Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ethology Hasn't Been Blown: Animals Need All Help Possible

Animals need the support of different academic fields and broad array of others

Does ethology really have a cover to blow?

While I was writing "Good News For Animals as we Move Into 2016" and noting that nonhuman animals (animals) need all the help they can get from academics, other researchers, and non-researchers alike, stressing just how strongly transdisciplinary the fields of animal studies and anthrozoology truly are, two people informed me of an essay by Dr. Gay Bradshaw of which I was unaware called "Why Animals Need Psychology: Research blows ethology's cover." I truly was surprised as I pondered the subtitle -- what is ethology's supposed cover and how was it blown? -- so I put it on my list of things to read as soon as possible. Then, another person weighed in and asked me what I, a proud ethologist thought about the blowing of ethology's cover, so I decided to write something now. She worried that ethology might be dead and she wants to be an ethologist! Nothing can be further from the truth. Ethology isn't dead -- ethology is alive and well and thriving, as it should be. 

My response to the charge that ethology's cover has been blown is going to be brief, as others, to whom I refer below, have amply shown just how important ethology is to the study of animal sentience and to animal protection. Animals need psychology and lots of help from numerous different disciplines. For example, the comparative data that are coming in from studies in the field called cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds and what's in them) are really incredible and can truly can help other animals along as we learn more about their cognitive and emotional lives. So, my conclusion is that ethology's cover hasn't been blown for there was no cover to blow, and no ethologist I know would attempt to argue that ethology or any other discipline alone could possibly teach us all we need to learn about other animals or to "save" them from wanton and unimaginable abuse. Indeed, a recent wide-ranging discussion of the question of whether fish feel pain in the new journal called Animal Sentience shows just how important transdisciplinary discussions truly are.  

In "Why Animals Need Psychology" we read the following statements (in italics):

The bear study clearly illustrates the need for a psychological approach to studying animal wellbeing and conditions as opposed to an ethological (i.e., animal behavioral) approach.

-- I don't see how one could effectively argue that an ethological approach that focuses on evolutionary and ecological perspectives of animal behavior and animal sentience wouldn't also be valuable in addition to a psychological approach, which, according to my psychologist friends, concentrates more on mechanisms and proximate causes of behavior than does an ethological approach. They're not opposed to one another, but rather, nicely complement one another. Of course, there are some psychologists who also study evolution and ecology and some ethologists who also study mechanisms and proximate causes of behavior. 

Ethological data produced a false negative, indicating that behavior alone does not suffice as a measure of animal wellbeing.

-- I don't know any ethologist who would claim that behavior alone can suffice as a measure of animal well being. While behavior often is a good indicator of what animals are thinking and feeling, it's common sense that we need to know about what is happening in an animal's heart and head. Indeed, in his classic book The Study of Instinct, Nobel laureate ethologist Niko Tinbergen stressed, in the early days of ethology, as did many others, that we must be concerned with external and internal causes of behavior. Richard Burkhardt's superb book called Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology clearly lays out the wide-ranging interests of classical ethologists and provides "a richly textured reconstruction of ethology's transformation from a quiet backwater of natural history to the forefront of the biological sciences." There also is valuable information in Gordon Burghardt's Foundations of comparative ethology.

While animal behavior, or ethology as it is also known, has been the traditional designated authority of what and why animals do what they do, the time has come for a broader intellectual approach if the interests of animals are to be well served.

-- A broader intellectual approach would have to be transdisciplinary, welcoming input from many different areas. And, indeed, this is well shown by people working in the broad fields of animal studies, anthrozoology, compassionate conservation, and conservation behavior. Few, if any, are experts in the many different fields that generate information that can help other animals in need. 

There is a "need to subsume the wealth of ethological expertise and method under the synoptic umbrella of psychology and its substrate counterpart, neuroscience. There are ethical as well as practical reasons for ethology’s disciplinary merger with psychology." 

-- There is no reason, or way, that ethology will be, or could be, subsumed by psychology (please see my response to the next claim for more details on the field of ethology). When the classic book by renowned biologist E. O. Wilson called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis appeared in 1975, predictions were made that sociobiology would engulf other disciplines such as ethology and behavioral ecology, however, just the opposite happened, as each field blossomed and contributed in different ways, when data allowed, to the broad agenda of sociobiology. Breadth is good and reducing numerous different disciplines to a single one can't, and simply hasn't, worked. 

