Human ethology

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Ethology is concerned with the evolutionary significance of an animal's behaviors in its natural environment. Broadly speaking, ethology focuses on behavior processes across species rather than focusing on the behaviors of one animal group. Ethology as a discipline is generally thought of as a sub-category of biology, though psychological theories have sprung up based on ethological ideas (e.g. sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, attachment theory, and theories about gender differences, incest avoidance, mourning, hierarchy and pursuit of possession). Human ethology focuses on the evolutionary and adaptive significance of human behavior (frequently comparing it to other species' behavior).


Ethology has its roots in the study of evolution, especially after evolution's increasing popularity after Darwin's detailed observations. It became a distinct discipline in the 1930s with zoologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. They rejected theories that relied on stimuli and learning alone, and elaborated on concepts that had not been well-understood, such as instinct. They promoted the theory that evolution had placed within creatures innate abilities and responses to certain stimuli that advanced the thriving of the species. They and another ethologist, Karl von Frisch, received a Nobel Prize in 1973, for their overarching career discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.

Many developmental psychologists were eager to incorporate ethological principles into their theories as a way of explaining observable phenomenon in babies that could not necessarily be explained by learning or other concepts. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth used ethology prominently to explain aspects of infant-caretaker‍‍ attachment theory‍‍ (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). Some important attachment concepts related to evolution:

  • Attachment has evolved because it promotes the survival of helpless infants. Primates and other animals reflexively attach themselves physically to their parent, and have some calls that elicit parental attention. Human babies have adaptively developed signaling mechanisms such as crying, babbling, and smiling. These are seen as innate and not learned behaviors, because even children born blind and deaf begin to smile socially at 6 weeks, and cry and babble. These behaviors facilitate contact with the caregiver and increase the likelihood of infant survival.
  • Early signaling behaviors and the baby's tendency to look at faces rather than objects lead to attachment between the caretaker and baby that solidifies around 6–9 months of age. Bowlby theorized that this attachment was evolutionarily fundamental to human survival and is the basis for all relationships, even into adulthood.
  • Adults are also adaptively bent toward attachment with infants. Typical "baby-ish" features, such as a large head and eyes in proportion to the body, and round cheeks, are features that elicit affection in adults. Many parents also form a "bond" with their newborn baby within hours of its birth, leading to a deep sense of emotional attachment with one's own offspring and increased behaviors that promote infant survival.
  • Many of Bowlby's early methods relied heavily on ethological observations of children in their natural environments.

In later years, ethology played a large role in sociobiological theory and ultimately, in evolutionary psychology, which is a relatively new field of study. Evolutionary psychology combines ethology, primatology, anthropology, and other fields to study modern human behavior in relation to adaptive ancestral human behaviors.

View on human nature‍‍

  • Humans are social animals. Just as wolves and lions create packs or hunting groups for self-preservation, humans create complex social structures, including families and nations.
  • Humans are "biological organisms that have evolved within a particular environmental niche" (Miller, 2001).
  • Intelligence, language, social attachment, aggression, and altruism are part of human nature because they "serve or once served a purpose in the struggle of the species to survive" (Miller, 2001).
  • Children's developmental level is defined in terms of biologically based behaviors.

View on human nature varies across ethological theorists

  • Lorenz believed that humans have an automatic, elicited nature of behavior, such as stimuli that elicit fixed action patterns.‍‍ His theory developed from the reflex model and the hydraulic or "flush toilet" model‍‍, which conceptualized behavior patterns of motivation. Certain fixed action patterns developed out of motivation for survival. Instinct is an example of fixed action patterns. Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed in the absence of learning. Reflexes can be instincts. For example, a newborn baby instinctively knows to search for and suckle its mother's breast for ‍‍nourishment. ‍‍
  • Bowlby (and many other modern ethological theorists) believed that humans spontaneously act to meet the demands of their environment. They are active participants who seek out a parent, food, or a mate (i.e. an infant will seek to remain within sight of a‍‍ caretaker)‍‍.

Human ethology topics

Applied to human behavior, in the majority of cases, topical behavior results from motivational states and the intensity of a specific external stimulus. Organisms with a high inner motivational state for such a stimulus is called appetitive behavior. Other important concepts of zooethology, e.g., territoriality, hierarchy, sensitive periods in ontogenesis, etc., are also useful when discussing human behavior. For detailed information about ethology, please refer to the original works of Lorenz, Tinbergen, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, etc. The book Human Ethology[1] is most important for how these concepts are applied to human behavior.

