The New York Times January 22, 2006


The Animal Self



A big-city aquarium after closing hours is an

eerie, spectral place. With the lights turned

down in the empty viewing galleries, the luminous

dioramas of the different fish fairly swell

against your senses, rendering you the viewed and

startled captive, adrift in your own natural

medium, in a literal suspension of disbelief.

"Help yourself," Sal Munoz, a night-shift

biologist at the Seattle Aquarium, told me one

night this past fall, pointing to the huge

12-foot-high glass tank in which the subject of

my specially arranged private encounter that

evening resided: a 70-pound giant Pacific octopus

named Achilles.


I was first introduced to Achilles earlier that

day by Roland Anderson, another scientist at the

aquarium, and I was still having trouble with

Anderson's description of him as "a young, pretty

male." There are, as fellow life forms go, few as

deeply alien - in both substance and appearance -

as the giant Pacific octopus. "G.P.O." adults can

weigh more than 100 pounds, and yet all of their

throbbing, multi-tentacled mass can pass like

water through a drain pipe no bigger in

circumference than an apple, just wide enough to

accommodate the octopus's cartilaginous beak, its

only solid body part. These creatures look, at

rest, like cracked leather discards from a

handbag factory; in motion, like wind-swept

hot-air balloons in severe deflation distress,

with no one at home in the balloon's gondola but

for a pair of unsettlingly knowing black eyes.


It was those eyes more than anything that I had

asked Anderson for special permission to come

back and stare into on my own. Just me and

Achilles. With no one else around to make me

self-conscious for engaging in a protracted

stare-down with an octopus. For reading

impossible complexities into his muffled side of

the conversation. For tapping my fingers on the

glass in hopes of getting Achilles riled. For

behaving, in short, in a way that even I, an

inveterate lingerer before zoo enclosures and

fish tanks, would have considered preposterous

had I not heard Anderson's real-life octopus

stories earlier that day.


Anderson told me that he and his staff started

naming the G.P.O.'s at the Seattle Aquarium 20

years ago. Not out of cutesy sentimentality.

Anderson, a longtime marine biologist and the son

of a sea captain, is not given to that sort of

thing. It was, he said, because they couldn't

help noticing the animals' distinct

personalities. G.P.O.'s live about three or four

years, and the aquarium typically keeps three on

the premises - two on display and one backup or

understudy octopus - so there have been a good

number of G.P.O.'s at the aquarium over the past

two decades. Still, Anderson had little trouble

recalling them: Emily Dickinson, for example, a

particularly shy, retiring female G.P.O. who

always hid behind the tank's rock outcroppings,

or Leisure Suit Larry, who, Anderson told me,

would have been arrested in our world for sexual

assault, with his arms always crawling all over

passing researchers. And then there was Lucretia

McEvil. She repeatedly tore her tank apart at

night, scraping up all the rocks at the base,

pulling up the water filter, biting through nylon

cables, all the parts left floating on the

surface when Anderson arrived in the morning.


One particularly temperamental G.P.O. so disliked

having his tank cleaned, he would keep grabbing

the cleaning tools, trying to pull them into the

tank, his skin going a bright red. Another took

to regularly soaking one of the aquarium's female

night biologists with the water funnel octopuses

normally use to propel themselves, because he

didn't like it when she shined her flashlight

into his tank. Yet another G.P.O. of the Leisure

Suit Larry mold once tried to pull into his tank

a BBC videographer who got her hand a bit too

close, wrapping his tentacles up and down her arm

as fast as she could unravel them. When she

finally broke free, the octopus turned a bright

red and doused her with repeated jets of water.


Just across from Achilles that night was another

G.P.O. named Mikala, their two tanks connected by

an overhead, see-through passageway, the doors to

which were closed. Mikala was a recent

replacement for Helen, who had just been released

back into the sea after a failed attempt by the

scientists to mate her with Achilles. Anderson

told me that they had left Achilles and Helen

together in the same tank for a week, but, he

said, "there wasn't any chemistry." In the coming

months, they would be trying the same routine

with Mikala, to see if anything clicked.


At one point I decided to absent myself from

Achilles' stare and walk around to the far side

of his tank to look at Mikala in hers. Standing

in the narrow space beneath the overhead

passageway, I found her sound asleep, mushed

between her tank's outer glass and some craggy

rocks. I thought about tapping the glass to see

if I could stir her, but decided to leave her be.

When I turned around, Achilles was right there

behind me, bobbing against the glass, bright red,

his black eyes opened wide.


"How do we even define what an emotion is in an

animal?" I recalled Roland Anderson asking

earlier that day. "And why do they even have

these different temperaments?"


It was back in 1991 that Anderson and Jennifer

Mather, a psychologist from the University of

Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, first decided to

undertake a joint personality study of 44 smaller

red octopuses at the aquarium as a way to begin

to codify and systematize what they thought they

had been observing. Using three categorizations

from a standard human-personality-assessment test

- shy, aggressive and passive - their data would

ultimately show that the animals did consistently

clump together under these different categories

in response to various stimuli, like touching

them with a bristly test-tube brush or dropping a

crab into the tank.


