ON THE RELEVANCE OF RATS
My wife readily agreed that the very best place for the rat was on the first shelf of the Welsh dresser where it could happily squat between two rows of coffee mugs. The cage did overlap the shelf a little but not so much as to suggest that its occupant's random movements would ever lead it to topple onto the large fruit bowl on the lower surface.
Everything went well until the day when my wife woke in the middle of the night and decided to make herself a consoling cup of tea. In the semi-gloom she reached up to the dresser for a mug and found that what she'd grabbed with her outstretched fingers was not a china handle but the scaly middle section of the rat's long tail.
She only stopped screaming when I eventually agreed that the rat (and its tail) would be returned to the Psychology Department at Birkbeck College the very next day. But, as I pointed out, if this meant that I secured a lower mark than expected on my experimental finds paper, then I would know where to place the blame. After all the rat had only been given house room so that it could be used in my studies of animal learning. And, as I also explained, this wasn't just about rats. My tutors at Birkbeck were avid followers of behavioural psychologist B.F.Skinner and therefore fully committed to the idea that a proper knowledge of how animals could be taught to learn by the use of operant conditioning provided a model for a great deal of human behaviour. Why, Skinner even argued that, with the help of new conditioning techniques, it would be possible to obliterate a great deal of crime and evil in the present world. 'It's a rat', said my wife opening the front door wide so I could squeeze through with the cage.
I intended to apologise for my failure to my tutor in the next animal behaviour seminar and suggest that I might complete my experiment in the department's laboratory. But I was saved from this humiliation by a fellow student called Maurice who decided to use the seminar as an opportunity to throw doubt upon the whole Skinnerian enterprise.
In an earlier life Maurice had studied philosophy and he had a habit of irritating his tutors with philosophical quibbles. 'Please don't bring philosophy into a psychology course', one distraught tutor had cried out when Maurice started quoting Hume in a seminar otherwise concerned with the fecal measurement of emotionality in rats.
On this occasion however, he decided to concentrate on the Skinnerian argument that one could extrapolate from the experimental behaviour of rats to the actual behaviour of human beings. Our tutor, Dr Gumpertz, was in no mood to compromise. He told Maurice that Skinner had already shown how schedules of 'operant conditioning' could be devised which would ensure the successful socialisation of a human infant. We were, he argued, already a few steps along the road to a 'Brave New World'.
But Maurice was undeterred. 'There are several big differences between rats and humans', he declared. 'Consider tomorrow'.
'I'm sorry ?' said Dr Gumpertz,
'Consider tomorrow', Maurice repeated. 'Rats have no tomorrow.'
'I'm sorry,' said Dr Gumpertz again.
'It's simple', said Maurice. 'No rat in the history of the world has ever had any idea that there will be a tomorrow. It can't plan for tomorrow, or look forward to tomorrow, because it has no concept of tomorrow at all. To suggest that we might extrapolate from such here-and-now immediate creatures of the present to rational, planned, foresighted, ever-resolving human beings is a higher form of nonsense.'
As Maurice spoke, I felt as though a small door had opened in my brain and allowed in a dozen hovering doubts which I'd previously kept well away from my cortical threshold.
So much so that at the end of the seminar I didn't hand in my rat. Instead I took it home with me again, opened the cage, seized its warm beating body in my two hands, and carried it out to the tiny backyard patch of grass we laughingly called 'the lawn'.
I placed it on a tuft of grass and watched its reactions to its new freedom. I'd read that when Moscow was flooded one day, all Pavlov's conditioned dogs escaped from their laboratory harnesses, ran out into the streets, and lost all traces of their precious conditioning. But my rat showed no such pleasure at its unexpected liberation. It stood stock still.
Eventually I returned to the house, and only glanced out occasionally to see if the animal had finally moved. But it was still there when I went to bed. Next morning though the patch of grass was bare except for some bits of bloody fur and a piece of yellowing scaly tail.
'I'm so sorry', said Maurice, when I told him the story over coffee in Birkbeck snack bar later that night. 'I didn't mean to have such an effect. I suppose though that you could take some philosophical comfort from the knowledge that by denying a rat's capacity to envisage tomorrow I'd effectively ensured that this particular rat never had one.'
'You could put it like that', I said smiling slightly as it dawned on me that I had a brand new friend. For tomorrow. And tomorrow. And perhaps tomorrow.
from a Thinking Allowed BBC Radio 4 newsletter by Laurie Taylor, in which actual names were changed.