On aims and methods of Ethology

“Ethology, the term now widely in use in the English speaking world for the branch of science called in Germany ,,Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung“ or “Tierpsychologie” is perhaps defined most easily in historical terms, viz. as the type of behaviour study which was given a strong impetus, and was made “respectable”, by KONRAD LORENZ. LORENZ himself was greatly influenced by CHARLES OTIS WHITMAN and OSKAR HEINROTH in fact, when LORENZ was asked at an international interdisciplinary conference in 1955 how he would define Ethology, he said: “The branch of research started by OSKAR HEINROT(H19”55, p. 77). Although it is only fair to point out that certain aspects of modern Ethology were already adumbrated in the work of men such as HUXLEY (1914, 1923) and VERWEY(1930), these historical statements are both correct as far as they go. However, they do not tell us much about the nature of Ethology. In this paper I wish to attempt an evaluation of the present scope of our science and, in addition, to try and formulate what exactly it is that makes us consider LORENZ “the father of modern Ethology”. Such an attempt seems to me worthwhile for several reasons: there is no consistent “public image” of Ethology among outsiders; and worse: ethologists themselves differ widely in their opinions of what their science is about. I have heard Ethology characterised as the study of releasers, as the science of imprinting, as the science of innate behaviour; some say it is the activities of animal lovers; still others see it as the study of animals in their natural surroundings. It just is a fact that we are still very far from being a unified science, from having a clear conception of the aims of study, of the methods employed and of the relevance of the methods to the aims. Yet for the future development of Ethology it seems to me important to continue our attempts to clarify our thinking, particularly about the nature of the questions we are trying to answer. When in these pages I venture once more to bring this subject up for discussion, I do this in full awareness of the fact that our thinking is still in a state of flux and that many of my close colleagues may disagree with what I am going to say. However, I believe that, if we do not continue to give thought to the problem of our overall aims, our field will be in danger of either splitting up into seemingly unrelated sub-sciences, or of becoming an isolated “-ism”. I also believe that I can honour KONKAD LORENZ in no better way than by continuing this kind of “soul-searching”. I have not hesitated to give personal views even at the risk of being considered rash or provocative.”

N. Tinbergen