"The aggressive ones would pounce on the crab,"

Anderson told me. "The passive ones would wait

for the crab to come past and then grab it. The

shy animal would wait till overnight when no one

was looking, and we'd find this little pile of

crab shell in the morning."


Anderson and Mather's resulting 1993 paper in the

Journal of Comparative Psychology, entitled

"Personalities of Octopuses," was not only the

first-ever documentation of personality in

invertebrates. It was the first time in anyone's

memory that the term "personality" had been

applied to a nonhuman in a major psychology



Scientists are not typically disposed to wielding

a word like "personality" when talking about

animals. Doing so borders on the scientific

heresy of anthropomorphism. And yet for a growing

number of researchers from a broad range of

disciplines - psychology, evolutionary biology

and ecology, animal behavior and welfare - it is

becoming increasingly difficult to avoid that

term when trying to describe the variety of

behaviors that they are now observing in an

equally broad and expanding array of creatures,

everything from nonhuman primates to hyenas and

numerous species of birds to water striders and

stickleback fish and, of course, giant Pacific



In fact, in the years since Anderson and Mather's

original paper, a whole new field of research has

emerged known simply as "animal personality."

Through close and repeated observations of

different species in a variety of group settings

and circumstances, scientists are finding that

our own behavioral traits exist in varying

degrees and dimensions among creatures across all

the branches of life's tree. Observing our fellow

humans, we all recognize the daredevil versus the

more cautious, risk-averse type; the aggressive

bully as opposed to the meek victim; the

sensitive, reactive individual versus the more

straight-ahead, proactive sort, fairly oblivious

to the various subtle signals of his

surroundings. We wouldn't have expected to meet

all of them, however, in everything from farm

animals and birds to fish and insects and

spiders. But more and more now, we are

recognizing ourselves and our ways to be

recapitulations of the rest of biology. And as

scientists track these phenomena, they are also

beginning to unravel such core mysteries as the

bioevolutionary underpinnings of personality,

both animal and human; the dynamic interplay

between genes and environment in the expression

of various personality traits; and why it is that

nature invented such a thing as personality in

the first place.


Animal personality studies are only the most

recent manifestation of the inroads that science

is now making into what has long been uncharted

terrain: the very inscrutability of our fellow

creatures that has, from the dawn of human

consciousness, both begotten and bound us to our

wildest imaginings about them. All sorts of

research has been done in recent years revealing

various aspects of animal complexity: African

gray parrots that can not only count but can also

grasp the concept of zero; self-recognition,

empathy and the cultural transference of tool use

in both chimps and dolphins; individual

face-recognition among sheep; courtship songs in

mice; laughter in rats. This is no longer merely

the stuff of anthropomorphism or isolated

anecdote. As Jaak Panksepp, the neuroscientist

who first discovered rat laughter, has pointed

out: "Every drug used to treat emotional and

psychiatric disorders in humans was first

developed and found effective in animals. This

kind of research would obviously have no value if

animals were incapable of experiencing these

emotional states."


Now, with the emergence of animal-personality

studies, we are gaining an even fuller

appreciation not only of the distinctiveness of

birds and beasts and their behaviors but also of

their deep resemblances to us and our own.

Somehow, through the very creatures we have long

piggybacked upon to tell stories about ourselves,

we are beginning to get at the essence of that

one aspect of the self we have long thought to be

exclusively and quintessentially ours: the

individual personality. The octopuses' garden is

proving to be quite deeply and variously shaded




Appropriately enough for a newly emerging

psychological science, the world's first Animal

Personality Institute, or A.P.I., is still more

of a proposition than a physical place. Indeed,

outside of a newly established Web site with a

flashy bright blue logo, A.P.I.'s only visitable

locale can be found on the third floor of the

psychology-department building at the University

of Texas in Austin, in the small, book-crammed

office of A.P.I.'s founder, Sam Gosling, a

London-born, 37-year-old professor of psychology.

"This here is my collection of animal-personality

literature," Gosling told me one afternoon in

October, pointing to a long row of thick blue

binders along the top shelf of his office's

bookcase, including animal studies from fields as

diverse as agricultural science, anthropology,

psychology, veterinary medicine and zoology.

"We're trying to scan them all and make them

available, because part of. . . I mean.. . ."


A tall, gaunt figure whose flowing locks,

untucked striped shirt, slightly flared bell

bottoms and ankle-high leather boots give him the

appearance of a 60's-era British rock star,

Gosling is given to switching gears midsentence,

his active mind going in a number of directions

at once. "Part of what we're trying to do here,"

he continued, "is create a field."


