Classic Ethology Reappraised

Behavior and Philosophy 34:89 - 107 (2006)
I analyze the theoretical tenets of early ethology and the criticisms leveled against it from comparative psychology. Early ethology had a clear research object, the study of behavioral adaptedness. Adaptedness was explained by the functional rules and programs that underlie the relation between a given organism and its natural environment (the function cycle). This research object was lost during the redefinition of ethology that took place after the Second World War, a redefinition that led to an emphasis on physiological and evolutionary explanations instead of functional ones. This loss happened because early ethologists did not make their aims sufficiently clear and because of fundamental epistemological and semantic misunderstandings between ethologists and comparative psychologists. I argue that the behavioral explanation of adaptedness is different from both physiological and ecological research and that it needs functional concepts similar to the ones of early ethology. I defend the idea of function cycles and causal centers defined in terms of perceptual selection and behavioral response tendencies and I try to show that these functional concepts may be fruitfully combined with learning theories. I suggest calling this line of research Comparative Behavioral Ethology.
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