Human ethology: what it is and what it studies

The human being is, without a doubt, an animal carrying great mysteries. We observe our astonished species, in utter disbelief of the good and the bad of what we are capable of, feeling like a different “insect” from the one that inhabits nature. And also, why not say it, as the most important.

This vision, known as anthropocentrism, has been part of our lives for many, many years., Promoted by different religions, and prevented us from “assuming” our primitive and natural side. Or what is the same, our animal roots, which come from a line of enormous primates to which we are united by an inexorable kinship.

In recent years, however, ideas about the evolution of species have started to take root in popular culture. With them, new questions also arise: is the human being as free as he thinks he is? To what extent has evolutionary history conditioned our decisions? Are we, just in case, just another animal?

These questions, among many others, try to answer from human ethology. Although being a relatively recent discipline, it has already taken its place among the sciences which deal with the human fact. In this article we will talk about what it is and on what basis its vast wealth of knowledge is located.

    What is ethology?

    The word ethology comes from classical Greek, and more specifically from the terms “ethos” (habit or custom) and “logos” (knowledge or science). It is therefore a multidimensional discipline (biology, genetics, medicine, psychology, etc.) whose purpose is the scientific approach to the behavior of animals in their natural environment, as well as the description of their interactions with other subjects group or with their physical environment. For all this, he often resorts to theories such as those of evolution, based on sexual reproduction and adaptation to the environment.

    Ethology separates from psychology not only in its perspective of study, but also in the fact that its field of knowledge focuses solely on behavior, ignoring many internal processes that the observed subject might “reproduce” at some point. given. Its explanatory power lies in phylogeny, that is to say in the evolutionary history of the species; be able to explain any individual action in the light of the shared experience of the group to which it belongs.

    Ethology as a discipline was founded by Austrian doctor Konrad Lorenz (The work concluded with a relevant doctoral thesis in the field of zoology) and by the Dutch zoologist Nikollas Tinbergen, in the late 1930s. His work at the School of Animal Behavioral Ethology led to the Nobel Prize (shared) in 1973, for his crucial contribution to the knowledge of mother-son relationships and to the detailed description of the phenomenon of “imprint”, which would later be added to the sciences of human behavior (with the construction of affection).

    In the early days of ethology, this focused only on research in the field (living) of non-human animals. Over time, and especially when the human being descended from the pedestal that he had once occupied (to understand himself as one more being of nature), a branch has sprouted, new in charge of the study of our species. In this way, and as has happened with psychology and / or philosophy, this field of knowledge makes its object of study coincide with the subject observing it.

    The branch of human ethology was born in the early 1970s, from the hand of Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, And focused mainly on social dynamics and the definition of behavioral repertoires that people could use when interacting with the environment. He inherited from classical ethology his method of interspecific comparison, such that primates would be the creatures chosen for analysis (at least in terms of elementary gestures, not communication or symbolization), emphasizing overlap behavioral with our ancestors.

    In short, human ethology would start from the same premise as the original discipline; and its objectives would be the study of the stimuli (internal and external) that are associated with the appearance of motivated behavior, the analysis of the usefulness of these actions, the exploration of the origin of the habits that facilitate correct adaptation and evaluation of the result according to reproduction or survival criteria. Likewise, all this would take place taking into account the evolution of the species itself (phylogeny) and the unique development of the subject (ontogeny).

      What is human ethology?

      Human ethology seeks to know which is, without a doubt, the most complex animal on the planet. And this is especially the case because of our ability to reason and become aware of oneself, which is made possible by the extraordinary development of the neocortex (the most recent of all brain structures in the evolutionary sense). As a direct consequence of this, our species experienced, at one point, a real cognitive revolution and became the first to be able to coexist in spaces where thousands or millions of individuals lived. The social structure of primates was quickly overcome and laws or rules emerged to regulate interactions.

      The two phenomena, at least in their magnitude, are specific to the human species and explain the relevance of a distinct branch of the thick epistemological trunk of ethology. Overall, they share their roots, so aMBAs are planted in the field of species evolution proposed by Darwin. Through this theoretical prism, it is intended to account for human phenomena, being sensitive to the heritage of our most distant ancestors and to the biological sacrifice for their survival. Questions such as genetic kinship, reproduction and instincts are at the heart of his postulates.

      Because the best way to understand the concept of human ethology is through examples, we move on to explain how it interprets certain phenomena. It is important to note that, given the breadth of his field of study, he must necessarily feed on advances in related sciences (such as sociology, psychology and biology).

        some examples

        In order to clarify what the purpose of human ethology is, it is worth turning to a few simple examples of the many that would be possible. From now on, four almost universal assumptions will be raised in the life of each individual, and the way in which this science interprets them under the auspices of the theoretical models which support it.

        1. Purpose of life

        Most people like to believe that our lives have a purposeAnd every day we strive precisely to achieve this and to be able to feel satisfied. These goals can be very disparate, and fluctuate over time according to the needs of each evolutionary period, but in all cases they give us a deep meaning that goes beyond the simple fact of existing in order to exist. Achieve a certain social position, climb to the top of a profession, build a happy family or simply feel proud to have tried; these are common examples of vital goals people set for themselves.