Gosling, who often refers to himself as "a bit of

a fraud," being what he calls "a personality

expert who knows very little about actual

animals," was a young graduate student in

psychology at the University of California,

Berkeley, when he first came upon Anderson and

Mather's paper on octopus personality. It was not

at all an area of research he expected to be

poking his nose into, having originally attended

Berkeley to pursue a degree in human personality.

But in the course of one of his first seminars,

he suddenly found his thoughts going in an

unlikely direction, what he now refers to as his

"reductio ad absurdum moment."


"It was a basic seminar in human personality," he

recalled. "We were considering the question of

what is personality. And I thought, O.K., let's

try to push it to its limit. To find out what

personality is, let's start by taking what's

clearly outside that category and discover what's

different about that. Let's take animals. They

obviously don't have personality. So then I

thought, O.K., if animals don't have it, then

what is it that makes them not have it, and I

couldn't come up with an answer."


A standard answer, of course, is that animals do

not, as far as we know, reflect upon and argue

with their experiences, emotions and behaviors in

the way that we humans do. They do not possess,

in other words, that dynamic, self-reflective,

internal dialogue the very outcome of which is,

many scientists say, our personality. Of course,

whether or not self-knowledge is truly a defining

characteristic of personality is a question

scientists disagree on, as they do about much

else in the field. Indeed, the whole notion of

personality is one that we only began trying to

measure and codify in the past century.

Personality theory started showing up in the

writings of Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud as a

somewhat vague, broadly drawn concept. It has

only been in the last 60 years or so that the

modern science of human personality began to

emerge, a system of assessing distinct

personality traits that has its roots in World

War II, when the U.S. government assigned to the

Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of

today's C.I.A.) the task of identifying which

individuals had the right traits to be spies. A

number of different personality-mapping methods

and traits-assessment tests have been developed

over the years, all of them pivoting around the

principle that certain traits can be consistently

observed in individuals across time and different

situations. The most widely applied test today

uses the categories defined by what is known as

the Five-Factor Model (F.F.M.): openness,

conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness

and neuroticism. Under each of these broad

dimension headings are so-called clusters of

recognizable traits: an extroverted person, for

example, is more sociable, outgoing and

assertive; a neurotic one, more anxious, moody

and stressed.


Gosling, however, was intent on exploring

personality at its most rudimentary level - below

the radar, if you will, of human consciousness.

Applying some of the very same personality

assessments that we use on humans, he wondered

whether we could observe in animals essential

traits like fearfulness, aggressiveness,

affability or calmness, traits that can exist

outside of cognition and yet are clearly and

repeatedly apparent in varying measures in

different individual animals within a given



Does one duck, in other words, behave

consistently differently from another duck, over

time and across situations? If so, why doesn't

that meet the definition of personality as we

apply it to ourselves, regardless of the presence

or absence of self-awareness? In a sense, Gosling

was posing a psychologist's rendition of that old

philosophical query about whether the tree that

falls in the forest, miles from anyone's ears,

still makes a sound. That is, if an animal

behaves in distinctly consistent ways but isn't

fully cognizant of such behaviors, can the

behaviors still be aspects and indications of its




One way Gosling set about answering that question

was to focus on a colony of 34 hyenas being kept

on the Berkeley campus by Steve Glickman, a

professor of psychology. With Glickman's

blessing, Gosling asked four caretakers of the

colony to independently fill out questionnaires

about each animal, using a modified version of

the F.F.M. test. He soon found that the

caretakers' assessments had the same level of

agreement, or "convergence," as is found in

assessments done on humans, with such distinct

human dimensions as "excitability,"

"sociability," "curiosity" and "assertiveness"

being repeatedly observed.


Gosling then reviewed 19 different previous

behavioral studies of nonhuman species through

the same F.F.M. framework and found a similar

recurrence of those dimensions across a

surprisingly broad spectrum of species. Among the

traits remarked upon were such things as

"opportunistic, self-serving" behavior in certain

vervet monkeys; "emotionality" in rats; "fear

avoidance" in some guppies and "extroversion" in

others; and, in Anderson and Mather's 1993 paper,

both "boldness" and "avoidance" in octopuses.


"The evolutionary continuity between humans and

other animals suggests that some dimensions of

personality may be common across a wide range of

species," Gosling wrote in the resulting paper he

published in 1999 in the journal Current

Directions in Psychological Science. "Scientists

have been reluctant to ascribe personality

traits, emotion and cognitions to animals, even

though they readily accept that the anatomy and

physiology of humans is similar to that of

animals. Yet there is nothing in evolutionary

theory to suggest that only physical traits are

subject to selection pressures."


Gosling told me that his seminar adviser thought

the whole thing sounded a bit "goofy" at first.

Some of his fellow students, meanwhile, were

irked at him for trying to bring the field of

personality to disrepute, as Gosling put it, by

studying silly, trivial, frivolous stuff. The

major sticking point, of course, was his

insistence on using the obviously loaded word

"personality," a choice that he admits was

purposefully provocative.


In some quarters, the term still rankles.

