How can we conduct ethical and comprehensive multispecies research? Lessons in science, ethics and storytelling from Animal Studies (Part 1) – The Nature-Human and the Nature-Technology Divides

 Research involving interactions between multiple species of living beings is of course, nothing new. If anything, it is the very basis of the life sciences, and has been since its advent. However, in the history and much of the philosophy of life sciences, the agency of the subjects studied is not universally acknowledged. The limited understanding I have of the life sciences involves mostly ecology, cell and molecular biology and some bioengineering. Though in the study of ecology, one must consciously account for the agencies of various actors in the environment, their specific roles and any deviation from thence, in much of cell and molecular biology and bioengineering, basic units of life, whether genes or cells, are treated mostly as tools or complex machines for the most part in my experience. As a person who has some experience in doing research with microbial communities that indeed make up whole ecosystems, I realized the extent to which my knowledge and conscious awareness of the agencies of the tiny beasts I dealt with were limited. I looked to the emerging field of animal studies for answers.

I recently read Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science by Donna Haraway. In addition to The Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, it is the third Haraway book I have read in the last few months. When reading The Companion Species Manifesto, I found that Haraway’s approach to the idea of companion species, or even dogs was too narrow to illustrate the multiplicity of relationships between humans and even individuals within a certain species. For instance, her preoccupation of breeds of dogs and their training neglected to examine the diversity and the nuances of the human-dog relationship that goes beyond their breeding and biology, and certainly goes nowhere near the vast cultural and psychological significance of dogs beyond economics and utility. While she acknowledged that there was indeed a long history of co-evolution of dogs and human beings, I found her analysis lacking in some areas I could not put a finger on…until I read When Species Meet and Primate Visions. 

For me, Primate Visions stood out as a very interesting overview of the history of the field of primatology in a way that we are only now beginning to talk about in the scientific world. When we hear of primatologists, it is either in the cases of behavioural studies or of conservation, and the primatologists, admittedly that we see on Discovery Channel or National Geographic often hail from North American or European upper-middle-class white backgrounds. Because we are primed to see the primates themselves as protagonists in these expositions, we don’t pay attention to the involvement of the primatologists themselves as politically significant actors in the stories. Whereas we know and readily acknowledge that in science and media, there is a statistically low representation of women, people of colour and other demographics, it is only recently that we have began to pay attention to how the politics of this affect our treatment of science media as a form of knowledge production. Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions lead us through the history of primatology, which helped me deconstruct a lot of my own biases in the study of animals.

First of all, we must note that primatology is especially well-positioned historically and socioculturally that make it an especially potent intersection of various political forces. Primatology is at the heart of the recent developments in natural sciences running parallel to European imperialist expansion. Haraway notes that

With research stations and conservation areas fostered by France, Belgium, Russia, Germany, and the United States…primate studies were a colonial affair, in which knowledge of the living and dead bodies of monkeys and apes was part of the system of unequal exchange of extractive colonialism…nonhuman primates were a fundamental part of the apparatus of colonial medicine. Part of the ideological framework justifying this directed flow of knowledge was the great chain of being structuring western imperial imaginations; apes especially were located in a potent place on that chain. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 19)

It can be argued that modern biology is derived from the machines of imperialism and capitalism, and perhaps nowhere else has this connection been more established than in the study of primates. By the very basic virtue of the studied primates existing primarily in parts of Africa and Asia, and the fact that most of the scientists involved in conducting these studies were from Europe, the link between primatology as a science and colonialism could not be more apparent. On another level primatology acted as a sort of microcosm for the study of human beings themselves as Haraway notes that their similitude to human beings make them apt creatures to conduct a variety of research on, often to the chagrin of many people within and outside the scientific community interested in issues of animal welfare.

One of the greatest insights into scientific practice and dissemination of research that I can draw from Primate Visions is Haraway’s explicit dictum that “Scientific practice may be considered a kind of storytelling practice – a rule-governed, constrained, historically challenging craft of narrative the history of nature. Science practice and scientific theories produce and are embedded in particular kinds of stories. Any scientific statement about the world depends intimately upon language, upon metaphor” (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 4). This is a particularly important declamation for me as a student of science as well as a science communicator because I have always felt like the work of scientists have been to tell old stories through new discoveries. As science communicators, we often look to a variety of resources and methods to ameliorate disseminating scientific knowledge to a diverse array of audiences, but we seldom acknowledge that in effect, science is a story, and in the case for biology, it is perhaps the truest. As Haraway notes

Biology is the fiction appropriate to objects called organisms; biology fashions the facts ‘discovered’ from organic beings. Organisms perform for the biologist, who transforms that performance into a truth attested by disciplined experience; i.e., into a fact, the jointly accomplished deed or feat of the scientist and the organism. Romanticism passes into realism, and realism into naturalism, genius into progress, insight into fact. Both the scientist and the organism are actors in a story-telling practice. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 5)

Perhaps with this in mind, we science communicators can effectively remind ourselves that what we are doing is reinventing and reconfiguring stories that have already been told, whether through the Christian ethos that spawned Linnaes’s taxonomy (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 9), to what Haraway calls ‘simian orientalism’, the process of otherization through which we create divisions in our knowledge.

