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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 11. 22 July 1970

Man as Rat

Man as Rat

The second of the three Rs is what I have called elsewhere the philosophy of ratomorphism. At the turn of the century, Lloyd Morgan's famous canon warned biologists against the fallacy of projecting human thoughts and feelings into animals; since then, the pendulum has moved in the opposite direction, so that today, instead of an anthropomorphic view of the rat, we have a ratomorphic view of man. According to this view, our skyscrapers are nothing but huge Skinner boxes in which, instead of pressing a pedal to obtain a food-pellet, we emit operant responses which are more complicated, but governed by the same laws as the behaviour of the rat. Again, if you erase the "nothing but", there is an ugly grain of truth in this. But if the life of man is becoming a rat-race, it is because he has become impregnated with a ratomorphic philosophy. One is reminded of that old quip: "Psycho-analysis is the disease which it pretends to cure". Keep telling a man that he is nothing but an oversized rat, and he will start growing whiskers and bite your finger.

Some fifty years ago, in the heyday of the conditioned reflex, the paradigm of human behaviour was Pavlov's dog salivating in its restraining harness on the laboratory table. After that came the rat in the box. And after the rat came the geese. In his recent book On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz advances the theory that affection between social animals is phylogenetically derived from aggression. The bond which holds the partners together (regardless whether it has a sexual component or not) is "neither more nor less than the conversion of aggression into its opposite". Whether one agrees or disagrees with this theory is irrelevant; the reason why I mention it is that Lorenz' arguments are almost exclusively based on his observations of the so-called triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, which, in his own words, prompted him to write his book. Once more we are offered a Weltanschauung derived from an exceedingly specialised type of observations, a part-truth which claims to be the whole truth. To quote the Austrian psychiatrist, Victor Frankl: "The trouble is not that scientists are specialising, but rather that specialists are generalising".

A last example for the second R. About a year ago, a popular book on anthropology was heading the bestseller lists in Europe and America: The Naked Ape-A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal by Dr. Desmond Morris. It opens with the statement that man is a hairless ape "self-named homo sapiens . . . I am a zoologist and the naked ape is an animal. He is therefore fair game for my pen". To what extremes this zoomorphic approach may lead is illustrated by the following quotation:

"The insides of houses or flats can be decorated and filled with ornaments, bric-a-brac and personal belongings in profusion. This is usually explained as being done to make the place 'look nice'. In fact, it is the exact equivalent to another territorial species depositing its personal scent on a landmark near its den. When you put a name on a door, or hang a painting on a wall, you are, in dog or wolf terms, for example, simply cocking your leg on them and leaving your personal mark there."

To avoid misunderstandings, let me emphasise once more that it is both legitimate and necessary for scientific research to investigate conditioned reflexes in dogs, operant responses in rats, and the ritual dances of geese-so long as they are not forced [unclear: upon] man's condition. But [unclear: this] been happening for [unclear: the] middle-aged century.