"Personality ratings have been done with chimps

where you can see in them intimations of human

characteristics," says Jack Block, an emeritus

professor of personality psychology at Berkeley.

"Now, where you want to take that, I don't know.

Even with chimps, it is a big extrapolation from

them to us. But personality in fruit flies or

octopi? Heck, no. All living organisms do react

to pain and seek what they have developed to want

in terms of food or mating. But they cannot

manifest the complexity of responses that human

beings can."


John Capitanio, a psychology professor at the

University of California, Davis, who does

extensive behavioral studies with rhesus monkeys,

is more willing to extrapolate. "Animal

behaviorists or behavioral ecologists are mostly

interested in what the animal is presenting them

with in terms of behavior," he told me recently.

"And yet the behaviors exhibited are not

dissimilar from our own, and that's what causes

us to infer these personality characteristics.

Now do they really exist in animals? I think the

answer is yes, they do in some form."


In many of his early talks, people would ask

Gosling why he didn't use the word "temperament"

instead of personality. His response was - and is

- that temperament is always invoked as a purely

biological, inherited quality, whereas

personality is thought of as a "higher order

phenomenon" that grows out of the interaction of

our inherited temperaments and our experiences.

If he used only the word temperament with

animals, he would be dismissing the possibility

that they may have some of the same personality

processes as humans. "I don't want to rule that

out," Gosling told me. "I also think the word

personality is as appropriate for animals as it

is for us. Of course, we still have to be

suspicious. People will also rate the personality

of a loaf of bread or a car. A colleague has

poked fun at me about that: 'A temperamental car

is difficult to start across time and situations.

So why isn't that personality?' Well, the

fundamental difference, of course, is that with

an animal there is an underlying physiology and

biology. Saying my car is temperamental is an

analogy. And some people will rate dogs not only

as friendly or fearful but as philosophical. Now,

I do not believe dogs are philosophical, whereas

I do believe in their fearfulness. So we have to

be careful where to draw the line between what's

reality and what's analogy."



Dogs, in a way, offer the most obvious proof of

the existence of animal personality. They have

long been bound to us and bred by us precisely

for their very particular physical and

temperament traits, and, of course, even among

specific breeds there are all kinds of variation

in the personalities of individuals. Indeed,

animals like dogs and cats point up what often

appears to be a paradoxically prodigious "duh

factor" behind this otherwise cutting-edge

science. While scientists may tussle endlessly

over the validity of applying the word

personality to nonhumans, for people in the

everyday world - especially those who spend any

time around animals - the assertion that they

have distinct personalities seems absurdly



Not so very long ago, concepts like animal

sentience, emotion and personality were not

merely the stuff of anecdotes told by farmers and

pet owners; they were wholly embraced by the

scientific community as well. In the late 19th

century, animal emotion and behavior were

integral aspects of the newly emerging science of

human psychology. Charles Darwin devoted much of

his time after the publication of "The Origin of

Species" to researching "The Expression of the

Emotions in Man and Animals," published in 1872.

Although that era's cross-species conjecturing

and comparing was often naïve or intuitive, the

impulse behind it went on to inform human

psychological study well into the 20th century.

Beginning with the appearance in 1908 of more

sober, scientifically sound works like John

Lubbocks's "On the Senses, Instincts, and

Intelligence of Animals With Special Reference to

the Insects" or Edward L. Thorndike's "Animal

Intelligence," animal studies figured prominently

in standard human psychology textbooks well into

the 1940's. And then, steadily, the animals began

to disappear.


At one point in his Austin office on the

afternoon I met with him, Sam Gosling pulled from

his shelves the 1935 edition of "A Handbook of

Social Psychology," a standard human psychology

textbook of the time, and showed me the table of

contents. More than a quarter of the textbook's

chapters were devoted to studies of animals and

other life forms, titles like "Population

Behavior of Bacteria," "Insect Societies" or "The

Behavior of Mammalian Herds and Packs." There is

even a chapter devoted to "Social Origins and

Processes Among Plants." But in the 1954 edition

of a similar work called "The Handbook of Social

Psychology," there is but one chapter devoted to

nonhuman research. Titled "The Social

Significance of Animal Studies," it is

essentially a desperate last plea to social

psychologists not to abandon animal studies,

arguing at one point that "social psychology must

be dangerously myopic if it restricts itself to

human literature." The warning clearly went

unheeded. The most recent edition of the

handbook, from 1998, is devoted entirely to



The banishment of our fellow beasts from

psychological literature can be blamed by and

large on that branch of psychology known as

behaviorism. The field's major proponents,

eminent psychologists like B.F. Skinner, stressed

the inherent inscrutability of mental states and

perceptions to anyone but the person experiencing

them. And even though the behaviorists were

themselves major proponents of the use of animals

in behavioral research, they sought to rein in

subjective verbal descriptions of the animals'

mental states, as well as the sorts of

experiments that relied on such necessarily vague

data. If the human mind was, as Skinner famously

referred to it, "a black box," then surely the

minds of animals were even further beyond our ken.


