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Jerry Hogan’s effort to bring structure to the fragmentation of ethology

by Richard Meckien - published Dec 10, 2013 04:20 PM - - last modified Jun 30, 2015 02:55 PM

Jerry HoganOver the course of his career, Jerry Hogan saw his field of study fragment into several subareas. A researcher of animal behavior for more than 50 years and currently professor emeritus of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, Hogan strives to counter what he considers to be unwanted side effects of a movement toward specialization in ethology: impaired communication among scientists and the resulting increase in controversies between groups from different subfields.

According to Hogan, facing up to this problem requires a transversal and comprehensive approach to provide a unified theoretical framework to the study of human and animal behavior. That is the aim of The study of behavior, the book that he is writing during his sojourn as a visiting professor at the IEA, which he hopes will systematize the concepts and results obtained in the various specialties of ethology. This, in turn, will open the way for improved dialogue between researchers and for the emergence of new insights in the field.

In the following interview, given to journalist Flávia Dourado, Hogan looks back at the emergence of ethology and at how the fragmentation of this field of knowledge began. He also talks about the importance of communication between the various research specialties of animal behavior, and explains the proposal of the book he is working on.

Why do we need to integrate into a single framework the concepts and facts of the various subfields of ethology?

In the late 19th and early 20th century, when the study of behavior was in its infancy, numerous concepts and ideas were proposed to think about this new area of ​​knowledge. In psychology, particularly in North America, many of these ideas coalesced into a field called behaviorism, which concerned itself with problems related to learning. In biology, particularly in Europe, these ideas coalesced around a field called ethology, interested in the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. For these early ethologists, one of the most important concepts was instinct.

Later, in the mid-20th century, many behavioral scientists turned to the relationship between learning and instinct, and in 1970, the English ethologist Robert Hinde published Animal behavior: a synthesis of ethology and comparative psychology, a book that was an excellent summary of the literature in both fields, but did not provide a general framework. So psychologists and ethologists continued struggling to understand each other.

In the late 20th century, many psychologists were no longer interested in the processes of learning, and had begun to study cognitive processes or economic issues. At the same time, ethologists became either more molecular [reference to molecular biology, the study of physiology and the genes] – raising questions concerning neurophysiology and genetics – or more interested in ecology and matters related to populations [the study of groups of animals]. In both cases, the effort to understand the behavior of individual animals was compromised.

Furthermore, behavioral scientists ask different types of questions about behavior, and about the causes and consequences, or the development and evolution of a particular behavior. Many of the current controversies found in behavior literature arise because quite often researchers do not realize that these issues are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

What might a general framework look like that copes with such fragmentation?

The framework I am proposing derives from classical ethology, but it is much broader and can easily incorporate concepts and data from experimental psychology, neurophysiology and evolutionary biology. Its main feature is an emphasis on defining pieces of behavior – those related to patterns and perceptions – and their organization into a system of behavior. In other words, the framework begins by defining the structure of behavior. With a consistent notion of structure, one can see how these pieces of behavior are activated, what consequences their activation has, and how they developed. And one can also investigate how they evolve.

Why is communication between the various subfields of ethology so important? What problems arise from gaps in this communication?

Communication between the subfields is very important because solutions to problems that interest one group of scientists often require knowledge available to other groups. For example: what issues would each specialty raise regarding the fact that many bird species show annual patterns of migration? Ecologists would ask what is the yearly pattern of availability of food or of suitable nesting sites in areas used by a particular species. The answers might explain why birds migrate at certain times of the year and why they choose specific habitats for feeding and building nests. But if one is interested in understanding how birds are able to fly such long distances, it is necessary to investigate the physiology of the species. And if one is interested in understanding how birds know where to fly and how they recognize a suitable habitat when they arrive, one must seek information on the sensory capacities and perceptual abilities of the species. And that information is obtained either from ethologists or psychologists

Could you give an example of a concept established in one subfield that is being misinterpreted by another subfield, or of some controversy generated from such misrepresentation, or of any instance in which the lack of communication has hindered progress in the area?

Controversies arise when, for example, one group of scientists says birds migrate because they need different habitats for feeding and nesting, while another group argues that birds migrate because prolonged periods of sunlight stimulate the hormones that provide the animals with energy needed for long flights. Both hypotheses are true and necessary to understand why birds migrate. Historically, one of the greatest controversies in ethology was whether a particular behavior should be considered innate or learned. Many American and English ethologists held that every behavior requires experience to develop, which undermined the concept of instinct in the study of development. On the other hand, several Continental ethologists insisted that the concept of innate was useful and necessary. In this case, the controversy arose from differing definitions of the word “innate” and from the choice of research problems by the two sides.

What is your specialty in the field of ethology? Why did you decide to work toward the integration of all the fields?

My research and my interests are focused on understanding the structure, the motivation and the development of behavior. I have used tropical fish [a type of aquarium fish] and jungle fowl, a wild ancestor of domestic chickens, as my primary models for studying these questions. I chose a wild species because it was believed that its behavior would be more “natural,” but actually, there is not much difference between jungle fowl and most domestic breeds. Based on the observation of these animals, I have investigated aggressive, feeding, grooming, sleep and fear behaviors, including the effects of circadian rhythms in these behaviors. Because my own interests are very broad, I am often confronted with misinterpretations and controversies as the one I just mentioned.

According to your project, the book was not conceived as a compendium or a work to review the literature of the field. How should it be understood?

The proposal is to present my ideas about behavior. Although I have been citing relevant papers that provide evidence for these ideas, the book will not be a review of the literature. It will not be a textbook in the ordinary sense, but I hope it will provide material for discussion in graduate seminars and among professional scientists.

Is the book geared toward experts in the field of behavior or will it also be accessible to a lay audience?

The book should be accessible to a lay audience as well, but I think it will only interest those who already dedicate themselves to reflecting on the issues it discusses.

How will the contributions of the students you have taught be incorporated into the book?

I have just given an graduate seminar on the topic of the book, and the students’ reactions have been very helpful in many ways. It became clear to me that some topics are more interesting to students than others, and also that some ideas are particularly difficult to grasp. I will use these observed reactions to improve my presentation of these various topics as I write.