Human ethology has contributed in two particular ways to our understanding of the ontogeny of behavior in humans. This has resulted, first, from the application of techniques for the precise observation, description and classification of naturally occurring behavior and, secondly, from the ethological approach to the study of behavior, especially the development of behavior in terms of evolution. Of particular interest are questions relating to the function of a particular kind of behavior (e.g., attachment behavior) and its adaptive value. The description of the behavioral repertoire of a species, the recognition of patterns of behavioral development and the classification of established behavioral patterns are prerequisites for any comparison between different species or between organisms of a single species. The ethological approach is the study of the interaction between the organism with certain innate species-specific structures and the environment for which the organism is genetically programmed.

Invariant behavior patterns have a morphological basis, mainly in neuronal structures common to all members of a species and, depending on the kind of behavior, may also be common to a genus or family or a whole order, e.g., primates, or even to a whole class, e.g., vertebrates. In such structures we can retrace and follow the evolutionary process by which the environment produced structures, especially nervous systems and brains, which generate adaptive behavior. In organisms with a high level of organization, the processes in which the ethologist is especially interested are those genetically preprogrammed motor and perceptual processes that facilitate social interaction and communication, such as facial expression and vocalization. If we consider the most highly developed means of communication, language and speech, which is found in humans alone, the question arises as to the biological foundation of this species-specific behavior and perceptual skill. The ethologist examines this question primarily from the point of view of ontogenetic development.

The main strength of human ethology has been its application of established interpretive patterns to new problems. On the basis of theories, concepts and methods that have proved successful in animal ethology, it looks at human behavior from a new viewpoint. The essence of this is the evolutionary perspective. But since ethologists have been relatively unaffected by the long history of the humanities, they often refer to facts and interpretations neglected by other social sciences. If we look back at the history of the relationship between the life sciences and the social sciences, we find two prevailing modes of theoretical orientation: on the one hand, reductionism, i.e., attempts to reduce human action to non-cognitive behavior; and on the other, attempts to separate human action and human society completely from the animal world. The advent of the theory of evolution in the 19th century brought no easy solution to the problem of nature and nurture, since it could still be "solved" in either a continuous or discontinuous manner. Human ethology as much as any other discipline significantly contributes to the obsolescence of such simple dichotomies.

Human Ethology has an increasing influence on the dialogue between Human Sciences and Humanities as shown for example with the book Being Human - Bridging the Gap between the Sciences of Body and Mind[2]


‍‍Ethologists‍‍ study behavior using two general methods: naturalistic observation and laboratory experimentation. Ethologist's insistence on observing organisms in their natural environment differentiates ethology from related disciplines such as evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, and their naturalistic observation "ranks as one of their main contributions to psychology" (Miller, 2001). Naturalistic Observation Ethologist believe that in order to study species-specific behaviors, a species must be observed in its natural environment. One can only understand the function of a behavior by seeing how it specifically fits into the ‍‍species‍‍ natural environment in order to fulfill a specific need. Ethologist follow a specific set of steps when studying an organism:

Ethogram A detailed description of the behavior of a species in its natural environment
Classification Classify behaviors according to their function (how they encourage survival).
Compare Compare how a behavior functions in different species and how different behaviors may serve the same function in other species.
Laboratory Experiments Determine the immediate causes of the behavior described in the first three steps.

These steps fall in line with Tinbergen's (1963) "On Aims of Methods of Ethology" in which he states that all studies of behavior must answer four questions to be considered legitimate.1. function (adaptation), 2.evolution (phylogeny), 3. causation (mechanism), and 4. development (ontogeny) needed to answer in a study.


  • Many of the contributions to evolutionary psychology require further explanation or elaboration. For example, stating that children acquire a behavior because they are in a "critical period" is similar to stating that they acquire conservation because they are in concrete operations stage (Miller, 2001)
  • Identifying a "critical period" does not explain why humans are more sensitive to certain experiences at certain times.
  • A common critique is that evolutionary psychology does not address the complexity of individual development and experience and fails to explain the influence of genes on behavior in individual cases.
  • Evolutionary psychology has trouble developing research that can distinguish between environmental and cultural explanation and adaptive evolutionary explanations.
  • Dr. Heather Adams when discussing evolutionary psychology stated "Good stuff gets buried under crap." This quote is indicating that while some evolutionary studies may be beneficial for the field, many evolutionary psychologists do not take the time to make methodologically rigorous studies and give evolutionary psychology a bad name amongst scholars.


