Signs of Affection

J.Z. Young

  • The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour edited by David McFarland
    Oxford, 657 pp, £17.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 19 866120 7

This is a sort of encyclopedia for people interested in watching animals. The naturalist who wants further information about the habits of his subjects will find much of it here. There are fine articles on things such as flight, homing, nest-building, song, courtship, migration and many other avian activities. Unfortunately, the book will not be so much use to anyone who wants details about particular species. There is no section that deals with the whole life of each type of bird or other animal. But one can learn about the idiosyncrasies, say, of cuckoos, homing pigeons, owls or bower-birds.

Of course, the book is not all about birds. The ethologists who have written it believe that they have founded a distinct branch of science, with its own principles. It is rather difficult to discover what these principles are. In the article ‘Ethology’ the editor says that this science is ‘distinguished from other approaches to the study of behaviour in seeking to combine functional and causal types of explanation’. This rather cryptic definition is not made clearer by a further reference to ‘proximate causes’. If this means anything, it seems to imply that functional or evolutionary explanations are ‘final causes’, but he does not actually say so, perhaps wisely.

In practice, ethologists can be readily defined by the fact that they prefer to study animals in their natural habitats and are not primarily concerned with what is inside them. The characteristic tool of an ethologist is a pair of binoculars. With these, Tinbergen and his colleagues, largely in Oxford, have indeed been able to make many novel and interesting observations of the habits of animals. They have found it desirable to invent a special terminology – ‘sign stimuli’, ‘innate releasing mechanism’ and ‘action specific energy’ – some of whose words have passed into general use by biologists. In addition, they have made many ingenious experiments, both in the field and in the laboratory.

But the attempt to segregate ‘ethology’ as a distinct branch of science cannot be maintained – though it is characteristic of human behaviour to try to do so. The best articles in this Companion show clearly that it is impossible to make sense of the ‘behaviour’ of animals without looking inside them. Thus Muntz in an excellent account of colour vision tells us which animals can see colours, how this has been found out, what internal mechanisms are used and how this capacity helps the animals in their lives. No specialised study of animals or plants is ‘biological’ unless it deals with the question of how the organism keeps alive.

Most ethologists are well aware of this, but there are strange lapses. Dawkins pursues his religion of gene worship. In his interesting article on ‘Communication’, he says that ‘the central dogma of modern ethology is that behaviour, like every other part of animal nature, has been evolved because it benefits the genes of the behaving animal.’ In the article on ‘Evolution’, he tells us that natural selection ‘is important because of its consequences for the differential survival of genes in gene pools’. So he is determined that we must solve the old hen and egg problem in favour of the egg. Many of us cannot accept this, especially as applied to humans. For myself, I believe that people are more important than genes, whatever geneticists and sociobiologists may preach. Such ex cathedra statements are really an insult, particularly to the non-specialist reader, as is also Dawkins’s statement in the same article that ‘behaviour is movement produced by muscle or its functional equivalent.’ The word ‘behaviour’ is indeed rather ambiguous, but surely it isn’t just ‘movement’? It is doing something that affects survival, such as escaping, keeping up with the herd, hunting, migrating. These are the uses of movement.

A similar criticism applies to many of the articles. If the book is to be about behaviour, it should surely deal with general activities and with the internal mechanisms that regulate them. For instance, the article on brain, though a good description of anatomy and physiology, tells little about how brains produce behaviour. Admittedly, we don’t know how brain programs are organised, but it should be the job of ethologists to urge physiologists to find out more.

The selection of topics in the Companion reflects the ethologists’ somewhat narrow range of interests. The founding father Lorenz has long been interested in ‘Aggression’, which gets eight pages and is followed by ‘Agonistic Behaviour’ – much the same subject. Similarly we have articles on threat and fear but none on love, affection, attraction or association (except in the psychologists’ sense of learning). No doubt the avoidance of these topics is due to their common subjective uses. Behaviourists, ever since John B. Watson, have been determined to avoid the use of subjective terminology, holding that this is proper only to humans. This is certainly a difficult topic, but surely if we are to see signs in animals that we classify as indicating ‘fear’, we can also see signs of ‘affection’. Subjective terms enter so deeply into our language that omitting them produces absurdities. For instance, we have an article here on ‘Intention Movements’, but nothing on ‘Intention’, which should, incidentally, be welcome to philosophers.

There are ambiguities of other sorts besides those of subjectivism. The article on evolution is followed by one on extinction, but this refers, not to the disappearance of species (which is not mentioned), but to the loss of a learned behaviour pattern when it is no longer appropriate. Part of the fun and value of dictionaries and encyclopedias is that they teach us how muddled our language has become.

The very problems that the book raises show how interesting the study of behaviour can be. There is much in it to attract many people besides bird-watchers. Opening it anywhere, you come upon entries that lure you on. The index could be more helpful. There are no page numbers to find the animals mentioned, and no way at all to find which article any contributor has produced. But altogether Oxford can be congratulated on producing another volume that opens a specialist subject to the general reader.