The Importance of Ethology

As often happens, I stumbled upon material I wrote almost a decade ago while looking for something else. When I  stumbled on this, couldn’t help noticing how little has changed. One welcomes exception is that increasing numbers trainers and behavioral consultants recognize the difference between the animal behavior as traditionally perceived by psychologists that dominates training, and that perceived by those in the biological sciences. Although Konrad Lorenz suggested the  word ethology to reflect the study of the animals within their normal environments more than a half century ago, it didn’t enter the mainstream training/behavioral lexicon until relatively recently.

Even so, there are still many in the training community who don’t see the value of understand how animals normally Helaine Danial Gigi jumping upbehave in their natural environments as a means to better understand the causes and resolutions of problem behaviors. Nor do they realize how understanding the fundamentals of ethology enhances understanding of human behavior because humans also belong to the animal kingdom. Considering what a crucial role our own behavior plays in that of our animals, ethological knowledge can make any kind of animal interaction as well as behavioral work more productive and rewarding.

So what does ethology teach us about human behavior?

For starters, the animal kingdom has it down pat when it comes to energy-efficiency. Those who get the job done using the least amount of energy earn the biggest reward: immortality, i.e., their genes in the gene pool. If we care Dan Lauren Dogs compressedabout our own genetic survival, i.e., the survival of our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids as well as the planet, we’d be wise to heed this lesson and pay attention to the costs of our behaviors to others and the planet as well as any benefits to us.

Also noteworthy, the animals most proficient in fulfilling their basic needs using the least amount of energy also have energy left to enjoy themselves and others. Think of that next time you watch a press conference or political debate. Public figures who can provide clear, concise answers and smile at and be gracious to even the toughest interrogator or obnoxious competitor are coming from a more behaviorally stable place than the energy-intense ranters who want us to believe they’re too important for such niceties.

Studies of animal behavior also reveal a lot about fighting. Going back to energy again, nobody wins a fight; the winner is simply the one who loses the least. This would seem self-explanatory, but fighting humans often spend a tremendous amount of energy (as well as time and money) trying to convince themselves and others that this isn’t true.

Similarly, studies of animal populations make it clear that fighting is self-limiting. It works best with much weaker opponents because any gain more likely will compensate for any loss. In the short run. In the long run, those more aggressive survivors on both sides will give rise to populations (either biologically or via their indoctrination of others) that become more equally matched over time. When this occurs, both sides will spend more and more energy fighting with less and less to show for it. If you don’t believe this, just a few days listening to the news regarding seemingly never-ending conflicts worldwide should make it clear.

Another ethological concept, the bourgeois effect, is particularly intriguing considering the repeated attempts inslide2 recent history of one group to invade another group’s territory. In a nutshell, this concept reminds us that, no matter how hawkish you are and how dovish the occupants of the territory you want to invade, you can’t successfully do this. Granted any city kid who’s played hide-n-seek at her country’s cousin’s place understands the logic behind this. But how different our world would be if humans who considered this option had taken into account yet another valuable lesson learned by countless species of “lower” animals over the ages!

Luckily for the rest of us, while the fighters spend more and more of their energy fighting, non-fighters use theirs to create environments conducive to the successful creation and raising of their more peaceful young. Eventually the more peaceful population will outnumber the fighters and the fighting will end. While a nice utopian goal to strive for, in reality peaceful populations may be displaced by a more aggressive ones if the former squander or inappropriately divide their resources. If that occurs, then competition for those resources will rear its ugly head again.

Ethology also teaches us that, like fighting, manipulative behavior also self-limits over time. Manipulation does work when those willing to be manipulated exist. But when manipulators succeed, they give rise to more manipulators who must spend increasingly more of their energy trying to manipulate each other instead of doing anything productive. In the human arena, political campaigns and debates provide plenty of evidence of this phenomenon.

And although ethological studies don’t teach us much about rock and roll, they do teach us a lot about sex. Those who study ethology learn that males and females are behaviorally as well as physiologically different for very specific and beneficial reasons. And they learn that a wide range of normal sexual expression as well mating and parental strategies also exists. Denying the existence and benefits of these differences or slapping derogatory labels on them says more about human ignorance than knowledge.

Last but in no way the least, ethology teaches the value of diversity. The more diverse a population, the greater its potential to survive in a wider range of changing conditions. During this period of accelerated climate change as well as that of increased expectations of companion animals, diversity holds the key to survival. Like fundamentalists who only can thrive within their ideological bubbles, those human and non-human animal populations with limited gene pools and intolerance for others may excel in their specific environments. But in a changing one, the more diversity within a species the greater the chance of survival. Those considering immigration policy and other segregationist tactics might benefit from reviewing these ethological studies in light of our own constantly changing environment.

Ann Red eftSo let’s hear it for the creepies and crawlies, the slimies and furries who have learned to successfully establish and protect territories, find food and water, court, mate, reproduce, raise their young, and play in a mind-boggling array of physical and behavioral conditions far beyond our current often fragile human capacity. While those who don’t learn from human history are doomed to repeat it, a human species so full of its own importance that it doesn’t learn the lessons of ethology might simply be doomed.