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Learning how to study animal behaviour


Choosing to become a research zoologist
Desmond Morris Writer
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When I finally came to leave the army, I had to decide what to do next. The art schools at the time were pretty awful – hidebound, traditional – and it didn't appeal to me at all. But I was by... at this point, obsessed with my surrealist painting and drawing and I decided that what I would do is I would combine my two interests of animals and art and I would go and do a degree in zoology, but with the primary aim of doing thousands of drawings under the microscope – because I was fascinated by microscopic shapes and I wanted to spend hours drawing them. And I did. It wasn't actually my intention, much as I loved animals, to go on and become a professional zoologist. There was a reason for this. It's because I happened to like animals and I wasn't prepared to do experiments on animals. Now zoology is an experimental science and I would – if I went on to become a professional zoologist – I would be expected to do experiments on animals and I wasn't prepared to do that. So I wasn't serious about a career of zoology, but I was very serious about the wonderful shapes and images that I found under the microscope. And I've got a huge pile of old notebooks of those drawings still.

And then something very strange happened. My professor, who was a young man called Peter Medawar, who was utterly brilliant – another great wordsmith incidentally, and I learnt a huge amount from him about scientific writing, he had a wonderful way with words, like Dylan and... but in his case, they were... it was... it was scientific eloquence. And in fact the research he was doing when he was my professor was research for which he later received the Nobel Prize. It was research on immunology, and it was that research that led eventually to heart transplant, so it was very important. And his brain was at its peak and his lectures were wonderful. And he knew that I was interested in animal behaviour and he was such an acute observer of people that he spotted that... I think he must have spotted that I wasn't really happy with experimental work and that I was an observer of animal behaviour. And one day he said to me, look, there's a Dutch professor, Niko Tinbergen, coming over to give a talk at the medical department here and I think you ought to hear him.

I was very flattered and he actually drove me over in his car. I was only a student but anyway, I thought, this is wonderful. And I sat with him and listened for one hour to Tinbergen and that was, for me, a great moment because here was a man who had found a way to do respectable, quantitative, scientific analysis of animal behaviour which was based on observation rather than experiment. You didn't have to do nasty things to the animals, you just simply sat and watched them. But you didn't just watch them like a naturalist, you sat and watched them analytically and you analysed everything they did and you recorded it, you described it and you measured it, and then you made predictions and then you measured those predictions. So it was... it was scientific analysis of animal behaviour of a naturalistic kind. It was exactly what I wanted. And thanks to the brilliance of Medawar's brain, which impressed me so much, and thanks to Tinbergen's philosophy of observing animals, I was able to continue with my zoological career. I didn't stop... I didn't stop painting. I managed to keep both things going and in 1950, I – for example – I had an exhibition in London with the Spanish artist Miró and later got to know him.

And so I was active in the art world, but I was also now becoming seriously active in the scientific world of zoology.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Peter Medawar, Niko Tinbergen

Duration: 4 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014