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Human ethology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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).

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I want to talk about a specific issue, but before I start off and make this clear, we must make some other things clear. First of all we need to understand that the one thing that sets humans apart from animals is that they created a community. A community is an exceptional social form in the animal kingdom where humans are only a species of animals, and it is founded on the innate human capability to manage complex systems and it can be characterized by four things: we like to execute common actions, such as us being here today, we like to take part in social action projects, we like to organize something, to live the way we have organized our communities, and finally, common beliefs emerged with the appearance of human language. In any community there are beliefs that relate to lots of different areas of life and these beliefs are accepted by more or less everyone in that community. If these three things work – it may just take a few months for them to work – loyalty starts to set in, and that is the most important element of a real community. Loyalty means that I am always willing to put my own interest behind the interests of the community. I must add that nowadays we talk about a large number of communities assuming that they do exist, but the crucial question is whether there are common actions, whether the structure is common, whether the beliefs are common and whether loyalty has emerged. Sometimes these criteria are not always met, so these groups are still in the early stage of becoming a community but they are not yet true communities. Let's not forget this. If we look at the diversity of these communities, e.g. a couple can be considered as a community, it is instantly clear that we only have a good relationship if my partner and me, we can have common activities, if we think about the world in the same way, if we jointly organize our lives and it naturally follows that we are faithful to each other. But community may also refer to a work team, a party, a school, a family, religious communities; so it can exist within many different groups. Now from the knowledge about the communities I want to concentrate on one thing, the common belief. The existence of communities was also made possible by the fact that the human brain developed the capability of abstraction. This is completely missing from the animal kingdom. If we think about abstraction, we need to realize that community itself is the first idea that requires abstraction. To understand that I am a member of a community that had existed before I existed and will exist after I am no longer here requires abstraction. When man became able to – thinking in terms of an evolutionary time scale, whose units are in the millions of years – when he realized that he is a member of a community that towers above him, that is more than he is, that existed before him and will exist after him, then man gained the ability called abstraction; this was very important from the point of view of all further human activities. All ideas are actually beliefs. That is, what I think of my peers, about myself, how I position myself, who I regard myself, these are all beliefs. What I think of my environment, about animals, about plants, about the biosphere; whether I consider it important to protect the environment or I wave it away; whether I consider it important to collect rubbish selectively or I throw it away carelessly; these are all beliefs. Reflections about practical ways, methods, approaches, emotions, moods and gusts are all beliefs. So, every idea is a belief. Beliefs were very important in the days of primitive societies, and they are still essential today. Every belief had a certain structure, a certain emotional core and some rational description; rational in quotation marks. Even simple constructions such as: do not eat mushrooms of this kind because you will get a bellyache, are important beliefs. Moreover, rituals had their roots in beliefs, now I've got no time for details, but humans in their own organizations very often use rituals, repeated actions, which are infused with some emotional charge and take some form and if we perform the action we recall the emotional charge and this is why rituals have been and are still so important. On how beliefs and rituals are interconnected – I'll give you an example: in this picture you can see a nice piece of roast meat. A young scientist told us of his observation at an anthropology convention: he often cooks together with his girlfriend and it is her who roasts the meat. He noticed that when they buy a large rump of beef, she cuts off a thick piece and places it next to the big piece in the roasting tray. Now, there is the big piece and the small one. After a while he asked her why she cuts off a small piece from the large rump and lays it next the large one. The girl was simply at a loss and said, "I can't explain, but this is how my mum always used to make it, so this is how it has to be done.” The young man thought, "All right, this is a partial explanation, but let's ask her mother." They went to her mother and she said: yes, it's OK, you need to cut off a piece and to lay it alongside. "Why? I have no idea, but grandma always used to do it like this. She is still with us – why don't you ask her!" They went to see grandmother. She puzzled over it a bit then smiled, “My lovelies, when I cooked I only had a little roasting tray. (Laughter) I couldn't fit the meat in so I had to cut off a piece and lay it alongside." This proves that rituals are born out of beliefs: in the beginning they may rest on some logical, rational element, and they are still practiced over a few generations, we still believe it is good as it is, we still think that is how it has to be done. It turns out then that roasting trays have expanded, and probably there are other ways of doing it. Now, these are simple beliefs that are related to everyday life, family, work. However, we know that there are incredibly complex constructions of beliefs; not only such tiny ideas but incredibly interrelated sets of beliefs, religions, science, mathematics and philosophy. It turns out that if we study them individually and examine one of their elements, one little belief to decide whether it is true or not, whether the dimensions of a roasting tray or a belief are adequate we are often disappointed. It turns out things are different because times have changed. But there is one thing we can be quite sure about: these systems of beliefs have proved in practice over a very long time, over decades, maybe over centuries, that they