Ethology , the zoological study of animal behavior, is helpful to us because humans are animals. Objectivity is a basic tenet of science, and how better to be objective about our own behaviors than to see them reflected in the other animals? We gain perspective too, as we look at a spectrum of animal behavior, not just the behaviors of one small set of humans, in one place, at one time.
Of course, ethologists do make particular studies of particular groups, in search of particular answers. But they often aim to generalize: to study, for example, the causes of aggression or the formation of pair bonds. When ethologists study the higher primates, for instance, they can sometimes extrapolate their findings to ideas about what drives humans to behave the way we do. Instinct is one of the prime areas of investigation for ethologists, and while we don’t always think of ourselves as creatures of instinct, of course we are.
Human ethologists study the role of instinct in human behavior by looking at the instinctual behavior of animals, or sometimes of young children. How do helpless babies get their mothers to love and care for them? Partly by engaging in instinctual behaviors that unlock instinctual responses in the parent. Babies do not learn to be lovable, they instinctively know. Mothers learn to be better parents, but they layer that knowledge on a base of instinct that makes them want to learn.
The famous Nobelist Konrad Lorenz believed that certain physical characteristics of a baby elicited tenderness, such as the small short nose, the chubby cheeks, the rounded little body. There are animals that share some of these characteristics, and they often appear as lovable characters in children’s stories. Creatures with beaky, hawk-like features on the other hand are often seen as overbearing, or at least as dominant. Compare Hello Kitty, the trademarked character that children worldwide love, to the eagle of our national seal, or to the predators in the painting Nighthawks. Friendship and fun contrast with dominance and fear.
It is useful, as well as interesting, to recognize some of the signs that we humans respond to without conscious thought. Of course we should not automatically trust someone just because they have a baby face, or immediately mistrust them because they have a proud Roman nose. But we should recognize our many biases based on physical characteristics, so that we can see past them.
Parenting is certainly a worthy study. So is the study of pair bonding, which ethologist Lorenz studied in the monogamous Greylag goose. So is the study of aggression. Living in groups is an important area of investigation for ethologists, and may be the future of the field. Applied ethology teaches how to relate to the animals we live in association with. Motivation is another important field that’s intensely studied.
From Charles Darwin, who can be considered the first of the ethologists, to the sophisticated neuroethologists of today, these scientists have helped us understand the world, and ourselves, better. What could possibly be more helpful?