The Echoes of the Mind (16-1) Ethology


Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species. ~ Konrad Lorenz

Ethology – the study of animal behavior – is a branch of zoology. Following on the heels of Darwinism and behaviorism, psychobiology was an outgrowth of ethology. Ethology flowered through 3 men who collaborated and together won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for their efforts: Karl von Frisch, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and Konrad Lorenz.

The bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water. ~ Karl von Frisch

In the 1920s, Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch studied honeybees, particularly their perceptions. He was one of the first to understand the meaning of the waggle dance. His theory was slammed with skepticism at the time, even as it was an accurate analysis.

From the 1930s, Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist Konrad Lorenz studied instinctive behavior in animals, especially birds. Lorenz is best known for his study of imprinting, in which hatchling nidifugous birds instinctively bond to the moving object in front of them (which naturally would be their mothers).

Dutch ethologist and ornithologist Nikolaas Tinbergen is best known for originating 4 questions about animal behavior: causation, development, function, and evolution.

Causation (mechanism): what stimuli elicited a response, and how has the response been modified by learning?

Development (ontogeny): how does behavior change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for behaviors to be exhibited?

Function (adaptation): how does the behavior impact an animal’s prospects for survival and reproduction?

Evolution (phylogeny): how does the behavior compare with equivalent behaviors in related species, and how may it have evolved (phylogenic origin)?

Causation and development were viewed as proximate (immediate/environmental) mechanisms, while function and evolution were considered ultimate (root) causes.

Tinbergen’s construct of inquiry has become a mainstay for biology and, regarding proximate and ultimate causes, other natural phenomena. There is an oddity in this: evolutionary biologists generally avoid associating ultimate cause with evolution because it invokes goal orientation: teleology.

Adaptation, which has been verified innumerable times in a variety of contexts, certainly is teleological. The obvious implication of adaptation is that there is an intelligent force of coherence behind Nature: a prospect which evolutionary biologists cringe at because it implicates the wellspring of evolution as mystical, not strictly physical. Evolutionary teleology posits Nature as having an energetic propulsion, which is a perspective anathema to empiricists.