"The great and enduring contribution of

behaviorism," Gosling says, "is that it

introduced the scientific method to the study of

behavior. They said, 'Let's get rid of the fuzzy,

sentimental higher-level descriptions.' And they

did. They went to great efforts to record

specific behaviors, things like how many times a

chimpanzee scratched its head or nose. But it's

hard to study higher-order phenomena, things like

personality and emotion, in just those ways. In

the end, what you're left with is this long

catalog of meaningless descriptions. If I need to

know whether I can go into that cage or not to

clean it, it's not useful to tell me the chimp

scratched its nose 50,000 times in the past year.

Just tell me, Is it aggressive or not?"


In their dogged pursuit of hard science and their

strict avoidance of what Sam Gosling referred to

in his first published paper as the "specter of

anthropomorphism," the behaviorists, especially

in the eyes of many who currently study animal

behavior, greatly limited the field of psychology

by ultimately outlawing things like intuition,

inference and common sense. Now, however, the

pendulum has begun to swing back in that

direction, and it is a shift that has been

impelled, somewhat surprisingly, by hard science.


Advances in fields like genetics and molecular

and evolutionary biology have lent to the study

of psychology something that it really didn't

have when behaviorism first came to the fore: a

better understanding of the biological and

bioevolutionary underpinnings of behavior. No

longer is the study of animal behavior rooted in

that inherently naïve and anthropocentric desire

to see ourselves in animals or to project upon

them our thoughts and feelings. Animal

personality, along with such integral fields as

animal behavior, behavioral ecology and

evolutionary biology, all pivot now around what

might be called deep analogies. The more detailed

and specific our knowledge has become of the

animals and of the many differences between them

and us, the more clearly we can see what is

analogous about our respective behaviors.


Animal personality, in other words, is now

redirecting psychology's focus in a direction the

behaviorists would most appreciate: away from

airy abstractions about personality and down to

its very tangible and widely dispersed roots. It

might be thought of as a kind of biological

Buddhism or muscular mythologizing or armed

anthropomorphism: a more disciplined and detailed

form of that idle speculating we have all done in

front of the head tilt of a dog or the sudden

skyward shift of a flock of sea gulls or the

comings and goings of ants around their

respective mounds.



"Now, those there I can almost guarantee you are

females," Jason Watters, a behavioral ecologist

at the University of California, Davis, told me

one afternoon this past autumn. He was pointing

to a cluster of water striders that had climbed

up the side wall of one of the collecting pools

in the artificial stream that Watters had erected

at the far western edge of the Davis campus for a

six-month study that he and his lab director,

Andy Sih, recently completed on the role of

genetic and environmental factors in the

expression of behavior in water striders: those

spindly black, surface-flitting wraiths whose

indent on their tenuous native terrain is never

more than four slightly concave,

lunar-module-like landing cups.


Watters personally reared several thousand water

striders for the experiment and would come to

know them about as intimately as any human can an

insect. He knew each strider's parents and

siblings. He photographed and marked each of them

with paint-on numbers and then tracked them

through more or less every circumstance and

experience in their roughly yearlong lives: what

and how they ate, their responses to new

environments or to simulated predator attacks,

their social interactions and mating practices

out in the simulated stream.


"I haven't gathered all the data yet," Watters

said, grabbing one of the clustered striders and

confirming his suspicion about its sex. "But what

we do know is that these water striders express

consistent behavioral types. Like in the presence

of a predator some individuals will run and get

right out of the water. Others don't seem

concerned whatsoever. Just sit there. Others get

out and then get back in after a little while. So

there's a great deal of variation in what they

do. Especially in a mating situation, here in the

stream we've found among the males that there is

the consistently more aggressive guy - so that's

his type or his personality - and then there are

these very active, hyperaggressive males. They're

the ones who are always forcing females to have

sex and driving them out of the water and really

messing things up for themselves and everybody.

We don't know yet if this is really the best way

to be or what the point of it is. We're working

on that. But I've got to believe there's going to

be some circumstances where it's a good idea to

be a really mean, brutish type of guy and others

where it's not."


A similar array of behaviors is now being

encountered in other insects. In her current

research at Davis, Judy Stamps, a professor of

biology and animal behavior, has been looking

into how early experience affects habitat

selection in drosophila, better known to you and

me as the common fruit fly. Stamps escorted me

one afternoon to one of the biology department's

"animal rooms," where she and her students have

been conducting their experiments. The room was

the size of a small walk-in closet, barely large

enough to contain the 11-foot-long metal table

before us.


