Classic Ethology

Most of what we have described so far occurred in the United States. A European science of animal behavior developed independently. It started in the 1870s and a century later merged with comparative psychology to form the modern science of animal behavior. The European tradition was called ethology (pronounced ee-THOL-ology).

At mid-century, the approaches of comparative psychology and ethology were as different as could be.

Comparative psychologists Ethologists
American European
Emphasized learning Emphasized instinctive behavior
Worked in labs Worked in labs and in the wild
Used few species Observed many species
Objective, scientific attitude In love with animals
White lab coats Flannels or wool sweaters

What were differences between ethologists and American experimental psychologists at mid-century?

The two approaches to animal psychology were so different that some scientists on both sides felt threatened by the other side. Heated exchanges crossed the Atlantic in the early 1960s. The Americans accused the ethologists of reverting to unscientific instinct theories of the early 1900s. The Europeans accused the Americans of naively ignoring species differences.

This was one time when a clash of opposing perspectives had a fruitful outcome. After several decades of intellectual combat, both camps learned from each other. Behaviorists learned to recognize examples of learning prepared by evolution, and ethologists started adopting systematic observation procedures such as those advocated by behaviorists. As early as 1972 experts declared the two approaches "linked if not fused" (Crook and Goss-Custard, 1972). By 1980, a survey (Demarest, 1980) showed that 50% of American comparative psychologists regarded "ethology" as a synonym for "comparative psychology."

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey