The Temperament of Serpents

I went surf fishing in Delaware for the first time this summer. My previous experience had been limited to freshwater fishing, mostly for trout, some with a spinning reel using lures and bait, some fly-fishing.

So I spent some time reading about the gear, reading the surf, casting techniques, what you’re fishing for and when you fish for it, and so on. I got myself a 10′ rod and spinning reel and some of the tackle I’d need. I read a few books on surf fishing and a few online forums where surf fishing enthusiasts were talking about their experiences. Then when we were down there I went to a nearby bait and tackle place, got my license and asked about what folks were fishing for, knowing that August is a bad time of year for much of anything.

All of this was useful preparation, and helped me have that conversation at the store in a way that didn’t make me look like a complete idiot. I took advantage of formal and informal knowledge, and became in some slight way a knowledgeable person about what I was going to do.

When I got to the beach with my family, I knew how to rig my line, and how to use my existing knowledge of casting to cast much further than I normally would. What I didn’t know, and what formal knowledge could not let me know, is that in August, almost no one surf fishing in that part of Delaware was surf fishing for the sake of catching fish or even for the zen of fishing per se. Almost everyone there, and it was fairly crowded, was there with their cars (there’s a somewhat expensive permit that lets you drive on the beach if you are “actively surf fishing”). They were there for the sake of the beach, not really to fish. Basically, it was much closer to a big tailgating party than it was to the kinds of fishing I’d seen done along trout rivers and streams, where almost everyone is fairly intent on the act of fishing (which, to be fair, entails a fair amount of just soaking up the scenic environment).

I certainly didn’t have a problem with this (except for when the kids on one side of us kept getting in front of me when I wanted to cast) but it was a bit odd to have spent so much time learning about something only to find that almost everyone else just cast a line in the water and left it untouched for six hours (some of them using small fresh water rods, and more than a few people with no tackle at all on the line anyway). It was like getting all dressed up in formal clothing for a party where everyone else arrives in t-shirts and jeans. The word is that once the summer ends and the fish that anglers prize arrive in mid-September, the scene completely changes. And even in August, at night, it’s a completely different crowd.

The point being that formal knowledge is useful preparation for experience, but only if you’re prepared to abandon, modify, and adapt that knowledge rapidly when you discover that actual communities of use don’t go by the book. I worry a lot that most higher education skimps on or avoids entirely that moment where formal knowledge meets experience and gets put in its place.

This is an old debate in educational studies, of course, the familiar Punch and Judy drama of constructivism vs. guided instruction. But this is also an increasingly important way to think about crowdsourcing, about vernacular knowledge, about how communities of usage might interact more usefully with formal scholarly knowledge production and when the kind of knowledge that comes through long usage or experience ought to lead or trump scholarly investigation rather than the other way around.

One example that was on my mind last week came from a short note in the New York Times Science Times last week. A reader sent in a question, asking for help in identifying a snake he found in Queens, NY. The answer from a herpetologist was that the snake was a brown snake, related to garter snakes and water snakes. Another expert chimed in that the typical temperament of the species is somewhere between ribbon snakes (“friendly”) and northern water snakes (“very grumpy”).

I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that for much of my childhood, I was convinced that I would be a herpetologist. I had pet snakes (a rosy boa, a ribbon snake) and was somewhat infamous in my family for my avid interest in observing and catching snakes and lizards when the opportunity arose. I’ve retained much of this interest even if I’m not a professional herpetologist. While living in southern Africa, I’ve caught (and released) chameleons, geckos and skinks and watched adders and cobras from a safe distance. (Yeah, don’t worry, I’m not going all Crocodile Hunter here.) I often catch garter, ribbon and water snakes in this region to show my daughter when we’re on hikes, though I wasn’t able to get my sister and wife to come and look at a hognose snake the last time I ran across one in the woods. We keep a pet ball python today at home.

So this little note in the NY Times made sense to me. I suspect any naturalist with an interest in a particular species, family or class of animals develops a similar working, experiential sense of the variations in behavior or temperment that they observe when tracking, watching or handling those organisms. Gardeners end up with a working sense of the growth habits of particular plants and weeds and how they interact, pastoralists similarly with domesticated animals. Engineers and tinkerers develop a working feel for how mechanisms and technologies actually function and interact in real contexts of usage.

Vernacular experts are sometimes wrong. The shared understandings that form in communities of use not infrequently harden into orthodoxies. They can come to believe phantom patterns or endorse counterproductive or destructive practices based on received wisdoms. The urge to generalize is very strong whether you’re an academic expert or an everyday practicioner. I contacted one herpetologist to ask whether there was any scholarly study of “temperament” in various snake species. She said no, but she sagely observed that in her experience, species don’t have temperaments, but individual snakes do. That also seems right to me: if you were too convinced that all ball pythons are placid and well-suited to be pets, you’d be pretty confused when you ran across one that was aggressive the moment it came out of the egg.

But it also seems to me that conventional scholarly knowledge does even worse if it is asked to engage some of the observational truths that come from usage, experience and practice. If I asked disciplinary biology to formally study the varying temperaments of snake species, I suspect that one of the end results might be an argument that temperament doesn’t exist, that it’s impossible to study without running afoul of Hawthorne effects, or perhaps that temperament if observable can be explained in terms of adaptive advantage to different species in the context of their environments. None of which feels right to me: different individuals and species do seem to me to have “temperament” (a variation in how they react to handling or human proximity or captivity), it seems to me that naturalists with an interest in snakes can reach meaningful non-scholarly consensus about their observation of these behaviors, and if temperament exists, I’m thinking it’s a mistake to formalize an explanation of it in terms of adaptation (a spandrel or epiphenomenon if there ever was one).

I don’t think there’s any danger that scholarly herpetologists are about to crush this delicate vernacular flower under their feet: they have enough important research to do as it is, and there are few enough of them to do it. But in other contexts, academics have had a tendency to let their formalisms run roughshod over what communities of use know. Sometimes that leads in the long run to the academics getting egg on their faces, sometimes it leads to really productive changes in the practice and understanding of vernacular experts. Sometimes nothing much happens except mutual contempt.

This is where new technologies for meshing or amalgamating knowledge-producing communities that have very different norms and composition might lead to a much richer range of outcomes, to something genuinely new, where “crowdsourcing” has the possibility to become something that neither overcomes nor submits to academic knowledge while academic knowledge retains some of its conventional advantages and strengths while addressing some of its persistent weaknesses. It seems to me that scholars have the potential to move into a new era where we could much more consistently distinguish between three declarations: 1. “This is a problem that we’re best suited to engage within our established institutional practices”; 2. “This is a problem that’s best left to people who’ve learned about through intensive personal and community experience”; 3. “This is a problem that’s best engaged through meshing or connecting heterogenous styles of knowing”.

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3 Responses to The Temperament of Serpents

  1. I do know that there’s research being done on animal ‘personalities,’ though I don’t know whether its reached reptiles yet. Note that if you check Mark Moffet’s “Adventures Among Ants” you’ll see that he thinks ants have personalities.

  2. And there’s this post proposing collaboration with fans in cultural research:

  3. Nitad says:

    Would there really be many situations where #1, would be the best solution? “Meshing the styles of knowing” always seem to bring about the best outcome in my experience. It would be wonderful if this sort of approach was used in our schools and colleges.

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