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1 April 2006 IN MEMORIAM: DONALD R. GRIFFIN, 1915-2003
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Donald R. Griffin, who joined the AOU in 1950 and was elected a Fellow in 1980, died at home in Lexington, Massachusetts, on 7 November 2003. Griffin is survived by two daughters, Janet Abbot and Margaret Griffin, and a son, John. His first marriage, to Ruth Castle, ended in divorce. He then married Jocelyn Crane, who predeceased him in 1998; she was an expert on Crustacea and at one time an assistant to William Beebe.

Griffin was born in Southampton, New York, on 3 August 1915. His interest in animal behavior began in a conventional manner, with his observations of wildlife as he grew up in rural New York and on visits to Cape Cod. He became actively engaged in ornithology at 15, when he persuaded his biology instructor at Andover Academy to help him obtain a bird banding license and arrange for a building to be transported into the woods to serve as a banding laboratory.

He obtained a B.A. from Harvard College in 1938, became a Junior Fellow, and for his Ph.D. in 1942 from Harvard he explored the homing abilities of birds. He simultaneously worked with Robert Galambos, trying to determine how bats navigated in the dark. At the time, his suggestion that animals might use sonar was considered outlandish. A senior colleague encouraged him by saying that he, Griffin, did not yet have a reputation to tarnish, and that this was the perfect time in his career to try something totally far-fetched. But having such an idea was just the beginning; it was Griffin's careful experimental design, which included painstaking experiments to rule out any other type of mechanism, that led him to confirm his hypothesis and coin the term “echolocation.” Subsequently, his findings were used in the development of radar and sonar systems for human navigation.

After Harvard, Griffin taught at Cornell University (1946-1953), returned to Harvard (1953-1965), and then spent many years at Rockefeller University (1965-1986), where he helped establish the Millbrook Field Station. He was an Honorary Member of the Corporation of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Animal Behavior Society, and American Physiological Society. He studied bird navigation, honeybee communication, and marine mammal acoustic orientation. He continually tried out new ideas, technology, and techniques and was among the first to track birds in airplanes in an attempt to determine what clues the animals used for homing and in migration.

It was in 1976 that Griffin published The Question of Animal Awareness and embarked on a quest to explore an evolutionary continuum of intelligence and awareness. The scientific culture of the 1970s that he was challenging is difficult to appreciate today, given that contemporary literature is packed with papers on animal cognition and even a journal with that name. Current work on animal intentionality, “mind-reading,” and consciousness is a reflection of his influence, and makes it easy to overlook the staunch behaviorism of the 1950s and 1960s that was still in vogue in the 1970s. Even Hulse, Fowler, and Honig's Cognitive Processes in Animal Behavior, published a few years earlier, mostly re-interpreted data from experiments based on standard operant procedures to suggest that animals were doing something more than blindly reacting to stimuli, but did not go any further. Little data existed to support directly Griffin's thesis that animals engaged in meaningful mental activity — primarily because researchers had been trained to ignore the so-called “anecdotes” that did not fit into the standard paradigm, which rejected anything to do with mind, desire, purpose, awareness, thinking, and consciousness. As Jim Gould remarked, more than a few of Griffin's colleagues wondered whether the grand old man was slipping into senility. At the time, I had just received my Ph.D. in chemical physics, but was retraining myself to embark on studies on animal-human communication, or “animal language,” another area of research as controversial as that pursued by Griffin. As I packed to leave Harvard for a move to Indiana at the end of 1976, I remember begging my then sister-in-law to track down Griffin's book and give it to me as my holiday present. I hoped it would lend support to my hypotheses, which were also being thoroughly ridiculed.

Griffin's book stirred up an amazing controversy and considerable backlash against his arguments that humans could not be the only conscious creatures, but when his target article for Brain and Behavioral Sciences appeared two years later, support had begun to grow, particularly among those, like me, whose studies of animals' capacities were threatening to take down another sacred bastion of human uniqueness, that of language. I met Griffin a few years later, at a small conference devoted to these topics, and our conversation reflected Griffin's typical modesty and curiosity. After his talk, I approached him to tell him how interesting I found it and to send regards from a Rockefeller graduate who was generously lending me some lab space, as I had no position at the time other than that of “faculty wife.” Griffin dismissed my chatter, stared me down, and asked, “And what do YOU do?” When I told him about my then heretical work on training parrots to communicate with humans in English, he immediately made sure that I was invited to the reception that evening so that he could find out more about my work and introduce me to the other speakers.

Griffin tirelessly pursued his goal, published a revision of the 1976 book, and used his influence as head of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in the early 1980s to divert funds to keep studies such as mine and Cheney and Seyfarth's work on monkey cognition afloat when cutbacks at the National Science Foundation made funding such edgy studies even more difficult. He published Animal Thinking in 1984 and Animal Minds in 1992, and coined the term cognitive ethology. By that time, Griffin had become a mentor to a number of younger colleagues, including me, and was challenging me to use my knowledge to move into the field of animal consciousness. As an untenured professor, I felt I was in deep enough water without taking on consciousness studies, and his example was actually downright scary. He was, at the time, being called all sorts of unpleasant names by his detractors, and I remember asking him why he continued to push so hard. He gave me two reasons. First, he said that being at the end of one's career was not so different from being at the beginning — that he already had a solid reputation and didn't care what happened next. Second, he felt that if he situated himself at the furthest extreme, he could pull colleagues at least to the middle, whereas if he started in the middle, he would be unlikely to budge them much at all.

After his retirement from Rockefeller, he returned to Harvard to teach a seminar and pursue further research on communication in bats, bees, and the social life of beavers. He lectured nationally and internationally about animal consciousness. After I returned to Cambridge in 1999, we periodically got together for dinners and heated discussions about experiments that could be used to uncover animal abilities. He forced me to be rigorous in my experimental designs, and I would punch holes in those he proposed. Both of us were left energized and, even if in disagreement, far better off for the intellectual workout.

Don's final book, a revision of Animal Minds, called Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness, and his final paper, “New Evidence of Animal Consciousness” (Animal Cognition, January 2004, with Gayle Speck) were able to take advantage of magnetic resonance imaging studies to demonstrate neural bases for mental constructs such as cognitive maps, not only in humans but also in other animals, thus lending support to his theories. One would think that such evidence would silence his critics, but some interpreted the parallels between animals and humans as supporting the view that such cognitive processing was not a conscious phenomenon, but rather one that was innate, inborn, and performed unconsciously.

After Griffin's passing, the debate has continued to rage. His colleagues would agree that “controversial” is a fitting description of Griffin, who would heartily concur. He was always at the forefront of biology; some would say often ahead of the curve. We who admired his vigor in scientific debate and his endless curiosity miss him greatly, and even those whose ire he raised likely miss the intellectual challenge he gave them. Up to the very end, Griffin was ever the scientist: the last time we spoke, a few days before his death, he again brushed aside any queries concerning himself, wanting to know, “And what are YOU doing?”

Irene M. Pepperberg "IN MEMORIAM: DONALD R. GRIFFIN, 1915-2003," The Auk 123(2), (1 April 2006). https://doi.org/10.1642/0004-8038(2006)123[595:IMDRG]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2006
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