And now the scientists will do whatever they damned please (start shouting, most likely)

Google was really no help in finding the exact quote, but everyone in the animal behavior field has heard some version of the Harvard Rule of Animal Behaviour:

“You can have the most beautifully designed experiment with the most carefully controlled variables, and the animal will do what it damn well pleases.”

Anyone here knows who actually said that and what were the exact words?
Anyway, one way to re-word the “whatever they damned please” is to call it “free will”. Björn Brembs says so but apparently not everyone agrees. The discussion in the media and on blogs is just about to start because Bjorn’s paper about spontaneous behavior in Drosophila just came out today (after quite a long wait). You can read the summary by Bjorn, but I also suggest you try to read the actual paper. If seemingly spontaneous behavior can be described by mathematical formulas, even if it is chaotic dynamics, is it then, really, quite deterministic? If so (or if not) can it be called “free will”? If not, is there a better term for it?
Keep an eye on the discussion on Bjorn’s blog as well as the discussion attached to the PLoS-ONE paper itself and, if you have read and understood the paper, please contribute to the discussion. This is bound to get very interesting over the next several days.

24 responses to “And now the scientists will do whatever they damned please (start shouting, most likely)

  1. Interesting, but the only thing “surprising” about the research is the fact that the scientists would be surprised by the results.

  2. Actually, Bjorn has been very careful in his use of language. Let’s see who ignores this, assumes he made a strong statement for the existence of free will in insects, and proceeds to tear down the straw man.
    I really like the way he provocatively used the term “free will”, probably knowing too well that this will irk some people (and be totally misinterpreted by the media). I am getting ready to sit back and enjoy myself immensely.
    My prognosis: those opposed to the use of the term will be (classically trained) philosophers and (classically trained) ethologists. Those sympathetic will be neuroscientists, computational biologists, and modern Integrative/Comparative Behavioral biologists. Also, perhaps the Americans (and Brits?) may be more sympathetic than Germans. Let’s see if I am right about this or not.

  3. Pizza in the lab will screw any experiment.

  4. Benjamin Franz

    I wasn’t able to find the originator. But the oldest reference I could find was in an anonymous net.jokes posting to Usenet dated Wed Mar 24 10:45:54 1982. It was labeled ‘The Harvard Law’ but still unattributed even then.
    I suspect it likely originated in a paper or book before that.

  5. Benjamin Franz

    Oh, the wording used in that posting was:

    The Harvard Law: Under the most rigorously controlled conditions
    of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables,
    the organism will do as it damn well pleases.

    Which, incidently, is the version I remember first seeing many years ago.

  6. Bjorn’s paper has this quote: Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases. without a citation.

  7. Seems like I heard something similar regarding photographing animals.

  8. Hell, I work with tadpole brains in vitro, and even outside the body they sometimes do whatever the hell they please. Some brains decide to take a nap, some decide to be giddy like a preschooler.

  9. Man, Coturnix, you’re amazingly quick in picking things up!! I scramble and can barely keep up with the media, and you’re way ahead!
    Actually, I got the quote from Paul Grobstein’s article: Variability in Brain Function and Behavior (1994), where he basically outlines many of the main arguments which we also bring in our paper. We also, of course, cite this article in the paper, but since the Harvard Law is so widespread, we didn’t cite him with the Law.
    Media misrepresentation has been fairly ok so far. I’ve had a few journalists apologize to me in advance that they had to stress the free will thing in order to sell it to their editors, we’ll see how bad it gets…
    Deterministic or random? If you have something that’s composed of both and requires both you’ll always have camps that stress that one is more important than the other. People in the field classify these processes as intermediate. Of course, so far you can still deny free will even if nonlinearity was involved in humans as well. That’s not really the main point. For me, the main point is that even fly brains possess a mechanism, by evolutionary design, that makes them constantly alter their behavior a little bit. And there are similar patterns that can be seen in virtually all animals which have been looked at. Something so universal must either be something very important or something very trivial, mustn’t it?
    I expect comments ranging from very positive to very negative and everything in-between. It’s a controversial issue and it might, with a little luck, be the first real test of the comment function of PLoS One.

  10. The first comment and the first annotation are already up on PLoS. Let the games begin!

  11. Also, if you scroll up on this blog, I tried to pick an appropriate “ClockQuote” for today…

  12. What? Annotation and comment up? How am I supposed to keep up? 🙂 You must be several people! 🙂
    I gotta go and check them out right away – and then I need to glue some more flies to hooks!
    PS: Very appropriate quote!

  13. A notable addendum to that law:
    Pretty much any experiment involving cats is going to end up with the cat demanding to be fed. – gordonjcp on

  14. I found this page through a google news search of the “free will” article. What perturbed me about the article (the one accessed from is that the research has nothing to do with free will. If randomness is noise then the difference between environmental cues and randomness is simply a matter of scale. There is in fact no substantive non-arbitrary difference between the two. All the research has shown is that fly behavior is determined, in part, by factors on a much smaller and more chaotic scale than previously known. Predictable it may not be, but it is still deterministic. I have guaged from the comments here that I’m not the only one annoyed

  15. Why no mention of the affect of memory and genetic predisposition in this study? Even the simplest organisms have rudimentary memory which means the life experience of any given organism must be taken into account to understand its behavior. Further, organisms are not carbon copies of each other and the differences in genetic traits surely have an affect on behavior.
    Memory, experience and genetic traits are fully consistent with “doing what it damn well pleases” and yet are also clearly deterministic, resulting from input from environment over time and input from parent genome(and perhaps the occasional mutation).

  16. dan: follow the links to the paper itself as well as to blogospheric commentary. The term “free will” is not in the paper, only in the press release. Chaotic dynamics are deterministic, yet unpredictable.
    EthylAdded: yes, but be careful – I’ve seen this on some other blog commentary about the article as well – do not think of the genome as a program.

  17. For blogospheric responses you can use Technorati or Google Blogsearch for “Brembs”, or watch a growing list of links here.

  18. Ha! The creatures at Uncommon Descent tried to use this paper to argue against “Darwinism” and Mark Hoofnagle destroys them (while adding another good post about the meaning of the paper).

  19. Here is another good take.

  20. rev matt y,
    Under laboratory conditions all animals are cats.
    And another law to consider: The range of any large animal almost exactly corresponds to the movements of the last grad student to study it.

  21. I now also caved in to my deterministic reflexes and posted a comment to the UD post. I was sort of expecting coverage from this angle. Now all that’s missing is PETA (citing UD) claiming that fruit flies have a soul! That’ll send the bombers right to our lab! 🙂
    Now that I think of it, they wouldn’t even have to use much explosives. Our building is so rotten, a fireworks cracker would probably suffice to pulverize it, lol 🙂

  22. Fortunately for you, fruit flies aren’t generally regarded as cute and fuzzy, so PETA will have no interest.

  23. I was just looking for that quote and found your page. I first saw it in a book by H. Allen Smith that I can’t put my hands on at the moment. I think it was _How to Write Without Knowing Nothing_. Of course I can’t remember whose law it was — that was something I was hoping to find. If nothing else, this is a good reminder to me to try and get all my Smith books back out onto shelves instead of hiding away in boxes.

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