Chapter 8: "The Experimental Animal from the Naturalist's Point of View": Behavior and Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, 1928-1954

Article excerpt

The study of animal behavior in the United States expanded considerably between the two World Wars, in terms of the number of biologists interested in the subject and the scope of dieir research (Burkhardt, 2005; Dewsbury, 1989b; Mitman & Burkhardt, 1991). These biologists came from both naturalist and experimentalist traditions. For example, Warder Clyde Allee, at the University of Chicago, incorporated animal behavior into an ecological context. Allee stressed the importance of an organism's interactions with the community in which it lived and the surrounding environmental conditions in producing its behavior (Mitman, 1992). Taking a very different approach, William C. Young, one of the founders of behavioral endocrinology, is remembered for his research on the role of sex hormones in producing mating behavior. These approaches within behavioral research of the interwar period built on strong disciplinary traditions in the study of behavior established at the turn of the twentieth century (Dewsbury, 1989b). By the mid-1930s, comparative psychology had also begun to attract more students. Comparative psychologists were interested primarily in the ability of animals to learn, although some also explored the role of behavior in the natural lives of organisms and the evolution of behavior more generally (Dewsbury, 1989b). Despite such methodological diversity, these communities of biologists were united in their belief that the study of animal behavior should be professionalized and rid of its amateurish, anthropomorphic roots.

Each group brought valuable contributions to the table: experimentalists found that the controlled environment of the laboratory provided an ideal location for modifying and observing behavior in developing organisms, while naturalists used observation and modification of an organism's natural habitat to establish the normal behavior characteristic of the species. Without the behavioral data gathered in the natural environment of the organism, it was impossible to know whether behaviors observed in laboratory spaces were real or simply an artifact of the artificial conditions of the laboratory. During this period, as historian of science William Coleman suggested in 1974, "the activities of the experimentalist and of the naturalist are not really as sharply defined as they might seem to some of us [now]."1

Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, curator of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) from 1923-1940, was characteristic of biologists studying behavior in the 1930s. He embothed the fluid boundary between experimental and naturalist traditions and sought to put the study of behavior on a more professional footing. Noble founded the Laboratory of Experimental Biology (LEB) at the AMNH in 1928. In his laboratory spaces, he sought to map the evolution of social behavior "from fish to man," and to uncover the hormonal changes regulating behavioral differences between each taxonomic group he stuthed (Gregory, 1941a; Mitman 8c Burkhardt, 1991). To do so, Noble observed and gathered his research specimens in the field and used this data to construct naturalistic enclosures for his experimental subjects in the LEB. In 1939, Noble published an article entitled, "The experimental animal from the naturalist's point of view," in which he extolled the virtues of laboratory research for answering questions of concern to naturalists like himself (Noble, 1939).

Yet after Noble's untimely deadi in 1940, the LEB's experimental research program began to shift direction as subsequent curators strove to fit their experimental research on behavior into the overall mission of the AMNH. Frank Ambrose Beach, curator of the LEB from 1940-1946, continued Noble's comparative approach to behavioral research and changed the name of the research group to the "Laboratory of Animal Behavior." This change in name codified what had become the sole research agenda of the LEB under Noble's tenure. When Beach left the department, Lester Aronson took his place as curator of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior. …