‍‍Ethology and Other Evolutionary Theor‍‍ies‍‍‍‍
| Historical Background | ‍‍View on Human Nature‍‍ | Development | ‍‍ | Methodology‍‍ | ‍‍ | Ethology Today ‍‍ | Diversity | Critiques 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, and attachment theory).

Historical Background

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 1930's 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.

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Konrad Lorenz

Lorenz often used the wildlife around his home to make ethological observations (for example, the greylag geese in the photo above left.) In this way, he and Tingbergen were able to theorize about imprinting, a phase of learning that occurs during a specific phase of development called the "critical period" and is not dependent on the consequences of the behavior. The most well-known form of this is filial imprinting, during which a young animal acquires several of its behavioral characteristics from its parent. Lorenz used the greylag geese around his home to study this phenomenon. He would present himself as the first stimulus the newly hatched goslings would encounter, and the would imprint on him during their critical period and follow him around as though he were their parent, even when their biological mother was present.

Video of Bill Lishman, an aviator who imprinted geese to his ultralight aircraft and led them in their migratory patterns.‍‍

For humans, filial imprinting begins in the womb, when a fetus begins to recognize the voices of its mother and father. Imprinting, and the concept of "critical periods" have become very important in human developmental psychology. A critical period for a human is generally conceptualized as a time early in life in which a child is particularly sensitive to certain environmental stimuli, and exposure to these stimuli influence the course of development. Moreover, the absence of certain stimuli early in life can make it difficult or even impossible for the child to develop certain skills or functions later in life.

A commonly discussed "critical period" for humans is language acquisition. Research into cases of abused or "feral" children has led researchers to believe that if a child is not introduced to language within the first 5 years of life, they may never develop true language. The best known case of this is "Genie", a severely abused child who spent the first 13 years of her life locked in a bedroom and rarely exposed to language. Though she was able eventually to learn some vocabulary, she never truly was able to grasp the fundamentals of language, such as grammar and sentence structure, despite rigorous training and rehabilitation programs. Some scientists believe that this is evidence that Genie had missed her critical period during which language is imprinted in the brain.

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" (p. 322).
  • 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" (p. 322).
  • Children’s developmental level is defined in terms of biologically based behaviors.
  • View on human nature varies across ethological theorists.
    • external image KonradLorenz.jpg 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. ‍‍
    • external image 0403-bowlby.jpgBowlby (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)‍‍.

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Quantitative vs Qualitative

Ethology does not view development in stages. Because of this it does not propose any large qualitative changes in development. However, there is some qualitative change when a stimulus triggers a fixed action pattern that has not appeared before. Another form of qualitative development is when a developing system is expressed in different types of behavior as the child maturates. An example of these changes in a system can be seen viewing attachment. A child may express attachment by crying for a caregiver or smiling, and then later may be seen reaching for the caregiver or moving towards them. ‍‍Despite these exceptions to qualitative development, ‍‍ethologist‍‍s largely view development quantitatively. The child is viewed as moving toward an increase in organization, security, and efficiency of the particular behavior.‍‍

Nature vs. Nurture

Ethologists tend to emphasize the biological basis of behavior; however, they do respect the interaction between heredity and environment. Ethologists believe the "genotype and environment operate together to produce changes in children over their lifetime" (p. 323).

Depending on the timing of a certain experience, it could have more of an impact on the child, especially if the experience takes place during‍‍ a ‍‍critical period.‍‍ ‍‍

More about genotypes and environment (pp. 323-324):
  • A given genotype is expressed differently in different environments.
  • The environment selects for or against genetic mutations that occur.
  • Genotypes determine which environments people s‍‍elect.‍‍
  • It is the fit between the genes and the environment that is adaptive, not just the genes themselves.

For example, "ducklings (Lorenz loved his geese!) still in the egg who are prevented from hearing both their mother's vocalizations and their own cannot recognize the call of this own species after birth" (p. 324). The duckling genotype gives the duckling the ability to recognize its own species. However, the environment (phenotype) in which the egg was living before birth prevented the duckling from expressing this predisposition (of recognizing its own species). The video clip explains examples in human beings.