  • Diversity is an important concept in ethology and evolutionary theory. This is true not only genetically, but culturally as well.
  • Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations of alleles that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing that allele. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.
  • The academic field of population genetics includes several hypotheses and theories regarding genetic diversity. The neutral theory of evolution proposes that diversity is the result of the accumulation of neutral substitutions. Diversifying selection is the hypothesis that two subpopulations of a species live in different environments that select for different alleles at a particular locus. This may occur, for instance, if a species has a large range relative to the mobility of individuals within it.
  • Cultural diversity is also important. From a cultural transmission standpoint, humans are the only animals to pass down cumulative cultural knowledge to their offspring. While chimpanzees can learn to use tools by watching other chimps around them, but humans are able to pool their cognitive resources to create increasingly more complex solutions to problems and more complex ways of interacting with their environments.
  • The diversity of cultures points to the idea that humans are shaped by their environments, and also interact with environments to shape them as well. Cultural diversity arises from different human adaptations to different environmental factors, which in turn shapes the environment, which in turn again shapes human behavior. This cycle results in diverse cultural representations that ultimately add to the survival of the human species.
  • One example of human diversity is sexual orientation. Ethologists have long noted that there are over 250 species of animals which display homosexual behaviors. While it seems counter-intuitive to say that this could be an adaptive trait, a closer look reveals how the genes for homosexuality can persist even if no offspring is directly created from homosexual behaviors.
  • Homosexuality could decrease competition for heterosexual mates.
  • Homosexual family members could increase the resources available to the children of their siblings without producing offspring to compete for those resources (the "gay uncle" theory), thus creating better chances for offspring to survive which share the homosexual relative's "gay genes." Thus there is a small but stable chance for future generations to be gay as well, even if the gay family member produces no direct descendents.

See also



  • Darwin, C. (1872). The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray.
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1970). Ethology. The Biology of Behavior. London: Holt - Rinehart and Winston Inc.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1943). Love and hate. The Natural History of Behavior Patterns. New York: Holt - Rinehart and Winston Inc.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989). Human Ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • K. Freund K - H.Scher - S.Hucker, The Courtship Disorder, Arch of Sex Behavior 1983, XII; pp. 369–79.
  • C.Höschl C (1993) Prediction: Nonsense or Hope?, 1993, Brit J of Psychiat, 163(suppl. 21, pp. 6–54.
  • Z.Klein, Sitting postures in males and females, Semiotica 1984,48, pp. 119–131.
  • Z.Klein, Atlas of semantic gestures, Unpublished manuscript, Prague Psychiatric Centre 1995.
  • M.Krsiak, Ethopharmacology.A Historical Perspective, Neuroscience and Biobehav Research' 1991,15, pp. 439–445.
  • Lorenz, K. (1935). "Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels". J Ornithol. 83: 137–413.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lorenz, K. (1943). "Die angeborenen Formen möglicher Erfahrung". Z Tierpsychol. 5: 235–409. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1943.tb00655.x.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lorenz K. - H.Hydén - W.Penfield, On the Biology of Learning, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company 1969.
  • Medicus G. Being Human - Bridging the Gap between the Sciences of Body and Mind, Berlin, VWB 2015
  • Miller, P. H. (2001). Theories of Developmental Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
  • McGuire M.T.- L.A.Fairbanks, Ethological Psychiatry, New York, Grune & Stratton 1977.
  • Papousek H. - M.Papousek,Learning and cognition in the everyday life of human infants, New York. Advances in the Study of Behavior 1984, 14, pp. 127–163.
  • Porket, J.L. (1966). "Behavioral Sciences". Csl. psychologie. X: 580–599.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tinbergen, N. (1951). The Study of Instinct. London: Oxford Univ. Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Z Tierpsychol. -20. pp. 410–433.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tinbergen, N. (1974). Ethology and Stress Diseases. Science. 185. pp. 20–27. doi:10.1126/science.185.4145.20.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • White, N.F. (1974). Ethology and Psychiatry. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links