By ignoring psyche, animal behavior reduces an individual’s subjective experience to mere signs, passive markers that assume an animal’s inability to voice. In contrast, a psychological framing sees behavior as one among many symptoms through which an animal speaks.

-- Ethologists have always thought that behavior is but one way in which animals speak to us. Indeed, ethologists have not, across the board, ignored animal psyches. Following up on Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen's classic work in ethology in which he stressed that studies of behavior should center on four areas of inquiry, namely, evolution, adaptation, causation, and ontogeny (development), in an essay called Amending Tinbergen: A fifth aim for ethology, Gordon Burghardt added a fifth area he called "private experience" to Tinbergen's list. In addition, Dale Jamieson and I wrote a paper called On Aims and Methods of Cognitive Ethology in which we showed just how fruitful and influential Tinbergen's work has been in the study of animal minds. So, while some ethologists and other students of animal behavior, including psychologists, might have written off and continue to write off animal minds, numerous ethologists have noted that we must learn about, and appreciate, animal minds and what's in them, hence the enormous growth of the field of cognitive ethology. 

While ethograms silence, objectify and deny nonhuman animal sentience and agency, psychological symptoms communicate in a language that is shared by all sentient beings. In so doing, trans-species psychology emerges as the intellectual architecture of animal rights and self-determination. [5] 

-- While ethograms, descriptive lists of behavior patterns that animals perform, may silence and deny animal sentience, ethologists themselves surely have not, as I note above. Ethograms traditionally are merely lists of behavior patterns that can change over time as animals are studied, the careful development of which is a crucial first step in any study of behavior. It should be clear that I don't see any single field emerging as intellectual architecture and then subsuming all others as we move on to learn more about, and to protect, other animals from wanton and unprecedented abuse in what's called the era of humanity, the anthropocene. And, once again, I can readily point to the new journal called Animal Sentience that makes very clear the importance of input from many different fields of inquiry.  

Many work assiduously to save our wildlife kin, but conservation methods often add to the problem while seeking to solve it. The majority of conservation “tools” are difficult to distinguish from those of extirpation.

While many others and I have argued that conservation needs to be cleaned up and bloodshed "in the name of conservation" has to stop immediately, compassionate conservation and conservation behavior are emerging and truly helping many other animals. Indeed, compassionate conservation is founded on the principles of "First do no harm" and that the lives of individual animals matter, and there have been a good number of changes in conservation practices that work in favor of other animals. Indeed, numerous people are working hard to stop the bloody practices of traditional conservation (see, for example, the website for the Centre for Compassionate Conservation). 

Ethology isn't dead, doesn't have a cover to blow, and won't be eaten up by psychology

So, to conclude, ethology's cover, whatever that might have been taken to be, has not been blown -- there really is no cover when ethology is cashed out as the science it is -- and no branch of psychology or any other discipline is going to trump or subsume all other fields in which people are trying to learn about and to protect other animals. People with different interests and agendas must work together, and, of course, noninvasive research is the way to go. Ethology isn't dead. Indeed, ethology is alive and well and thriving, as it should be.

So, is psychology important? Of course it is. But so too are many other fields of inquiry, and just as sociobiology didn't engulf other related disciplines, neither can, or will, psychology eat them up and make for a tidy single package of methods, interpretations, and explanations.

No one field is the gilded panacea. Ethology is not the answer, nor is psychology the answer. Neither alone can do the hard work that needs to be done. We surely don't need turf wars and neither do other animals who depend on us for their very lives. 

Here is why we must all work together and not try to trump or subsume others who are also working hard on behalf of other animal beings. 

Learning about the behavior, minds, and hearts of other animals surely is an eclectic endeavor. The fascinating array of animals in whom we're interested, the incredibly diverse patterns of behavior they display, and the enormous range of the problems with which nonhumans and humans are faced, clearly and forcefully argue for a broad transdisciplnary approach in which people work together, as we move on toward peaceful coexistence and the end of horrific global animal abuse once and for all. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get DepressedRewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (; @MarcBekoff)