Donald Griffin; zoologist argued animals have thinking abilities
Donald R. Griffin, who determined how bats navigate in the dark and who became a leading proponent of the controversial notion that some animals share humans' ability to reason, died Nov. 7 at his home in Lexington. He was 88. Dr. Griffin roiled the scientific community in 1958 with his book, "Listening in the Dark," in which he described how bats seek and catch their insect prey. By emitting high-pitched clicking sounds and listening to the echoes, a bat could hunt and eat without the benefit of sight. The timing of the echo determines how far away a target is, and a bat's ability to analyze the returning soundwaves help it decode the prey's shape and direction.
Dr. Griffin called the process "echolocation," a term now commonly used by scientists, and his discovery was considered a major breakthrough not only in zoology but also in the development of radar and sonar systems. Today, researchers still use the bats' mechanism as a benchmark as they attempt to advance even the most-sophisticated sonar systems.
The bat book, based on research Dr. Griffin and fellow student Robert Galambos did at Harvard University two decades earlier, was met with awe and ridicule. Many of his fellow scientists could not believe an animal was capable of such a complicated behavior.
For Dr. Griffin, such research and reaction were only a beginning. He would later argue species as varied as the chimpanzee, the dolphin, the weaver ant, and the "assassin" bug display abilities that are not merely products of preprogrammed instinct, but representations of conscious thought.
"He started a revolution in the way we see animals," Dr. Marian Stamp Dawkins, an animal behaviorist at Oxford University, told The New York Times last week. "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."
"He was one of the great American scientists of the 20th century," said Fernando Nottebohm, a noted scientist at Rockefeller University in New York. "He had a very bold mind."
Although Dr. Griffin began his research at Harvard and returned to the university's Concord Field Station toward the end of his career, much of his research was done at Rockefeller University.
In his 1976 book titled "The Question of Animal Awareness," Dr. Griffin suggested that animals might be capable of thinking and awareness. A 1992 book, "Animal Thinking," detailed such capabilities.
Some examples in the book, such as chimpanzees fishing for termites by selecting a certain kind of stick, preparing it, then using it as a probe on a log, had been accepted by some zoologists as ways animals "learn" to use tools. Other examples, such as that of the "assassin" bug, are more controversial.
The bug nabs its prey, termites, with an elaborate flim-flam. The bug sticks pieces of termite nest to itself and then stations itself near the opening to a termite colony. Perhaps confused by the familiar smell, the termite "soldiers" fail to recognize the camouflaged bug, enabling it to reach into the nest and drag out a victim. The bug eats the termite, leaving only its hard outer skeleton. Then, the assassin shoves the skeleton back into the nest, where a termite "gravedigger" grabs it. This termite is then dragged out of the nest himself, becoming a new victim who then serves as bait for yet another gravedigger.
To Dr. Griffin, such behavior is the result of intelligence. " When a chimp fishes for termites with a stick, we say that's tool use and convincing evidence of intelligence," he said. "But when an assassin bug does something almost as elaborate, why do we assume they're just robots who don't understand what they're doing?
Some scientists are "bashful about inferring conscious thinking, as I am not" he told The Boston Globe in 1998. "It's been a sort of no-no area to scientists."
Dr. Griffin termed this "curious reluctance" of his colleagues "mentophobia."
Born in Southampton, N.Y., Dr. Griffin received his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees from Harvard and worked there from 1953 to 1965. He worked at Rockefeller University from 1965 to 1986. His wife, Jocelyn Crane, died in 1998. He leaves two daughters, Janet Abbott of Arlington, and Margaret Griffin of Montreal, and a son, John, of Boston.
Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.