Animal Behavior

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.