To a tiny fruit fly, however, the strange,

artificial fruit-bowl habitats of upward twisting

wire set at either end of the table are separate

universes, the various fruit-shaped planets of

which, Stamps has discovered, fruit flies

approach and settle in a number of ways, some of

which depend on early experience and some on

their distinct personalities. Fruit flies born

and raised on a plum, for example, will seek out

the next plum to settle upon, as will the

offspring that they raise there: a "no place like

home" impulse. But in the course of their

research, Stamps and her students have also

encountered everything from overly shy, timorous

fruit flies to bold trailblazers to downright

feisty and ultimately self-defeating bullies.


"You don't think of drosophila in that way,"

Stamps told me. "They can be very territorial,

and some of the males are fairly aggressive. They

tussle with each other. When we did our

free-range fly experiments, we marked them

individually. We put little colored paint dots on

their thorax. The students loved it. They'd say:

'You know Blue? He's been attacking everyone this

morning. He's on Banana A, and everyone else is

on Banana B. He's the ruler of Banana A.' Of

course, the other thing we've noticed is that

individuals that behave like Blue get into

trouble because, you see, they end up with nobody

to mate with."


Another member of Andy Sih's lab, Alison Bell,

has done extensive studies of the three-spined

stickleback fish, a tiny prehistoric-looking fish

with armorlike outer lateral plates and serrated,

lancelike spines protruding from the dorsal

region. As well as finding the same spectrum of

behaviors in sticklebacks - from extremely bold

and bullying sticklebacks to extremely shy and

timid ones - Bell has found groups of

sticklebacks that exhibit a similar type of

behavior: tribelike populations of bold and

aggressive sticklebacks, for example, or of

extremely timid ones. Their collective

disposition seems to have been shaped by the

respective environment in which they were raised

- whether it was predator-free or predator-laden

- and their physical appearance reflects their

environment as well: the timid sticklebacks

having far heavier armor and longer, more

serrated spines.



The questions that scientists are now beginning

to address are why evolution has wielded such a

variety of temperaments in animals and why it

hasn't weeded out the clearly deleterious ones:

the shyness and timidity that deprives some

members of a group of food or mates or the

overaggression and extreme risk-taking behavior

that can often result in both the disruption of

the group's overall reproductive success and the

aggressors' becoming some other creature's food.


Roland Anderson sees the diversity of

temperaments as a manifestation of that most

basic biological imperative of survival, an array

of personality traits being kept in play in a

given species because of the differing, shifting

environmental circumstances that groups may

encounter. "What happens," he asked, "if a big

school of herring comes along and eats all the

aggressive, fearless males in a group of smaller

fish? Well, there will still be some of the more

passive or shy ones hiding under that rock that

can say: 'Hey, they're all gone now. There's a

nice-looking female over there. I think I'll

reproduce with her."'


Andy Sih, like most of his colleagues at Davis,

views personality differences in animals in a

Darwinian context. He considers specific

behaviors and preferences from an evolutionary

perspective and tries to determine how various

traits affect the long-term survival of a given

species. And in the course of his research on

everything from water striders to salamanders,

Sih has become fairly obsessed with what he calls

"stupid behaviors," ones that don't seem to make

any evolutionary sense whatsoever.


"You'd expect animals to be doing smart stuff,"

Sih told me one evening over dinner. "The whole

tradition in most of evolutionary ecology has

been to emphasize adaptation where organisms do

smart things. But I've been making the case for a

while that the most interesting behaviors are

actually the stupidest."


It's typically the males of a given species that

seem to figure most prominently in the

stupid-behavior department - the militant,

mayhem-causing water striders and sticklebacks,

for example, or fierce male Western bluebirds,

who spend so much time defending nests or

courting females that they completely neglect

their own offspring. But perhaps the most glaring

instance of dumb-animal doings is to be found in

the female North American fishing spider. Studies

have shown that a good number of female fishing

spiders are from a very early age highly driven

and effective hunters. It is a trait that serves

them well most of their lives, particularly in

lean times, but it wholly backfires during mating

season, when these females can't keep themselves

from eating prospective suitors.


"Now why would anybody, why would any organism do

that?" asked Sih. "If you look at these female

spiders just in the context of mating behavior,

you would conclude that they're doing something

mighty stupid here. But their behavioral type is

very good for them for much of their life growing

up in a highly competitive world where food is

often scarce. They're so geared up, though, that

when mating season comes around, they really mess

up. And experiments have shown that even if

they're given a reasonable amount of food,

they'll still behave this way."


These same hyped-up females have also been shown

to be the most fearless in the face of predators.

In simulated attacks, all fishing spiders

retreated underwater. The overaggressive,

ravenous females, however, were always the first

to pop back up, giving them at once the greatest

chance of getting available food and, if the

predator was still around, of becoming its meal.

Of course, a good proportion of female fishing

spiders are able to make the distinction between

sex and dinner and between finding and becoming

dinner. But for Sih and others, the persistence

in certain members of a species of these extreme

behaviors and the inability of some to modulate

that behavior give rise to a more profound

question about the nature of personality types in

general and how plastic or not they actually are,

whether in animals or humans.


