Ethology's traveling facts

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Introduction In 1949, the fledgling ethologist Robert Hinde observed a happy interchange between Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the founders of ethology, in their first days together after World War II. The location was Cambridge, England. The occasion for the ethologists being in Cambridge was a special symposium on “Physiological Mechanisms in Animal Behaviour,” hosted by the Society for Experimental Biology. The interchange in question happened outside of the official proceedings. As Hinde recalled: We were walking down Jesus Lane in Cambridge, and Tinbergen and Lorenz were discussing how often you had to see an animal do something before you could say that the species did it. Konrad said he had never made such a claim unless he had seen the behaviour at least five times. Niko laughed and clapped him on the back and said ‘Don’t be silly, Konrad, you know you have often said it when you have only seen it once!’ Konrad laughed even louder, acknowledging the point and enjoying the joke at his own expense. (Hinde 1990, p. 553) This story is instructive for what it tells about Lorenz and Tinbergen and their relationship to one another. It is also helpful in drawing attention to the kinds of facts in which ethologists were interested and how these facts were identified or constructed. In particular, it highlights the ethologists’ concern with behavioral differences among species, the metafact, so to speak, that species differ from one another in behavioral characters in much the same way that they differ in physical characters, and that behaviors may thus serve to distinguish one species from another just as effectively as structures do. This metafact means that behavioral facts observed in any one species may or may not be good candidates for travel when it comes to thinking about behavior in other species. The appropriateness or inappropriateness of the travel of specific behavioral facts from one context to another has thus been one of the recurring issues in the history of animal behavior studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHow Well do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge
EditorsPeter Howlett, Mary S Morgan
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9780511762154
ISBN (Print)9780521196543
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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