Ethology

Table of Contents

Ethology, or behavioral biology, is the branch of biology and zoology that studies animal behavior. The term “ethology” (from the greek ethos and logos, meaning “character or custom” and “study”) indicates in fact the modern scientific discipline that studies the behavioral expression of animals in their natural environment (including humans), following the same criteria with which research is conducted in other fields of biology. The term includes in most European languages the original German expression vergleichende Verhaltensforschung (“comparative behavior research”), used by Konrad Lorenz, considered the founding father of the discipline.

Ethology considers behavior as an adaptive function and value, i.e. resulting from natural selection and provided with survival value, and therefore subject to evolution. The knowledge and understanding of behavioral modules in different species allows to trace their phylogeny. This approach enhances the genetic aspects of behavior (instinctive behavior or hereditary motor coordination) and put ethology in conflict with the psychological schools, more inclined to focus on the importance of interactions between individual and environment in the structuring of behavior.

Ethology does not deny the importance of environmental influences on behavior, but recognizes, in animal and human behavior, the presence of elements that occur regardless of any experience, genetically determined and heritable. According to the methods of ethology, the observation of animal behavior in nature is essential, since it has adaptive value and survival purposes, it is fully expressed in the natural context; however, due to the difficulties of constantly following animals in their environment and to separate the various factors that may influence their behavior, ethology does not exclude laboratory experimentation, provided that it is carried out as a complement to the observation in nature. On the other hand, in the laboratory, the animal is almost invariably subjected to situations unrelated to its natural environment and may provide inadequate or even misleading responses for a proper interpretation of its behavior.

The ideal situation for an ethological study is represented by the semi-activity, in which the animal is placed in an environment as similar as possible to the natural one and is constantly observable. The basis of ethological studies is the ethogram, knowledge of which facilitates understanding of the adaptive significance of individual behavioral modules. The flourishing of ethograms in the ethological literature often makes ethology identified with the description of behaviors, while this is only a prerequisite for their comparison and understanding in evolutionary terms.

Although studies and systematic observations carried out with ethological methodologies date back to the thirties of the twentieth century (but valid observations and considerations on animal behavior date back to the second half of the nineteenth century), ethology is not the only methodological approach. XIX), ethology has been recognized, so to speak “officially”, the rank of autonomous discipline in 1973, with the award of the Nobel Prize to K. Z. Lorenz, K. von Frisch and N. Tinbergen, three eminent zoologists who, in addition to being considered the founders of ethology, have also given to this discipline numerous research contributions and a great impetus.

A branch of ethology is represented by human ethology, of which cultural ethology is a further specialization, which addresses human behavior with the same methodologies applied to the study of animal behavior. Human ethology aims to investigate the innate basis of human behavior through its very diverse expression in different cultures. Great impetus was given to this direction of investigation by, among others, I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt and D. Morris, both through the comparative study of Primate and human behavior and through the observation of the basic behavioral modules of children deaf or blind from birth.

Another branch of ethology is represented by applied ethology, whose field of interest is essentially zootechnical and veterinary. This, through the understanding of behavioral mechanisms, seeks to obtain the best performance from domestic animals (for example, artificial insemination by sperm obtained from a stallion induced to mount a dummy that emits appropriate stimuli-key, etc.).

Contemporary developments and current areas of investigation

Ethology developed several branches during its consolidation towards the end of the last century. Konrad Lorenz’s pupil, Irenaus Eibl Eibensfeldt, founded a branch of ethology (certainly following the impulses received from his teacher Lorenz), which he called “human ethology”. Eibensfeldt defines human ethology as the biology of human behavior and, in accordance with its origin from biology, its interests unfold in the usual main directions of morphology, ecology, genetics, developmental biology and physiology, emphasizing that the human ethologist asks how the character considered (behavior), contributes to reproductive success and, therefore, to the survival of genes. Another branch of ethology, consolidated in recent decades is certainly the ecoethology, understood as a branch of ethology that focuses its studies and research in the interaction between animals and the natural environment, analyzing the interactions between species, with particular attention to the conservation of biodiversity.

However, towards the end of the twentieth century, the publication of some books on animal rights had great repercussions, both in political and social spheres. The new attention to the animal as a sentient being, greatly influenced the scientific field and opened the way, together with the psychological sciences, to a new approach to the study of animal behavior: the cognitive one. It was probably the publication of the books Animal machines, by Ruth Harrison and The question of animal awareness: Evolutionary continuity of mental experience, later, by Donald Griffin to start a new interpretation in the meaning of animal behavior.

Appears then over time a branch of classical ethology called “cognitive ethology”, according to which it is possible to adopt a mentalistic approach in the interpretation of animal behavior, starting from the admission of an internal world capable of performing processes of experience, reflection, solution, prefiguration, memory. These methodologies and basic assumptions, however, attract the criticism of the most conservative ethologists, more classicists, who accuse cognitive ethologists of a certain tendency to deny the flourishing past of classical ethology and to adhere to ideological positions sometimes diametrically opposed to the work carried out by the ethology of the twentieth century. Cognitive ethology seems to be currently attracting the same criticism that cognitive psychology generated around the Eighties, during which many psychologists ended up belittling the theoretical and methodological relevance of cognitivism, going so far as to consider it a continuation, albeit in a more sophisticated form, of behaviorism.

Some scientific researches have discovered a decrease in stress following the use of music therapy and an interesting positive effect on pathological states of animal behavior. Parallel to the new cognitive investigations, the concept of animal welfare had a great development, understood here according to the definition of Hughes (1976), as that state of mental and physical balance that allows the animal to be in harmony with the environment that surrounds it. The comparative study of behavior has therefore provided an enormous contribution especially in the constitution of ethology applied to domestic animals, which therefore studies the behavior in relation to their species characteristics both to those of the environment in which man raises them with regard, above all, the effects on the behavior of different systems of breeding and management.

It must necessarily be emphasized, however, that the various evolutions that ethology has had over the last forty years have led some authors to accuse a considerable general disinterest in the great contributions made by classical ethology. The primatologist Frans de Wall, for example, one of the most influential contemporary ethologists, noted “there is less and less respect for Lorenz. Even his compatriots have begun to minimize his contributions”; this already in 2001 (only twelve years after Lorenz’s death).

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