Social Behavior and Organization Among Vertebrates presents societal forces such as reproduction, co-operation and competition with charismatic science.
Serving as a thorough introduction to evidence gathered by his zoologist buddies, William Etkin describes animal society as a structured web of interactions created by individuals co-operating and competing in response to species-held signals and intra-chemical reactions. The compact volume is filled with useful discussions for sorting the contradictory nature of the human animal.
My copy’s dust jacket is missing, its spine water-stained and its condition poor. Despite this, the sharp black letterforms left-aligned and embossed on its canvas cover caught my eye. Inside, the heady discussion of topics such as social rank, aggressive behavior and shifts in adrenal cortex weight are held together equally by justified paragraphs and illustrated vignettes. Each page rational, humble and optimistic by design.
For example, a male tern brings a fish to his “intended” mate. At this time the mate is perfectly capable of fishing for herself and this attention seems superfluous. After toying with the fish for a while the female may discard it. Clearly, hunger played no role here. Yet all along the shore in the spring, terns may be seen presenting pieces of fish to others and doing it, furthermore, with elaborate, precise, and formal ritualistic movements.
p9 Social Behavior…
### Collaborative production
Social Behavior and Organization Among Vertebrates was published in 1964 by the University of Chicago Press right before Morris Philipson became director in 1967. It remains a classic example of collaborative production with its prescient blend of anecdotal summary and rigorous observational data. Clocking in at 306 pages, these 6 scientists link mammalian behavior and reproduction to the social, chemical and global climate cycles. By working together, they create a book strengthened by the hard-binding of a well-regarded press but powered by the soft-binding of their personal friendships, shared interests and pooled resources. Each is given their own space to work within, therefore each is given responsibility to the whole. This co-operation gives their ideas the best chance at survival.
Further, these scientists were aware of beauty’s power to persuade and decided to take the presentation seriously. As much as we would like to believe that our decisions are based on rationality over emotion, we must concede that many decisions are outside our complete control. Put plainly, we want what we want when we want it. Therefore, the acceptance of ideas, just as the incorporation of gene mutations into a species population, depend on certain rituals of presentation.
### Standardized courtship
FIG. 7.9 documents intricate courtship movements of surface-feeding ducks, frozen into distinct poses over time. Once documented, these movements can be observed in all members of the species from a particular locality. [Originally from K. Lorenz] It is this standardization, this signaling of intention, that unites a species. Animals raised in isolation, will not exhibit this learned behavior. I find it interesting that we can observe such clear standardization in other vertebrates and not corellate it to contemporary human society. Humans are products of their social structure and the opportunities available within that structure and continuously balance their dual nature to compete against and co-operate within their society.
Even Andy Warhol, noticed the standardizing aesthetic of photobooth picture strips and resulting allure of his birds posturing over time. Notice Edie Sedgwick’s turn of her face in the first and third strip from the left. These two poses are almost identical, and appear unconsciously copied. Further, Warhol’s portraits in drag were in fact copies of these poses, direct implementation of learned behavior.
### Social Group or Aggregation
But surely, our socializing is more complex than knowing when a girl is flirting with you and when she has a crick in her neck. We can recognize signals, but to what end?
It is clear that our organizations are built on shared signals and insider vocabularies define group boundaries and knowledge of the group. But do all social groups require the same amount of commitment to be included?
“a flock of sheep is a social group, since it is maintained by the social responses of the animals to one another; but the massing of insects around a light at night is an aggregation, since it results from their common attraction to the light.”
p24 Social Behavior…
I’m interested in this distinction especially when applied to human socialization. When considering Longhorn fans, a megachurch, rock band or austin art scene, which are aggregations and which are social groups? And since both aggregations and social groups exist within human society, how is each useful?
### Art y fact
Social Behavior and Organization Among Vertebrates was clearly conceived as a cultural artifact, in the same class as other gestures created when scientists and artists share common interests. Etkin compiled the book in the late fifties during a time of sustained economic growth, returning soldiers and technological expansion, when science was too important to be left to the scientists. I imagine purchasing a copy after turning up a Stubborn Kind of Fellow 45 or on my way home from seeing 2001: A Space Oddyssey.
Experimental tests have supported the modern view that natural selection operating on the genetic system of higher organisms can effect rapid and delicate adaptation of these organisms to the changing demands on the environment. Dobzhansky 1951
Further, Etkin’s evolution-supporting edition refutes Creationism’s biblical estimate of a 6,000 year old Earth. This could lead you to believe that his book trashes religion, but instead his observations support notions that organized religion might actually serve civilization best as a potential stabilizer.
The human animal can be driven towards faith in all manner of situations. But, left unchecked this faith can develop into a challenge to our species’ survival when given control over government and the military. When *any* majority belief excludes humanity’s tech-assisted evolution from primates and our inherent and embraceable similarities to other mammals we are choosing to break with ancestors. We walk upright among the vertebrates, and we must teach this critical path.
With difficult, untaught content, the old guard scientists refactored their stories into simplest form, but none simpler, before presenting. Having bore the intellectually bankrupt permutations of a generation of social darwinists, these experimental archives were finally fit to print.
### And print they did
Nothing reveals a deep-seeded Bauhaus love and serious fontnerd involvement more than essay titles such as The Evolution of Signaling Devices rigorously typeset in Paul Renner’s Futura. In this spirit and in the spirit of opposing those wrong-headed social darwinists, we should remember that Renner’s letterforms were produced in opposition to his participation in the German ranks. It is my faith, that Futura was produced in hope for the triumph of rationality and scientific balance.
“In Rennerâ€™s view, the taste for large volumes, which equated weight with prestige, betrayed a potential flaw in the German character: â€˜the fatal desire for greatness,â€™ by which Hitler was also notoriously motivated.”
Art of Typography
So, in a continued state of war, religious fervor and outright barbarism is it any wonder that Futura, the papadopoulous, and its inspired son, Neutraface, born from the architecture of Silicon Valley, now seem to show themselves everywhere: from bricks to billboards, and monograms to grammies? Our idealism and its aesthetic remain, as we seek to embed both in creations that outlive us.
### Until they ran out
Social Behavior and Organization Among Vertebrates is available, although not directly. Here are a few used book resellers to try if interested and a few high resolution scans from my archive if your public library‘s copy has gone missing.