The New York Times, Nov 14, 2003 pA27 col 01 (17 col in)
Donald R. Griffin, 88, Dies; Argued Animals Can Think. (Metropolitan Desk)(Obituary) Carol Kaesuk Yoon.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 The New York Times Company
Dr. Donald R. Griffin, who was considered the founder of the modern field involving the study of animal thinking and consciousness, and who early in his career helped unravel the secret of bats' navigation system, died last Friday in Lexington, Mass. He was 88.
An emeritus professor of animal behavior at Rockefeller University, Dr. Griffin gave birth to the field known as cognitive ethology in 1978 when he broke a scientific taboo by suggesting that animals might have the capacity to think and reason, and that scientists should study these mental processes.
''He started a revolution in the way we see animals,'' said Dr. Marian Stamp Dawkins, an animal behaviorist at Oxford University. ''People had been saying we shouldn't study animal minds or animal consciousness but only things we can observe. He said this is a legitimate question. He really opened the door.''
In his publications, Dr. Griffin argued that the great complexity and adaptability of animal behavior, from the sophisticated food-gathering behavior of chimps to the clever fishing techniques of herons, suggest that animals are not mere automatons. Instead, he maintained, they are thinking beings, even if they might be thinking about different things, in ways entirely different from humans.
In fact, other scientists in earlier centuries had considered the internal lives of animals (including Darwin, who wrote ''The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals''), and many nonscientists have long been comfortable with the assertion that animals have thoughts, plans and feelings. Yet among scientists, especially those studying animal behavior, animal thinking was considered a subject that belonged far outside the realm of scientific exploration.
Many scientists say the only reason that animal thinking was given consideration at all was that Dr. Griffin suggested it. Respected as a rigorous scientist, he was known to biologists for discovering the method bats use to navigate in darkness.
As a student, Donald Griffin and a fellow student, Robert Galambos, found that bats could use reflected sounds to detect objects. In 1944, Dr. Griffin coined the term echolocation to describe the phenomenon.
To many, the idea was outrageous.
Dr. Griffin once wrote, ''One distinguished physiologist was so shocked by our presentation at a scientific meeting that he seized Bob by the shoulders and shook him while expostulating, 'You can't really mean that!' ''
But while echolocation is well accepted today, Dr. Griffin's pleas that animal thinking and consciousness become standard fare for research have met with more mixed success.
The numerous and vocal critics of the growing field of cognitive ethology include both scientists and philosophers. Scientists complain the field is too dependent on anecdote, highly subjective and anthropomorphic, more akin to the way a dog owner envisions his pet's day than the way a scientist typically approaches the study of animal behavior.
In addition, the field's natural connection to movements like animal rights advocacy has made some scientists wary.
Yet for other scientists, animal reasoning and consciousness have merely become the latest in the long list of humanity's supposedly unique characteristics to be acknowledged as shared more widely across the animal kingdom. These researchers acknowledge the difficulty of studying an animal's mental state, but say such hurdles should not preclude animal thinking from being the subject of scientific research.
Today cognitive ethologists study many varied questions about how animals might think: if animals can form concepts, for example, or anticipate the actions of others.
''It's a curious point that I've made in all my books,'' Dr. Griffin once said, ''that in the face of very weak evidence we scientists tend to make very strong, negative statements: no animal does this, animals can't do that and so on, when we really don't know. I think we should have an open mind.''
Dr. Griffin was born in Southampton, N.Y., in 1915. He received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard. He was a professor at Cornell, then later at Harvard, where he was a professor of zoology. He finished his career at Rockefeller. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
After retiring from Rockefeller in 1986, he moved to Lexington, Mass.
He is survived by two daughters, Janet Abbott of Arlington, Mass., and Margaret Griffin of Montreal, and a son, John, of Brighton, Mass.