        However, ethologically, they can all be summed up into one: the transmission of our genes, Which was invented as a breeding success. At the metaphorical level, living organisms are only a physical vehicle from which the same genes are maintained over time, including the ultimate goal of existence. It is perhaps a non-romantic take on a reality that has inspired thinkers of all time, but offers a useful framework for understanding why we act the way we do in certain circumstances.

        This reproductive success, or biological efficiency, can be expressed in two different ways.: The direct and the indirect. The first depends on the sexual activity itself, through which the genetic baggage is extended to the lineage (children), while the second goes further and includes the reproduction of those with whom we share a kinship. The two are, for human ethology, the most fundamental motivations that everyone has to live. It is for this reason that it tacitly conditions many of our actions, even if we are not aware of it.

        2. Social relations

        Human ethology addresses issues such as altruism or prosocial behavior, which occur with great frequency in relationships between two individuals, especially when they belong to the same family. This way of acting it would promote the survival of the species by “correcting” the difficulties of the members of the collective, Which sometimes ends up compromising life. For many years this explanation was considered valid for understanding why we help each other, but that all changed with the Selfish Gene Theory (1976), published by Richard Dawkins. It was one more step.

        This postulate presented an innovative idea to the scientific community, which quickly spread to human ethology and established itself at the very heart of the discipline. He argued that acts that benefit groups have no adaptive value, while selfish acts would be effective in promoting genetic continuity. Acting in a (egocentric) manner would be more likely to provide you with the essential resources to survive, but … why do so many people continue to take care of others?

        This theoretical model raises, for example, that parents may be able to lay down their lives for their children because it is up to them to keep their genetic heritage in the future.. Thus, by prioritizing its safety over its own, the indirect biological efficacy (which we discussed in the previous section) would be enhanced. This view of things applies to many animals, such as primates or cetaceans, and gives a good idea of ​​why they tend to cluster in small groups based on inbreeding.

        In the case of human beings, it is considered that, although at some point in its long evolutionary history, it may have been a fundamental explanatory element of its survival, its usefulness today is questionable. And this is so because our brains allow an unparalleled degree of reasoning, which is usually manifested in cultural constructs that transcend the limits of biology and genes, daring to trace paths where other beings are guided only by the flow. intense biology. All these questions are still the subject of heated debates among ethologists today.

        3. Interpersonal attraction

        Feeling attracted to someone, or even being in love, are two experiences that (if they match) bring tremendous happiness. The moment you feel romantic curiosity for another person, the truth is that there are many variables that come into play, from how physically he is to the character or to material resources. And it is that every human being has their priorities when choosing a mate, and makes them prerequisites for mixing their chromosomes with those of someone else.

        Overall, a large percentage are able to recognize that “physical” is basic. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear statements such as “it must come in through the eye” or “it must be pleasing to what I see” when trying to find out what reasons are being weighed in favor of the choice of somebody. Although most believe it, voices are raised accusing those who speak it loudly of being superficial. But does such a question make sense from the point of view of human ethology? Obviously, the answer is a resounding yes.

        Certain physical attributes, such as size or muscle and lipid distribution, they allowed antiquity to deduce the genetic quality of whoever held them. Firm glutes, a broad chest, or sturdy arms indicated that the subject had athletic ability suitable for hunting, which would allow food to be available even in times of greater calamity. Wide hips and generous breasts were, in turn, an unequivocal sign of fertility. All of them have become desirable traits in the eyes of women or men, as they have facilitated the replicative will of genes. One way or another, they are still in effect today.

        4. Fall in love

        Falling in love has also been an object of interest in human ethology. A large part of the population has felt this in their life: difficulty in stopping thinking about others, need to share time with them, feeling “distracted”, excitement at the idea of ​​meeting, wanting to physical contact, etc. And though it’s a wonderful feeling, ethology understood it as a mechanism favoring contact between two individuals the time it takes for them to reproduce. So, in fact, that feeling usually wears off after a few years, leaving behind a much more measured and rational love.

        5. Affection

        One of the most important contributions of ethology to the relationship between parents and their offspring is that of the imprint. This is a link that is made between two living beings in the moments close to the birth of one of themHence the two will seek a physical proximity that facilitates the survival of the most vulnerable. It has been observed in many animal species, especially birds. We can all imagine, at this moment, the bucolic scene of a “mother duck” crossing a path or a road next to her chicks. They all move in a straight line and together, forming a compact group that avoids casualties.

        Well, the phenomenon has been described in humans through disease. This concept was formulated by John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist who studied the relationship between human offspring and their connecting figures. during the first years of life, in search of an essential security which allows the exploration of the environment and the development of behaviors such as symbolic play. Affection is essential to understanding the mother-child relationship, and it presents itself as a phenomenon that conditions the way we interact with others in adulthood (although it can modulate through other constructive experiences that are forged beyond childhood).

        All of these examples are only a discreet sketch of the very diverse postulates that have emerged in human ethology in recent years, and which remind us of something that we have never had to forget: that we are a primate with a very particular brain. , but not a being. foreign to nature or to the forces that evolution exerts on all that is living.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Leedom, L. (2014). Systems of Human Social Behavior: A Unified Theory. Bulletin of human ethology. 29, 41-49.
        • Martinez, JM (2004). Human ethology. Isagoge, 1, 31-34.

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