In animals, it is now becoming evident, there is

a certain degree of evolutionary inertia when it

comes to their behavior, wherein the very

behaviors that accord some members of the group a

distinct evolutionary advantage in one set of

circumstances can do them in in the next. They

are stuck, to some extent, with their distinct

ways of being. We humans, on the other hand, tend

to think of our personalities as protean, mutable

entities that, unlike our physical selves, we can

shape to suit shifting circumstances. Sih

disagrees. He says he thinks that our behaviors,

no matter how complex the human social contexts

that help to shape them, are not nearly as pliant

as we believe them to be.


"Behavioral ecologists actually tend to model

animals and humans as both being very flexible,

as being capable of changing their behaviors as

necessary to do the right things in all

situations," he said. But in our own day-to-day

experience, he said, we recognize that humans

don't really behave that way. "We all know that

overly bold person," he pointed out. "We have

friends like that. They do things that are just

like: Hey, this can get you killed. What are they

doing that for? And there are people that are

shy, and they're missing out on opportunities

they could have had."


There is currently a paucity of human studies

along these lines, but a recently published

human-personality study of 545 people by Daniel

Nettle of the University of Newcastle in England

shows a strong parallel with some of these recent

animal studies. It found that the more

extroverted and outgoing people were, the more

sex partners they tended to have, an evolutionary

edge that was mitigated by the fact that these

were the same people who were most likely to end

up in the hospital because of stupid risk-taking



Indeed, however elaborate an argument we humans

may have with our own biology, we are each of us

to some extent locked into a personality type, a

consistent way of being without which we would

each be, in a sense, unrecognizable to ourselves

or others. The oft-heard comment "Hey, that's not

like you" is a tacit acknowledgment of your

recognizably consistent way of being. If, in

other words, someone were to be entirely flexible

and unpredictable in their behavior, were able to

respond with any one of the full palette of

behavioral responses in any given circumstance,

they would be not only, as Andy Sih put it,

"scary to be around," but they would also be

someone of whom you could say, they have no



This set of ideas, Sih told me, suggests new

questions that are rarely posed about humans.

"Like why do we even have a personality?" he

asked. "Why do we have a relatively narrow range

of responses as opposed to a full range? Why

can't we all be bold when we need to be and

cautious and shy when we need to be? Then we'd

have no identifiable personality, and that would

free us all to become optimal."


For Sih, the answer seems to be that our

personality is a manifestation of a complex

interplay between genetic inheritance and

environment and early-life experience. Bold

people, for example, are both naturally disposed

to boldness and, further, choose to be bold,

becoming ever better at it, building from an

early age a mountain of abilities and tendencies

that become a personality. It might happen, as

well, that an inherently shy person is induced by

an early-life experience to venture away from his

or her natural disposition and cultivate a bold

personality. But whether a person ends up

building and climbing a shy or a bold mountain,

it may become increasingly difficult to come back

down and build another one.


"It's not impossible," Sih said, "but it's not

going to be easy. I'll give you another human

example. It's always mystified me why anyone

would be a pessimist. It seems to me like

optimism has to be the way to go. But, in fact,

there is some recent literature that shows that

pessimists are good at being pessimists. And that

when things go badly, they expected it anyway,

and it doesn't hurt them. And so it's this notion

that personality types build because of these

feedback loops."


In human beings, of course, as with other highly

social species, the shaping of personality

entails a complex web of influences and

imperatives. It is not merely about the

acquisition of food or mates but involves as well

issues of group interaction, cooperation,

deception and so on. It is a dynamic that, in an

ever more complex series of evolutionary feedback

loops, at once impelled the formation of larger

and more sophisticated brains and the more

nuanced emotional responses to social interaction

- feelings of embarrassment, guilt, empathy,

confidence, etc. - that such a brain allows.


The attempt to parse that web of entanglements

has for decades been a motivation of fields like

psychology, psychiatry and sociology. What seems

so promising about the field of animal

personality is that in the course of allowing us

to better understand and more effectively

conserve the animals themselves, it is also

affording scientists new pathways of

understanding ourselves and our behavior, through

the kind of experimentation that we are unable to

perform on humans.


"Do thrill seekers thrive in certain speculative

business or military environments?" Sih asked. "I

don't know. But I can do experiments to look at

analogous situations in animals, can take

different animals with different personalities

and see how they do in different environments -

in a high-predation-risk situation, in a

cooperative situation, during a courtship-mating

situation. Along similar lines, we can test ideas

like, Are animals particularly aggressive when

they invade new regions because it is primarily

the bold, aggressive individuals that tend to

immigrate to new areas? How does the personality

of the immigrant pool in humans differ from those

who stay behind, and does that difference

influence success - and does this basic view

apply to the melting pot of America?"


Alison Bell has done related experiments with

sticklebacks. It has long been clear to

researchers that fish that have lived for many

generations in the proximity of dangerous

predators are less bold and less aggressive than

animals that have lived relatively risk-free.

