This page is for people seeking out information about my father, S. A. (Tony) Barnett. The following is based upon what he wrote for a web page about himself in 2001. I hope to make copies of his papers available by request. Please contact me via the contact page for further information.
My father also gave a great many talks on Australian radio, specifically the Science Show and Ockham’s Razor on ABC Radio National.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …
Tony Barnett was born in England in 1915 of rich but honest parents. Fortunately for him they soon became poor. As a result he was sent to a school in London, founded for ‘poor scholars, of all nations and countries indifferently’, where he was awarded a scholarship, became a sgt-major, won a number of prizes for rifle shooting and learnt to dislike militarism. Half way through school he turned from classics to biology.
In 1934 he went, again as a scholar, to Oxford University, where he was marked by an excessive diversity in his interests and by his slow batting (at cricket). In 1937 he was give first class honours in zoology and a research scholarship. As a graduate student he was left virtually unsupervised while he undertook an absurdly ambitious project in cell physiology. In 1938 he won the Cecil Peace Prize for an essay on international politics.
His experiments cut short by the second world war, he was drafted into the British Ministry of Food and was duly but harmlessly bombed by the Luftwaffe. He became head of a research unit on rodent pests and had his first experience of the behavior and ecology of rodents, of applied zoology and of the London sewers. He also aroused anxiety among his colleagues by trying to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of what they were doing. In 1945 he was sent to Malta, Italy and Gibraltar to advise the governments and military authorities on combating plague.
In 1951 he went to Glasgow University, where for twenty years he worked on exploratory behavior, the effects of cold stress on the breeding of mice and on the physiology of social stress among wild rats. He introduced ethology and human biology into the curriculum and caused perturbation among his colleagues and pupils by experimenting with methods of teaching, such as free group discussion, designed to provoke thought. He also achieved the unique if momentary distinction of reaching the top of the dons’ squash ladder when a grandfather.
From 1971 through 1980 he was Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology in the Australian National University. There he tried to promote the teaching of quantitative methods and to encourage pedantry in writing reports and papers. He is now an Emeritus Professor.
In 1966 he made the first of a series of visits to India, where he advised on the teaching of vertebrate biology in universities and on research on the management of mammalian pests. He was a founder, and is a vice-president, of the Ethological Society of India.
He took a prominent part in debates on the significance of animal social behavior for our understanding of ourselves, during which he displayed a tactless insistence on logical rigor and respect for evidence. In 1975 he nonetheless became President of the International Society for Research on Aggression. He was also been President of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour. The institutions in which he has had visiting appointments include Rockefeller University, New York, and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.
He was author of more than 150 papers, mainly on the behavior, physiology and ecology of small mammals. In Australia he did research on social stress and enigmatic death among wild rats (including indigenous species) and on exploratory behavior, neophilia and neophobia. For experiments on exploration he designed an automated, computerized environment, or residential maze. But possibly his most important findings have concerned adaptation to cold: for many years he and his colleagues and pupils studied the effects of breeding wild mice in refigerators. An outcome was a stock of ‘Eskimo’ mice which, compared with controls in a warm environment, were heavier and hairier and had larger litters; the females secreted more and more concentrated milk and looked after their young better; even the males were very parental. This empirical work is in contrast to the much advertised speculations of biologists who try to make out how natural selection works by consulting computers.
He was an advocate of transdisciplinary courses for undergraduates, to counter the relentless regress toward teaching more and more about less and less. He published papers on teaching and, for many years, was almost alone in pointing out that Homo sapiens is also Homo docens, the teaching species.
Tony Barnett has had fifty years experience of writing and speaking radio programs, in which he tried to convey authentic human and humane biology to a large public.