What does develop?

Ethologists believe the most important areas to study are species-specific behaviors that are "essential for survival." (p. 324). Examples of these behaviors include, attachment, eating, and infant care. General abilities or information processing and specific behaviors such as fixed action patterns are applied to the natural environment.

‍‍ Connection between Early Development and Late ‍‍Development‍‍

Ethologists in the strictest sense would not state that they are proponents of a developmental theory, therefore the area of connection between early development and late development is not an area of focus. The researchers have spent most of the time, deciding how one might learn and what species-specific behaviors appear to be most beneficial for survival. As a person develops they will continue to adapt to the environment, and will work towards optimal survival. As noted throughout the text, during the critical period much can happen that will affect later development. This is apparent in attachment theory and the current studies on adult attachment in love, which basically states that unmet attachments as an infant will have an affect on the person as an adult.

Mechanisms of Development

Since ethology in its strictest sense is a ‍‍biological discipline, ethologists generally identify biological processes as mechanisms of ‍‍development. This means that social learning, cognitive, and other processes receive little attention in regard to development. Biology, genetics, adaptation to new environments, and instinctual processes are the main force behind development from this theoretical standpoint. One of the first studies in ethology sought to understand the development of fear to predators. At the time there was a large push for innate cognition, the belief that certain processes were present at birth. Tinbergen and Lorenz study of turkeys and their response to overhead objects expanded upon this concept‍, and developed the concept of selective habituation, which basically states the more one is exposed to an external stimuli without negative consequences, the less frightening that stimuli will be. This theory of selective habituation has gained wide acceptance with many in the psychological field, and is the catalyst for exposure therapy, which is often used to treat those with obsessive compulsive disorder or phobias.



‍‍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 (p.293)"

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:

1. Ethogram
a detailed description of the behavior of a species in its natural enviornment
2. Classification
classify behaviors according to their function (how they encourage survival).
3. Compare
compare how a behavior functions in different species and how different behaviors may serve the same function in other species.
4. Laboratory Experiments
determine the immediate causes of the behavior described in the first three steps.
These steps fall in line with Tinbergen's (1963) [1]. (1) "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.phylogeny (evolution), 3. causation (mechanism), and 4. development (ontogeny) needed to answer in a study.


Ethology Today ‍‍

Applying ethology behavior in studying culture. This video examines reproduction in humans and other vertebrates from an ethological perspective, which should help explain some of the concepts explained earlier in the text in context.

‍Contributions to Psychology

While Ethology is a term used to describe the study of animals, its methodology and reasoning has often been used in comparative psychology. Comparative psychologists; however, focused primarily on behavior in artificial situations, as opposed to Ethologist's focus on naturalistic observation. The main contribution of Ethology to psychology is "imprinting". This term is used to describe learning that occurs at a sensitive time in a particular species. The time for learning is known as the "critical period." This concept has been used by many other developmental ‍‍theories.‍‍ Ethologists emphasis on adaptation or evolution can clearly be seen in the above video, which spends time discussing behavioral patterns in humans. An example of cultural evolution pointed out by the video is the fact that those living in impoverished states (a state which is lacking many resources) will often have more children. This is due primarily to the fact that in the past, those populations who were impoverished had a greater chance of losing children to disease or other forms of death; therefore, the more children one has, the more likely they are to be successful in having their genes survive. Looking at this from a non evolutionary perspective, one might argue that having more children would create even less resources, which in turn would make it more difficult for those offspring to survive.


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.


  • 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 (p. 330).
  • 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.
  • Some studies have been criticized for their tendency to attribute to evolutionary processes elements of human cognition that may be attributable to social processes (e.g. preference for particular physical features in mates), and cultural artifacts (e.g. patriarchy and the roles of women in society).
  • 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.

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Suggested‍‍ Re‍‍‍‍a‍‍di‍‍ngs‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍

John Bowlby - From Psychoanalysis to Ethology: Unravelling the Roots of Attachment Theory
John Archer - Ethology and Human Development
The Hawk Goose Story
1. Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie 20:410-433.
2. Ainsworth, M. & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. //American Psychologist//, 46, 333-341.