Are Sheep Stupid, and What's a Fact?

A renowned primatologist stocks her front field with sheep, and sits and watches them all day. She has 22 sheep, and each day she feeds them, with each sheep having its own bowl. But each day she takes out 23 bowls, not 22. Why?

Thelma Rowell spent many years studying apes in Africa, but now she tends to and watches these sheep. She has an inkling, backed up by what she sees, that sheep don't deserve to be the dopes of the animal world, that maybe we've been looking at them all wrong. That extra bowl is there for one reason - to allow the sheep to act differently. Rowell wants to see what they do when confronted with one extra bowl, surplus to requirements. 

But more broadly she's teasing apart a foundational assumption that many, including scientists, have about science. Namely that science discovers facts, and these  tell us how the world is. And the world is just one way, in each area you might look at it, and depending on how well you do the science you might get nearer to the 'truth' of this part of the world, or not. What Rowell is showing with her sheep is that the world is many things, even some bit of the world that looks like a single lump of fact, and what it is will depend on the questions you ask of it, and how you study it (what instruments you use, what ideas and concepts you use, etc.). For example prior to her work studies of animals like sheep were dominated by assumptions that animal behaviour could be fundamentally explained by the idea of competition for food, and hierarchy. All that alpha male stuff that came out of ape studies, which primatologist Shirely Strum debunked so beautifully in her work. So sheep behaviour looked passive and stupid because nobody had ever thought to wonder if the framework of assumptions about them being passive and stupid was self-fulfilling. 

For example if you study their behaviour from the standpoint of them being motivated instead by the desire to avoid predation, all of their behaviours suddenly become very sophisticated. And eating is central to the study of much animal behaviour simply because it's one of the easiest things to observe them doing - purely a matter of practical research convenience. Further the presence of the researcher changes the way the animals behave; sheep and other animals will recognise that humans offer them some protection from predation, and behave accordingly to facilitate the continued presence of the humans. So all of this supposed passivity and docility is possibly them just being agreeable, to keep us around, as it often is for dogs as well. 

The wider point here is that there is no such thing as objective facts about the world, floating free from human interests and ideas and instruments. Every established fact is certainly true, but true means consistent with the very specific conditions under which it has been produced. Try to prove to anybody that microbes cause disease, without a microscope. And see how sheep and other animals can take on entirely different, factual complexions depending on the infrastructure of analysis - the instruments, the assumptions etc. 

This isn't at all to say that facts are made up, or socially constructed, and it isn't some post-modernist fairytale about all things being equal, or that we only ever perceive the world through a veil of ideas and beliefs. There's no veil here, hiding us from things as they 'really are'. Things 'as they really are' include all of the ways we interact with them, which help to create each fact - the fact is part of the entire mechanism, and will change if you change the mechanism. You can be right and true about a single thing in an almost infinite number of ways, because the world isn't a static underlying lump of stuff, it's an always-changing flux of things which change as we interact with it. As some Greeks said thousands of years ago, you never step in the same river twice, the world is change.

So the traditional science and religion debate for example is a sterile, tedious time-waster. Both sides think the main game is to define reality and its truth, whereas it's possible that each has their own completely valid way of interacting in the world, for different effects. Science isn't what tells us how things objectively are, over the top of which we can choose to weave any variety of subjective moral, religious and other value-laden fantasies. Science does different things with reality to religion, that's all. It uses test tubes and chromatographs and potentiometers, instead of bread and wine and incense. It establishes ways for us to extend our access to things in space and time, whereas religion is much more about a resonance of things in the present - to make the world sacred in each moment, in all of its detail. Where sacredness need not be about a different access to truth, but about a truth of connectedness and better or worse combinations of things. 

Anyone who's spent any time working in science knows that it's as infected by politics, stupidity and prejudice as anything else human beings have invented. This doesn't invalidate the science, it just makes it human. Some of the best science never gets heard, because it doesn't agree with the dominant power of the day (look at the neoclassical loons in economics, cutting off at the knees anything approaching common sense for decades now, and more). For years scientists 'knew' that women were inherently hysterical animals, which a quick ripping out of the womb could cure. 

Every age has its priesthood of righteousness, guarded by its own rules and yardsticks. It's simple really to be rid of fundamentalists, you just ignore any idiot who tells you they know how the world really is. That includes people who construct narratives about idiot churches and noble scientific saints, and idiot scientists and wise churches. Because the world is lots of things, it depends what you do with it. 

(Oh, and the sheep do a variety of different things with that extra bowl, many of which are completely unexpected. You can read Rowell's work for the details.)


  1. Nick,
    Great article. Re that extra bowl being there for one reason - to allow the sheep to act differently. As Thelma Rowell says elsewhere,
    "I tried to give my sheep the opportunity to behave like chimps"
    Seriously though, every animal is "intelligent" in that it acts from its own highly evolved and sophisticated and unique self protective survival mechanism.
    As Montaigne wrote, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.”

  2. Thanks Peter.

    Had you heard of Rowell's work before?


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