a variety of
information before making a decision about what is. We also desire to make
the decision. Also: the decision may be that some of the evidence is false,
that contradictory information does not count, and that the explanation
flies in the face of reason. No big deal here; science, art and religion
all advance along this same front. But I drift. Back to Adrian's post.

Why does attributing motivation and intention to the healthy gorillas in the
original example make me uneasy? Because I can't ask the gorillas myself.
I cannot communicate with them in any meaningful sense. I cannot understand
their 'native' (forgive me) categories because I cannot speak their
language. What evidence I can gather is mute. Further, I think that,
outside of the carefully humanized conditions in which (pet? domesticated?)
gorillas are trained to abstract and communicate such human concepts as
'yellow' (as one person on the list, possibly R. Kephart, noted), a natural
gorilla language that functions like human language does not exist. Or one
that we can understand, at least. Discovering such a language would be a
marvel; learning to use it would be astounding. Actually communicating with
it would, truly, cause a revolution in the way we, as humans, think about
our world and its inhabitants. But none of this has happened. And playing
god, teaching gorillas to 'realize their potential' by teaching a few
captives a simple symbol system, does not count as a revolutionary act.

Adrian's last point comes in the form of a question. It is a good one. She
writes: "Why cannot the concept of motivation be applied where a supporting
subjective verbal account is lacking? /.../ I would be interested to know if
you feel there is some other reason (that is, apart from verbal inability)
why we cannot attribute motivation to animals?"
Yes, I have another reason. It is not simple and I will probably make a
mudpie of an argument (thanks to Daniel Foss for this great image) but here
Experimental sciences simplify and strive to control all except for very,
very carefully selected conditions. This method is carried out, as we all
know, so that something simple --an effect or a condition that changes or
does not change-- can be observed. Threading simple effects in chains
(causal, and in time), pairing them, grouping them in multiples and in
larger (statistical) aggregates also occurs, but the experimentalist
resembles a philosophical essentialist, at least as far as the observed
effect is concerned. It is the effect and its place in the pattern which
defines the moment.

I cannot see what essential altruism (or motive or intent) would be and,
frankly, am uncomfortable in the essential world.

Natural (observational) sciences, beyond their duty to collect butterflies
(somebody has to do it, you know?), offer a different method: observation
of functioning systems. Think of astronomy. Think of the voyage of the
Beagle. (I ignore the tangles of quasi-experiments done in natural systems
that occur in such disciplines as epidemiology and population genetics).
Observing a behavior and recording it in the memory or on a rock face or on
paper, film, tape or floppy is the easy part. On the face of it, a complete
observation seems to require nothing more than the act and the record.
However, I believe that observing motive and intent is harder than this.
This is so because what motive and intent are must be understood, defined,
idealized or, dread the word, essentialized before the pattern can be
elicited from the observation. But this, to me, is a specific instance of
(Kuhn's? Toulmin's? Chaney's?) felicitous phrase "Seeing is a theory-laden
undertaking." Unless I can obtain a sense of what a gorilla would mean by
motive or intent, I am at a loss and cannot decide on the basis of my
observation, my evidence, that what I have observed is, in fact, behavior
that is motivated or intended. If I grant that gorilla motives and intents
exist and inform (to use a cute little academic word) behaviors, I am still
not in a position to state that the motive is altruism or revenge
or...whatever. In spite of all of the observed evidence, I cannot define
gorilla motives in human terms. Anthropomorphizing, it seems to me,
violates the gorillity of the behavior. Yet I know that we (Adrian and I)
anthropomorphize with merry abandon when we give a pet a human name like
Pete (basset hound) or Terrible-Tempered Mrs. Bangs (black cat) or Sugar
(big sweet bay) or Penny (nasty copper Shetland); favored animals live in a
social world we happily construct for them.

I suppose, finally, that we could define motive and intent in a formally
operationalized way. Doing this, as sociobiologists seem to do when they
'generate' a mathematical/genetic definition of such good words, is fine
functionalism but is also an example of rampant reduction (one of my
teachers called this practice dust-bowl empiricism - always liked the phrase
& use it whenever I can). An ambiguous social construct is rendered as a
rigid biological sentence. Despite their great utility, especially in
helping to think about complex ideas, operationalized concepts consist of
parts that are less than the whole. They have a place in description but do
not travel well. Gorilla motives & intents (behaviors that fit the
operational definitions) can be inferred, I am sure, but I think that the
parts cannot be reassembled and transported to the human world. The
reduction does the idea in, it's done for, in my mind, and the inference is
thus not convincing.

That's it. That's my mudpie. Thanks for the opportunity, Adrian.


Jim Martin
Richmond, VA
(804) 740-0170 (H)
(804) 786-5188 (O)