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Ethology: Introduction


Ethology is the study of animal behaviour. Its emphasis is the interaction of different species with each other and their environment. Consequently it has close links with ecology.

It is of interest to us for two reasons:

  • Psychologists frequently use animal experiments to draw parallels with human behaviour.
  • Sociobiology has drawn heavily on the behaviour of other species as models for human behaviour, often in a highly speculative way.

Ethologists themselves are very wary about using the behaviour of one species to predict that of another, even a closely related, species. One of the pioneers of ethology was Niko Tinbergen. He pointed out that there are four fundamental questions to answer:

Causation: Why does a particular animal behave in a certain way? What prompts the behaviour?

Function: What purpose does the behaviour serve?

Development: What has happened during its life, to cause or enable the animal to perform the behaviour. This might be inherent in its physical development or something in its past experience.

Phylogeny: What is the history of the species, that has led to this behaviour arising, and aided its survival?

David McFarland (1) has expressed this in another way by asking the following four questions:

Why do birds sit on eggs?
Why do birds sit on eggs?
Why do birds sit on eggs?
Why do birds sit on eggs?

We may paraphrase these questions by asking why humans have gender.

What is it that people recognise about gender, what does it consist of, in terms of attitudes and behaviours?

Why do people interact with each other in gender biased ways and why do they feel it necessary to do so?

Why is it that humans have gender? Do other species have it and, if so, what are the differences and why?

What is the function of gender? Why is it useful to humans?

How have gender systems appeared in different ways through history?

That could express the aim of this website though we don't guarantee to give any final answers.

It will be impossible to cover the whole topic of ethology in one website, so we intend to limit ourselves to the primates, and look at certain general considerations.

One outcome of sociobiology has affected the study more than any other; the realisation that there is an inherent difference between male and female mating strategies.

We intend to go even further and suggest that male behaviour in probably all species is constrained by the female's requirements in producing and nurturing their young.

Since we will be introducing certain hypotheses, the section is inevitably speculative. We hope, however, it will raise questions and provide food for thought.


1. McFarland, D., uncited reference in Hall, M., Halliday, T., (1992) Biology Brain and Behaviour: Book 1, Behaviour and Evolution, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

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Bland, J., (2002) About Gender: Ethology Introduction
Book graphics courtesy of
Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
Last amended 16.06.02