After tracking and observing Great Pandas for four years in Sichuan, George Schaller wrote a book where he addresses himself in the voice of a panda. “You generate numbing statistics about the number of stems I eat in a day and the number of hours I sleep … it merely shows that you have discovered some easy facts about me; most aspects of my life cannot be written in the language of mathematics. … You study my diet, you study how many times I scent mark and mate and how far I travel. Remember, you cannot divide me into independent fragments of existence. At best you might perceive an approximation of a panda, not the reality of one.”
Then he endorsed research into the existence of Bigfoot. In a remarkable speech later published under the title Is Anyone a Cognitive Ethologist?, Colin Allen advanced a “speculative suggestion” that there could be an empirical foundation for knowledge derived from pure observation grounded in the ‘mirror neurons’, “neurons in the ventral premotor cortex of monkeys that are activated both when the monkey engages in purposeful grasping activities, and when it observes similar hand actions performed by another individual.” Essentially, whenever we observe others take an action, we simulate this action to ourselves internally, and this lets us “recognize them as goal-directed agents like ourselves.” Monkey see, monkey do. For Allen, this could have been the foundation for a new mode of ethology; what had long been considered the pareidolia of highly motivated animal lovers was, in fact, the early bloom of a new scientific method.
Allen’s speculation might be ambitious, or optimistic, or pessimistic, or modest; we’re a little too stupid to know. Certainly mainstream ethology did not really go in this direction; it stuck largely to the empirically and ethically questionable territory of animal experiments; but this may have more to do with expediency than rigour. Experiments sell. Some ethologists have confessed to living like double agents, securing funding on the back of experiments and using it to fund their more interesting field observations. The amateur ethologist therefore faces disadvantages, but for the most part they are the same ones faced by the professional; and the amateur ethologist has at their disposal the most advanced apparatus of the professional ethologist . . . observation.
Thus, we nail our Disputation to the doors of Nature and declare the universal expertise of all amateurs. Observation is the property of humanity. All that is necessary is the boldness to declare what one observes. Our first thesis: the question, ‘what is it like to be a bat?’, is in principle answerable. With Deleuze, we say there are “transversal relations that ensure that any effects produced in some particular way ... can always be produced by other means.” To uncover those means we use some combination of the empirical observation of behaviour, rational reflections from physiology, and the imaginative reflexivity which is unavoidable in all contact with another species. With all ingredients gathered, we induce a Humean psychosis, an Ignatian exercise capable of rendering invertebrate cognition accessible.
How does one begin the practice of arachnoethological delerium? It is nothing other than what all amateur observers, and all expert observers, have always practiced. Pick a species you encounter regularly, especially one in your home. Keep a little notebook around and write down everything you observe. Take a note of where you observe it and the general conditions of the encounter (time of day, weather, etc.). Be willing to spend hours in passive observation. You will not initially be prepared for the intensity of life that has been going on without your notice up until now. If you pick a common species in your home you may find it impossible to take note of everything; it would take all day, every day.
Then, keep an index of every species you are observing. Give them all a name (I use formulaic names; a letter to indicate species, a number to indicate individual, eg., p0, p1…). Keep track of when they arrived, when you last saw them, and any infomation about them you think will be useful (‘sex’ might be a useful variable, or a useless one, or impossible to determine, depending on the species; remember that sexuation is a dangerous game which not every species plays, least of all invertebrates). You will soon be able to tell individuals apart by eye.
You might find some equipment useful: a jeweler's loupe for examining bugs up close when you can (a cheap 10x is sufficient), a measuring tape. I don’t use a net or any sample bottles; all one may see in the bottle is a bottled animal. If you have the space, make a wildflower meadow from local plants; make a mud puddle and cover it with salt or piss for butterflies; build a ‘bug hotel’; and write about whatever you see. Take advantage of this integration of human and nonhuman space.
Read as much as possible about your species’ physiology and those of their behaviours which are already well-known. You might find very little is known, or nothing at all; the majority of species are not described. Try to imagine what it’s like to be in such a body. Try and relate their physiology to their behaviour, but be careful not to overstate the case; your object is the bodily empiricism of an Anton Amo, not the eugenic murmurs of a Nietzsche. If an invertebrate dies in your home, try to dissect it and draw what you see, and write down what you smell. If you find a dead invertebrate in the field, leave it alone.
When reading, make use of sci-hub and libgen. Look up university reading lists for textbooks; I like Animal Personalities by Carere and Maestripieri. Look up the name of your species on google scholar or any university library’s search feature (I like Michigan State University’s), then find the DOI (a string of numbers attatched to every academic article) and drop it into sci-hub. If you have the cash, you might want to subscribe to an amateur entomology or arachnology journal; they’re generally inexpensive compared to the extortionate price of academic journals and their articles might not be available anywhere else.
When you really begin the work of observing, reading, and contemplating, you will find the changes can be quite dramatic. I chose p. phalangioides as my species, but I’m terrified of spiders. But the moment I had the notebook and tape measure in my hands, I felt I could get close to them, watch them up close, so close I would accidentally touch them. Now that I’m taking a break, I’m terrified of them again. The mere act of performing observation had an immediate impact on me. Soon, I was immersed in the spider’s own indigenous codes; I began to see my home as a frontier of corners and ceilings, pheremone trails of web leading into gaps and crevices. I longed for the safety of a web and feared the barrenness of a bare wall. The imaginative capacity of contemplation had stretched out to fill my whole house, so that I could inherit a second Umwelt, which came to me as naturally as the first. Now that I’ve stopped participating in observation, that summer feels like a distant dream or hallucination, a memory brought back from the Otherworld. There really is no denying it; ethology is something meditative, magical, and communicative. In its most electric moments we begin to grasp, with the fidelity of a blurry photograph, the 'reality' that Schaller couldn't find in Sichuan and looked for in the Bigfoot-haunted forests of North America.