Dr. Charles received his undergraduate degree in Animal
Behavior from Bucknell University. All of his current
interests stem from that experience.
The modern field of animal behavior has created a
very good synergy by overcoming the conflicts that plagued it
between the 1930's and the 1970's. During that time, researchers
from different traditions had grand public debates over the
exact right way to account for an animal's behavior. Much of
this was reconciled into the core conceptual scheme of modern
Animal Behavior studies by Tinbergen, with his 4 questions about
behavior: What is the Immediate Mechanism? Development Origin?
Evolutionary Function? and Phylogenetic History? The point of
distinguishing these questions is to show that they do not
conflict, they request different types of information, all of
which are needed for a full picture of why a behavior happened.
This was great, but it had unintended consequences. In
particular, the consensus led to a lack of appreciation for the
unique perspectives (questions, tools, and methods) of the prior
camps. The specialized tool set of the ethologist, comparative
psychologist, behavioral geneticist, and others were traded in
for a generic 101 piece tool set from Walmart.
To the detriment of psychology, this consensus corresponded with
the declining importance of comparative psychology. The study of
animals had once been considered central to the field, and a
very wide variety of species were studied in both natural and
lab settings. The behaviorist movement narrowed the range of
species studied and focused on lab work with rats and pigeons.
As the behavioists separated from psychology, comparative work
virtually disappeared, with the exception of the few people with
enough funding to study ape communication.
But it is important to get comparative psychology back, and to
articulate in a clear manner why it is important: If we are
to be a field concerned with psychology, broadly understood,
then we must have principles that apply to psychological
phenomenon wherever we might find them. Comparative
psychology had developed (and what little is left of it
continues to develop) tools for identifying and studying
psychological processes in animals. It has particular strength
in studying the development of such processes. Also, serious
study of comparative psychology, even if just for a semester,
serves as a particularly good anecdote to the self-centered
nexus of most student's interests in the field. Studying
psychological phenomenon in animals makes it difficult to
maintain the belief that the only interesting questions for
psychology revolve around semi-wealthy Westerners.
More to come.