Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remember behavior!

This afternoon I attended a seminar in the graduate program in Organismal & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled “The Evolution of Comparative Cognition.” The presentation was given by Sara Shettleworth, Professor Emerita of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She gave a delightful and insightful picture of how psychology and the study of animal behavior have evolved (or perhaps not evolved in some ways), and the topic stirred the minds of all in attendance.

One of the most striking aspects of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology is how few species of animals have been studied to date. Initially, it was all rats, all the time, with only a smattering of studies involving other vertebrates, let alone primates or invertebrates. That condition was exemplified in Shettleworth’s talk by a cartoon depicting a “pied piper” rat leading an army of scientists through town.

Today, we collectively study a more diverse lot of species both in the laboratory and in the field, but I can’t help but wonder whether the questions we ask, and the methods by which we ask them, don’t say more about ourselves than about those subjects of experiment.

Students of animal behavior have long been cautioned about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and assigning human emotions and motivations to the behaviors of another species. Indeed, Shettleworth emphasized the need to take behavior at face value. She also pointed to the need to avoid limiting one’s experiments and observations to the realm of “yes” and “no.” Other animals are generally much more complicated than that.

What may be completely unavoidable, however, is taking an anthropocentric approach to ethology and animal psychology, especially in terms of what we consider “advanced” versus “primitive” attributes. This tendency rears its head frequently, and Shettleworth found humor in colleagues who couldn’t believe that, say, dogs outperform chimpanzees in some tasks. That just isn’t the way it is “supposed” to be!

Personally, I think it may be an overriding concern to prove that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent, highly-evolved species, and we go into our experiments with, and observations of, other species with that bias. The fact is, however, that we are on the planet with a minimum of a million other species that, by virtue of the fact that they also exist here and now, have succeeded at least as well as we have by the only standard that matters: survival. For that matter, even dinosaurs were successful, for the geological period over which they reigned.

Mother Nature (or God, or whatever creative entity you hold dear) wastes nothing, and each species is as complex and intelligent as it has to be to get by. No more, no less. Social species like the other great apes, wolves, and cetaceans may seem to be smarter because they are like us in being social, and do need to master intricate forms of communication in order for each pod, pack or other social unit to prosper.

Still, are solitary species any less successful? No. There are, in fact, vastly more solitary species than social ones. What they may lack in plasticity in learning ability they make up for in instincts and hightened physical senses that have served them for eons. A sand wasp can find its burrow in a seemingly featureless dune, but we can’t remember where we parked the car.

What do you think? Where do you stand? I promise to revisit this topic as often as I can, and welcome your opinions, observations, and shared knowledge. Meanwhile, I may pick up the just-released second edition of Sara Shettleworth’s book, Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.


  1. This is an interesting commentary. I don't have a real problem with anthropomorphizing behaviour as long as it's not blatant, over-the-top type anthropomorphization (is that even a word?). Anyone who's lived with pets knows that they've got personalities and demonstrate behaviours that really mirror our own in a lot of ways. So they can't talk, so what; how are we supposed to know that they can't also feel emotion, or have complex motives? For example, my mom had a horse once who liked practical jokes - while you were in his stall picking the burrs from his mane, or something, he would very slowly, subtly, shift his weight onto his near foot, which just happened to be standing on your toe. And then he'd have a good laugh.

    I think it would be better to think of behaviour not as "advanced" and "primitive", but rather as "complex" and "simple". As you point out, all the creatures on thsi green earth have evolved to reach today, and there behaviour has been shaped by their environment only as much as it needed to be. For some, they only needed simple behaviour in order to survive and reproduce. Others needed more complex behaviour.

    It seems logical that a larger brain with more neural connections has a greater capacity for complex behaviour, including emotion and motive, but how many neural connections are needed to acheive complex behaviour? At what point do we consider behaviour complex and not simple? And can we really know that humas have the most complex behaviour? How do we measure that?

  2. I can't believe I typed "there" instead of "their". I typed this all out and then my internet cut out, so I saved it offline to reply later. But when I came back Blogger wouldn't let me copy-and-paste it in to the comment box for some reason so I had to type it all out again, and was reading the original rather than paying attention to what I typed.

  3. Seabrooke, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences (hope nobody got a broken toe just for a good "nay!"). I really hope you one day write a book, even if it is 'simply' a compilation of your blog entries. You may be the best nature writer on the WWW.