are needed. Religion is extraordinarily difficult; it consists of small dogmas, details. One can question whether a certain element that was once decided at a meeting is true or not, important or not. But that is not the point. The whole point is to unite a society. Religions play a vital role in the ability of humans to live peacefully in a given society, therefore practice influences whether we accept the belief. It is not the small detail that counts, but the fact that the importance and meaningfulness of the system of beliefs is verified in practice. The importance of beliefs is always measured by practice. Let’s stop here for a while. What I am going to tell you about is a little belief, too. Evidently beliefs can become overpowering in the belief formation process. What I mean is that there is some emotional or rational core the practice comes from: the meat must be cut off because of a narrow, thin or small roasting tray, and then in the process of changes over generations some more complicated fantasies, fairy-tales, illogical conclusions are added to it. And it does not influence the practice because nothing bad came out of the fact that a piece was cut off from the meat; that piece was similarly done; the method did not do damage to practice, so it continued. There are lots of popular films about frightful vampires that suck people's blood. There are vampire bats that feed on blood; however, they are nice little animals. >From this belief with a slight overstatement it is possible to create blood-sucking people that actually do not exist but fantasy knows no bounds; this is the amazing thing about beliefs – they can have an overpowering strength. This is one of the problems. The second problem is the problem of modern society. In the past a community used to regulate together what beliefs are accepted: how to bring up children, how to treat one's family, how to prepare food, how to behave towards nature, towards the environment: everything was somehow well-regulated by the community. Modern society is made of an unprecedented number of people, and remember: a community comes into being only if common activities, common beliefs, common constructions exist and loyalty emerges. We rarely find real loyalty in modern societies. Something has happened – now there is no time to go into details –, that people have broken away from the community, and started behaving as though they were a community themselves, i.e. they decide what to do, decide what to believe, they want to fulfill themselves and are truly loyal to themselves only. Well, the result is that beliefs are not limited by anything. There is an unthinkably great number of personal beliefs. People think that it is even possible to cure cancer with this nostrum, only because someone said so; and people believe them: it is our personal belief and the Academy of Sciences, the whole faculty of doctors can preach as much as they want to; it will not stop us in believing because we are no longer involved in any community so much as to accept its position with regard to such a belief. The world is filled with personal beliefs and a chaos of beliefs has arisen from it. If we happen to collect 2 000 beliefs, even insignificant ones, then we could most probably prove that most of them were brought on by that overpowering strength. Many things that are simply not true have been tied to them. Here we have three pictures showing pictorial beliefs, they are amusing; we can laugh at them: shark in the flooded river; someone throwing their children in the snout of a crocodile and finally, here is E. T. himself, naked. There are lots of such urban legends, beliefs related to the way of life, e. g. when somebody wants to change the pH of their blood from outside, whereas it is a well-run system, and if, heaven forbid, it is altered, it can cause big trouble. There are plenty of beliefs related to health and everyday life, and many so-called UFOs -- how shall I put it? -- beliefs that address modern life. Once an American firm brought a whale anatomy to Hungary, they rode it throughout the country; people could see what a real whale looks like: it was long, it was driven in an enormous truck. Soon beliefs spread that it is the trick of the CIA for finding out the possible loading capacity of the roads in Hungary. Well, it was a belief that rested on logic, but it was complete nonsense. Political and social beliefs also appear. How must a society be built? What kind of things should taxes be used for? What is the function of the authorities? Upon closer examination, there are a lot of things that turn out to contain some exaggerated belief, too. There is only one thing that goes against it: science. Under science I mean natural sciences. Science constantly engages in and develops methods for removing the exaggeration from a belief system and connect belief with practice. Scientific beliefs do work. The light is on. The equipment works. The car runs. Society has become far too complicated because of scientific beliefs. But when we are talking about science, e. g. that little red electrons hurry along a wire, current flows and therefore we have power – this is a belief, this is a fairy-tale. The practice is: if I revolve this wire round a magnetic spool then a bulb will light up. This is proof; science confirms this belief rather than the red dots running along; it is only a fairy-tale, an overstatement. It confirms that if I follow such a practice then a thing will work. The function of all natural sciences is to study such comparison and connection between practice and belief, and to remove the fairy-tale and present the practice. Thank you very much. (Applause)



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. 
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1943). Love and hate. The Natural History of Behavior Patterns. New York: Holt - Rinehart and Winston Inc. 
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989). Human Ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. 
  • 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 Psychiatry, 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. 
  • Lorenz, K. (1943). "Die angeborenen Formen möglicher Erfahrung". Z Tierpsychol. 5: 235–409. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1943.tb00655.x. 
  • 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. 
  • Tinbergen, N. (1951). The Study of Instinct. London: Oxford Univ. Press. 
  • Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Z Tierpsychol. –20. pp. 410–433. 
  • Tinbergen, N. (1974). Ethology and Stress Diseases. Science. 185. pp. 20–27. doi:10.1126/science.185.4145.20. 
  • White, N.F. (1974). Ethology and Psychiatry. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 

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