I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my background is in science, so I thought I’d start a series of occasional postings on the sciences I’ve studied. This first posting is on ethology, a discipline I started reading informally, before doing a course in which it was one of the components. I relied heavily on the inter-library loan services of my local public library to track down the books I needed, and they were wonderful.
I’ve always been interested in the natural world, in the plants, animals and landscapes which we encounter all the time. In the 1960s I became interested in human evolution, in the discoveries the Leakeys were making in Olduvai, and in the way our ancestors may have lived. I read Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, which was a personal inquiry into human origins and the possible behaviour of our ancestors. The reading list in the back of the book, and in Ardrey’s later work, The Territorial Imperative, were invaluable starting points. The more popular books by Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey were fascinating, and they led me to read the more scientific studies which had started to be published. George B Schaller’s The Mountain Gorilla; ecology and behavior (1962) was one of the first of these, and I followed that up by reading textbooks on chimpanzee, orang-utan and lemur behaviour. Ethology as a scientific discipline was developed by Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and others. The approach made a lot of sense to me; I could see examples of displacement activity in gulls, for example. Two equally matched gulls might take out their aggression on tufts of grass rather than on each other. I’ve seen that. Observations of natural behaviour in the wild lead to insights into the functions of behaviour.
My reading widened, to take in other species and ecosystems. I followed George Schaller’s work in particular. His studies on Indian wildlife (The deer and the tiger), predator-prey interactions (The Serengeti lion), and the later work, Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe, was a book I read before visiting Tibet. I saw the wild ass (kiang), Tibetan gazelle, sand fox and raptors from the train window between Qinghai and Lhasa. Schaller’s Nepal Himalaya research was on the bharal sheep, in an attempt to use behavioural clues to unravel the tangled phylogenetics of goat-antelopes, goats and sheep. There’s a good account of this expedition in The Snow leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, and it gives an interesting picture of Schaller as a person. I regard him, as do others, as one of the finest field biologists of the 20th century. His work has led to the established of several conservation areas for rare and endangered animals and ecosystems. Meanwhile Jane Goodall produced, in the 1980s, a scientific study of The chimpanzees of Gombe, which has some extraordinary observations in it, observations which emphasise, to my mind, links between human and chimpanzee behaviour.
It’s inevitable that, with such a new science, developments will be large and sometimes surprising. It’s an open-ended study process. Here’s a kiang, photographed from the train in 2007. This also gives you an idea of their habitat on the open steppe, at about 12,000 ft. My long-distance guess is that this is a pregnant mare.