Comparative Psych and Ethology / History of Academic Nuttiness

APA – Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology
The Behavioral Neuroscientist and Comparative Psychologist November 2010

Comparative Psychology and Ethology

Comparative Psychology is a sub-discipline of psychology and ethology is a sub-discipline of biology.

 By Gary Greenberg, PhD (To access full article, click here and then on article title)

Previous omitted sections: Definition; Theoretical Background; Important Scientific Research and Open Questions. Go to full article.

I’m posting the last section of the article because it highlights the current “intellectual and social climate” regarding animal behavior research and interpretation. The academic history of these two “divisions” of study is manmade, unresolved, and really does influence how we see  human behavior. We blindly accept as “true” the “word concepts” that arise from SPECIFIC PEOPLE, their personalities and life experiences,  and their comprehensive notions (cultural belief systems) about evolution, evolutionary processes and what constitutes accurate representation of “reality”.

The content and processes of “Nature” are what they are: human ways of going about “discovering” how nature works are highly dependent on the personalities of the individuals who are “doing science” and the prevailing non-scientific agendas of those members of society who “pay for and approve” the research. By the time these “social situations” regarding human-animal behavior filter down to the public, and are presented in educational guise, the over-simplification of fact, and overblown emphasis on cultural and personal agendas distort subjective interpretations as  “scientific truth” – as if the opinions and conclusions are truly “discoveries” of nature’s secrets rather than “mental divisions and constructions” imposed by humans using scads of data which are artificially united by “theory”.

No, Comparative Psych and Ethology are not comparable to Physics, in which mathematics provides predictions that are testable and provable as accurate descriptions of the fundamentals that are Physical Reality.  (See posted lecture by Neil Turok)

Current Status

While Comparative Psychology grew in America, ethology remained somewhat stagnant in Europe. Many still identified with the discipline, though it was clear that they had abandoned the hard nosed biological determinism of the classical ethologists. Beginning in 1944 with the initiation of the American Psychological Association’s divisional structure, comparative psychology had a home in Division 6, Physiological Psychology and Comparative Psychology. In the 1990s, in an effort to attract new members, (social motive) the division entered into discussion of a name change – the important point for the present discussion was the retention of ―comparative psychology in the new name adopted at the 1995 APA meeting, Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology. While membership in Division 6 was falling, Comparative Psychology as a field of study remained healthy as illustrated by the appearance of several comparative psychology societies in the clos-ing years of the 20th century: The Southwestern Comparative Psychology Association (founded in 1983 by Michael Domjan, Del Thiessen, Steve Davis and Gary Greenberg); the Comparative Cognition Society (founded in 1994 by Ron Weisman, Mark Bouton, Marcia Spetch and Ed Wasserman; and the International Society for Comparative Psychology (founded in 1983 by Ethel Tobach and Gary Greenberg). An even earlier group, the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, was founded in 1967 by George Collier, Norman Spear, Bryon Campbell, John Paul Scott and others. The an-nual and biennial meetings of these societies attract animal behavior researchers from several disciplines across the globe; their membership is also international. There are, of course, several other such societies in countries around the world.

The picture was not so rosy for ethology which seemed to languish in the same period. This was likely because,―The simple truth is that ethology never did deliver as a science of comparative behavior…(Plotkin, 2004, p. 105). Indeed, in 1989 ethology was declared…dead, or at least senescent. That is, if you think of ethology in the narrow sense – the study of animal behavior as elaborated by Konrad Lorenz, Nikolas Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch. It has been quiescent for some time. No exciting ideas were emerging, and data gathering on key issues had lost its direction… [Barlow, 1989, p. 2].

However, the biological study of animal behavior has thrived well into the 21st century. Ethology was reborn in the early 1970s as a new science, that of Sociobiology (Wilson 1975), the goal of which was to biologicize the social sciences. But this blatant attempt at understanding animal and human behavior as a purely biological phenomenon was met with scathing criticism (Hull, 1988; Lustig, Richards & Ruse, 2004) from numerous quarters. The main point of contention centered around the continuing nature/nurture issue and the question of whether behavior, especially human behavior, was the result of genetic and biological determinism. To many opponents of sociobiology, psychology was not a biological science at all, but a uniquely psychological science (e.g., Greenberg, 2007).

The intellectual sparks flew for years, well into the end of the 20th century which witnessed the appearance of a still new iteration of ethology, Evolutionary Psychology. This approach focuses primarily on human behavior and posited that we owe our universal nature to evolutionary adaptations faced by our Pleistocene ancestors that we have inherited in our genomes. A good source for reviewing the tenets and the research conducted in this field is The Handbook of evolutionary psychology (Buss, 2005). With evolutionary psychology, instincts are once again in vogue. As with ethology and sociobiology, evolutionary psychology is not without its critics (e.g, Honycutt & Lickliter, 2003). It is not the application of evolution to behavior that is at question, but the manner in which it is understood to apply to behavioral origins. Evolutionary Psychology, though seen by many to be seriously flawed, is a rather popular orientation in the contemporary behavioral sciences. After all, what serious scientist in 2010 can object to the significance of evolution to psychology?

There has also been new life breathed into ethology and sociobiology. The sociobiological idea of the genetic basis of human altruism has recently been somewhat retracted by one of its earliest proponents, E. O. Wilson. While this is comforting news to many non-reductionistic comparative psychologists and other animal behaviorists, it doesn’t sit well with all students of behavior (Marshall, 2010) attesting to the staying power of the classical ideas of ethology. In a recent analysis Salzen (2010) makes a case for interpreting the ideas of ethology in modern neuroscientific terms. There is in fact a discipline known as―Neuroethology, which describes animal behavior in terms of how the nervous system works. As a comparative psychologist, I take comfort in the staying power of my discipline. Its history has been long, though not nearly as tumultuous as that of ethology.

Yes, it’s obvious that the author favors “his” discipline, and that this hub-bub is “territorial” academic squabbling  (a type of human behavior) over very important questions of animal-human behavior; questions that real people must deal with every day, both personally and in consequence of policies and law that are made at all levels of government, which reach into, and dictate, judgements about human behavior.  

Isn’t it time to stop fighting over “Who is right?” – which is a social question – and for serious self-examination on the part of individual “disciplines” as to the damage done to knowledge by entrenched “mirages” over ownership of some ultimate authority (truth) that simply does not exist? Why not try cooperation, open mindedness and creative exploration instead of archaic “Top Male Hierarchy” limitations?


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