Why Study Animal Behavior?
I teach animal behavior at a local community college and in this era of worldwide political chaos it would be easy to suffer from low course esteem. Those who teach history can proudly declare, "See? Didn't I tell you that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it? Look at this example, and this one, and this one." And what could be more important than a solid background in political science or economics to make sense of today's seemingly nonsensical world? Still, I would argue that knowledge of animal behavior serves as a virtual rosetta stone when it comes to analyzing certain human displays because these often represent fundamental concepts inherent in the behavior of even the lowest life forms.
For example, 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 get the biggest reward, their genes in the gene pool. If we care about our own genetic survival, i.e., the survival of our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, we'd be wise to heed this lesson.
In these days of gloomy leaders, it's also worthwhile to note that the most proficient animals have energy left to enjoy themselves and others. Think of that next time you watch a press conference. Public figures who can provide clear, concise answers and smile at and be gracious to even the toughest interrogator are coming from a more behaviorally stable place than those scowlers 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 spent a lot of energy 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 when your opponent is much weaker because what you gain is more likely to compensate for what you lose. In the short run. In the long run, those who survive and reproduce on both sides are more aggressive and the difference between opponents shrinks. As it does, they must spend more and more energy fighting with less and less to show for it. Like my students, I'm sure you can think of at least a few human examples of this phenomenon.
One animal behavioral concept, the bourgeois effect, is particularly intriguing considering the repeated attempts in recent history of one group to invade another's territory. In a nutshell, this behavioral concept reminds us that, no matter how hawkish you are and how dovish the owners of the territory you want to invade, you cannot 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 all the fighters are spending more and more of their energy fighting, nonfighters are using 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 that would be a nice utopian place to end, 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 it ugly head again.
Studies in animal behavior also teach us that, like fighting, manipulative behavior is self-limiting over time. Manipulation does work if there's someone willing to be manipulated. However, when manipulators succeed, they give rise to more manipulators, and pretty soon they're spending all of their energy trying to manipulate each other rather than doing anything productive. Think about that the next time you watch C-Span.
And although animal behavioral studies don't teach us much about rock and roll, they do teach us a lot about sex. My students learn that males and females belonging to heterosexual species are behaviorally as well as physiologically different for very specific and wondrous reasons. Denying the existence of these differences or slapping derogatory labels on them says more about human ignorance than either sex's supposed shortcomings.
Finally, animal behavior teaches the value of diversity. The more diverse a population, the greater its potential to survive in a wide range of changing conditions. Like fundamentalists who only can thrive within their ideological bubbles, those animal populations with limited gene pools may excel in their specific environments. However, in a changing environment, the more diversity within a species, the greater the chance of survival. Those considering immigration policy might benefit from reviewing these animal behavioral studies in light of our own constantly changing environment.
So 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 conditions far beyond our 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 animal behavior might simply be doomed.
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