Simian orientalism means that western primatology has been about the construction of the self from the raw material of the other, the appropriation of nature in the production of culture, the ripening of the human from the soil of the animal, the clarity of the white from the obscurity of colour, the issue of man from the body of woman, the elaboration of gender from the resource of sex, the emergence of the mind by the activation of body. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 11)

This is perhaps alluding to theories and practices even in current laboratory research that uses animal models to create working models for the observation of various treatments and to extrapolate their effects on human bodies. We understand the science behind it, and even though it needs a lot of improvement and are not easily translatable to cases involving humans, we lose sight of the underlying semiotic relationship these models create with human beings – that by understanding the similarities and contrasts between our bodies and the bodies of animals, as well as between male and female, and the psychological relationships between gender and sex. It is through differentiation from the other that our scientific narratives are co-constituted.

Haraway further remarks on the relationship between living beings and technology that is continued from this point forward in the same narrative of otherization. While speaking of the emergence of dioramas in museums in the United States and the emergence of the environmental movement, she notes, “from 1890 to 1930…the woes of ‘civilization’ were often blamed on technology – fantasized as ‘the Machine’. Nature is such a potent symbol of innocence partly because ‘she’ is imagined to be without technology. Man is not in nature partly because he is not seen, is not the spectacle” (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 54). This sentiment highlights one of the lasting traits of scientific research and communication, where the scientists often are seen as the subject with agency that performs experiments and observations whereas the object of the experiments and observation are externalized. In similar vein, nature is externalized from the mechanical, and so are human beings, due to their association with machines. This relationship is something that Haraway seeks to break down in her reflections in both The Companion Species Manifesto and furthermore in When Species Meet.

One of the first things that Haraway does while contemplating the concept of companion species is challenge this very nature-technology divide and the nature-human divide. She recounts that

[She is] vastly outnumbered by [her] tiny companions; better put, [she] becomes an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the [her]…they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible…when [she dies], all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “[her]” body, if only for a while, since “[they]” are necessary to one another in real time. (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 15)

By acknowledging the scientifically verifiable fact that human bodies are dwelling places for millions of microbial communities, she questions the very basis of this nature-human divide. She further mentions the case of “Jim’s dog”, a dog-like structure she found one year at a local park that was made of part of a redwood tree, its branches and leaves, and various miscellaneous items, both anthropogenic and not that happened to be around (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008). Upon simple interactions with this entity, Haraway postulates she is doing more than just interacting with its present materiality but also connecting to its deep histories, those that include various human and technological interventions – and thus, by doing so, the already suspect line between the categories of ‘Nature’, ‘Man’ and ‘Technology’ begin to crumble before our eyes.

She further delves into this arbitrary divide in the following chapters. She mentions that modernist version of humanist and posthumanist thought are rooted in what Bruno Latour calls the Great Divide, which seeks to delineate nature from society and humans from nonhumans (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 22). When the roots of this divide are examined, one finds that “Technophilias and technophobias vie with organophilias and organophobias, and taking sides is not left to chance. If one loves organic nature, to express a love of technology makes one suspect. If one finds cyborgs to be promising sorts of monsters, then one is an unreliable ally in the fight against the destruction of all things organic” (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 24). For many people trying to navigate their environmentalist passions with a support for say, nuclear power and GMO products, this view probably clarifies why these aforementioned groups seem to be at odds with each other always, given this primal drive to separate the natural from the mechanical.

Perhaps with the appreciation for the philosophical roots of various contemporary scientific debates, science communicators maybe able to further grasp psychological roots that create impediments to effective science communication, and by extension, good science policy. Engaging in science as an ongoing storytelling practice, one that is not all that different from oral traditions and mythology that only differentiates itself by its immanent critique of itself, we may indeed be able to transcend the artificial boundaries that create barriers to scientific investigation.

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Before I conclude, I would like to illustrate some of this principle of understanding the interlinked aspects of nature, humanity and technology, in practice by drawing from a completely different methodology – the arts. Sometimes when the systematic constraints of scientific knowledge dissemination fail us, it may be useful to look to the arts for inspiration and analogies that enable us to appreciate the nuanced complexities of science itself. Thus without further ado, I present to you a samples from The Bedside Book of Beasts – A Wildlife Miscellany by Graeme Gibson, especially those that challenge this nature-human and nature-machine divide.

Netted Together’ by Charles Darwin

If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine – our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions and our amusements – they may partake (of) our origins in one common ancestor – we may all be netted together. (Darwin, 2009)

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My aim at present is to popularize the idea of ‘naturecultures’ as first put forward by Donna Haraway as a concept by which to understand our evermore complicated and connected realities. As science communicators, one of the aims we share is to make sense of scientific progress in our sociocultural contexts. Perhaps identification of scientific innovation as part of emerging nature culture is what we need for more nuanced critiques and narratives of science today.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will deal with what Animal Studies can tell us about use of organisms in scientific research.

Bibliography

Darwin, C. (2009). Netted Together. In G. Gibson, The Bedside Book of Beasts – A Wildlife Miscellany. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

Haraway, D. (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, D. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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