By the early 1900s the field of animal behavior had split into two major branches. One branch, ethology, developed primarily in Europe. To ethologists, what is striking about animal behaviors in that they are fixed and seemingly unchangeable? For example, kittens and puppies play in characteristic but different ways. Present a kitten with a ball of yarn and invariably it draws back its head and bats the yarn with claws extended. Kittens are generally silent as they play, and their tails twitch. Puppies, by contrast, are most likely to pounce flat-footed on a ball of yarn. They bit and bark and their tails wag. Ethologists came to believe that ultimately even the most complex animal behaviors could be broken down into a series of unchangeable stimulus/response reactions. They became convinced that the details of these patterns were as distinctive of a particular group of animals as were anatomical characteristics. For well over half a century, their search for and description of innate patterns of animal behavior continued.
Meanwhile, mainly in North America, the study of animal behavior took a different tack, developing into comparative behavior. Of interest to comparative behaviorists was where a particular came from, that is, its evolutionary history, how the nervous system controlled it, and the extent to which it could be modified. In 1894, C. Lloyd Morgan, an early comparative behaviorist, insisted that animal behavior be explained as simply as possible without reference to emotions or motivations since these could not be observed or measured. In Morgan’s research, animals were put in simple situations, presented with an easily described stimulus, and their resultant behavior described.
The extension to animals of behaviorism—the idea that the study of behavior should be restricted to only those elements that can be directly observed—was an important development in comparative behavior. Studies of stimulus/response and the importance of simple rewards to enforce and modify animal behavior were stressed. Not surprisingly, comparative behaviorists worked most comfortably in the laboratory. Comparative behaviorists stressed the idea that animal behavior could be modified, while their ethologist colleagues thought it was innate and unchangeable. Inevitably, the two approaches led to major disagreements.
To early ethologists, the major driving force in behavior was instinct, behaviors that are inherited and unchangeable. Moths move towards light because they inherit the mechanism to so respond to light. Although dogs have more options available to them, they bark at strangers for much the same reasons. The comparative behaviorists disagreed: learning and rewards are more important factors than instinct in animal behavior. Geese are not born with the ability to retrieve lost eggs when they roll out the nest, they learn to do so. If their behavior seems sometimes silly to humans because it fails to take new conditions into account, that is because the animal’s ability to learn is limited. There were too many examples of behaviors modified by experience for comparative behaviorists to put their faith in instincts.
5 The arguments came to a peak in the 1950s and became known as the nature or nurture controversy.
Consider how differently an ethologist and a comparative behaviorist would interpret the begging behavior of a hatchling bird. The first time a hatchling bird is approached by its parent, it begs for food. All baby birds of a particular species beg in exactly the same way. Obviously, said the ethologists, they inherited the ability and the tendency to beg. Baby birds did not have to learn the behavior, they were born with it—a clear example of innate, unchanging behavior. Not so, countered the comparative behaviorists. Parent birds teach their young to beg by stuffing food in their open mouths. Later experiments showed that before hatching, birds make and respond to noises of their nest mates and adults. Is it not possible that young birds could learn to beg prenatally?
It was hard for ethologists to accept that innate behaviors could be modified by learning. It was equally difficult for comparative behaviorists to accept that genetic factors could dominate learning experiences. The controversy raged for over a decade. Eventually, however, the distinctions between the two fields narrowed. The current view is that both natural endowments and environmental factors work together to shape behavior.