What Bell discovered is that those cautious

tendencies outlast the presence of risk, even by

a generation. When she moved sticklebacks who had

always lived in a high-risk environment into a

low-risk environment, she found that not only did

they retain their cautious tendencies, but so did

their offspring. Even fish raised from birth in a

low-risk environment behave more fearfully if

raised by a particularly vigilant father from a

high-risk background.


"There's definitely the effect of genetic

difference," Bell explained, "but there's also

the effect of what is experienced as they grow

up. Genotype and environment interactions make it

difficult to detect the effects of genes, because

you have to take the environment into account.

This is annoying to geneticists." To scientists

like Bell who are studying the interplay of genes

and environment, however, it is of profound




In the coming year, the sequence of the full

stickleback genome will have been assembled,

which will open doors into all kinds of

cross-species research on the relationship

between genes and environment. Alison Bell will

be looking at such things as risk-taking behavior

in sticklebacks - which may, by extension, give

us insight into the behavior of humans. The same

genes and hormone receptor systems associated

with such behaviors have been conserved across a

broad spectrum of species from sticklebacks to

rhesus monkeys to us. John Capitanio has already

done a number of experiments with rhesus monkeys

that look into how the manner of their rearing

affects what Capitanio (in a hedge on the loaded

P-word) calls an animal's "biobehavioral

organization" - and how, in turn, that

biobehavioral organization affects everything

from gene expression to immune-system function

against ailments like simian AIDS.


What once seemed the hopelessly subjective

pursuit of understanding human behavior and

personality is now increasingly being tied down

to and girded by the objective moorings of our

own and other animals' biology. The very names of

newly emergent fields like biological psychiatry,

molecular psychiatry and, of course, animal

personality reflect this trend. It is not, as

Capitanio points out, a reductionistic concept

but more of a holistic one, one that allows for

an unprecedentedly subtle reading of the

integrative influences - genetic, experiential

and environmental - that shape each individual's



Capitanio is currently writing, with Sam Gosling,

the first chapter on animal personality to be

included in "The Handbook of Personality," a

standard reference book of human-personality

psychology. This week, he will be in Palm

Springs, Calif., presenting a paper on

personality in rhesus monkeys as part of an

animal-social psychology symposium led by Gosling

at the annual meeting of the Society for

Personality and Social Psychology, the first

symposium of its kind at a human psychology

conference. For Gosling, it is the realization of

the very thing he envisioned when he first

started pursuing the possibility of personality

in animals at Berkeley back in the mid-1990's.


"What really got me interested when I started

exploring this," Gosling told me, "is I noticed

that what the animal researchers were doing in

practice was exactly what human researchers were

saying would be the perfect study they could do

in a perfect world. Like you ask a human

personality researcher, they might say what we'd

do is take a bunch of individuals, and we'd watch

them from conception till death and record all

the major events in their lives and know who

mated with whom and who had a fight with whom.

And if we wanted, we could give them frightening

stimuli and so on. And a lot of my job is saying

to those in human psychology: 'Hey, you should

talk to these other guys. What they're doing is

really relevant.' I'm like the middleman."


Looking through some of the animal-personality

literature in Gosling's office that afternoon, I

came upon an intriguing paper titled "Microscopic

Brains," published in the March 13, 1964, edition

of the journal Science, in the midst of the great

animal blackout from psychological literature.

Written by a professor of zoology and psychology

at the University of Pennsylvania named Vincent

Dethier, the paper is at once a study of insect

behavior and a remarkably prescient argument for

a more intuitive, empathetic and integrative

approach to the study of psychology.


"The farther removed an animal is from

ourselves," Dethier writes, "the less sympathetic

we are in ascribing to it those components of

behavior that we know in ourselves. There is some

fuzzy point of transition in the phylogenetic

scale where our empathizing acquires an unsavory

aura. Yet there is little justification for this

schism. If we subscribe to an idea of a lineal

evolution of behavior, there is no reason for

failing to search for adumbrations of higher

behavior in invertebrates."


Dethier concludes on a decidedly haunting note:

"Perhaps," he writes, "these insects are little

machines in a deep sleep, but looking at their

rigidly armored bodies, their staring eyes and

their mute performances, one cannot help at times

wondering if there is anyone inside."


We will never know, of course, one way or the

other. And yet somehow, science, of all things,

is rendering the empirical answer to such a

question incidental to a more felt and intuitive

one. Perched now, like entranced children, along

the banks of their respective simulated streams,

scientists are staring for hours at the least

human of creatures - everything from bullying

fruit flies to ravenous, oversexed water striders

and fishing spiders to perilously fearless hordes

of armored stickleback fish - and are beginning

to see in them not just their distinct patterns

of behavior but also something deeply and

distinctly recognizable. Something, well, not

altogether inhuman.


Charles Siebert is a contributing writer and the

author most recently of "A Man After His Own

Heart: A True Story."



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