What Is Ethology? (Continued)

The previous post mentioned Nikolaas Tinbergen, whom Dr. Pretlow has been known to quote. Tinbergen was one of the founders of ethology, a branch of science that has the unusual trait of sharing its name with another branch that is different in significant ways. It is easy to see how some fields became known as “soft” sciences. Ethology is an example.

Its name comes from ethos, a Greek word for the characteristic or pervasive spirit of a culture, which sounds a lot like the German zeitgeist, having to do with how the community manifests the attitudes, habits and moral beliefs of its particular slice of history. Not surprisingly, the other type of ethology deals with the formation and evolution of human character, both individual and national or collective.

And then there is ethnology, a branch of anthropology that concentrates on the historical development of and social differences between different cultures or races. Here is a whole page that describes the difference between ethology and ethnology, which seems like it could in itself take an entire semester to absorb.

Back on track

At any rate, the ethology we are talking about is the study of animal behavior, particularly under natural conditions in the creatures’ natural environment. This distinguishes it from behaviorism, which concerns animal behavior in a lab setting. The ethologist tends to be less interested in a particular animal group than in how a particular type of behavior manifests in different animals. Behavioral traits are inherited but not immutable, because they can change to achieve survival.

In the old days, the men who studied these subjects tended to stay in their offices, labs and lecture halls, rather than going anywhere near their subjects’ natural habitats. In fact, Tinbergen’s quirky preference for going outside to see what creatures did on their own time is one of the reasons why he was noticed and celebrated. It is puzzling, how a single word was accepted as encompassing such a wide range of concepts.

Distinctions and differences

Animal behavior proceeds by trial and error, and mostly without volition. An insect does not decide to change color to disguise its presence on a leaf — at least not in the same sense that a child decides to defy its parents and stop attending Sunday School. A lion that kills a zebra has probably never been seriously accused of violating an ethical standard, whereas a human who shoots into a crowd and murders several people is definitely doing something that most would consider unethical. Yet, both are living within their ethos.

Most recently, the concept has extended itself to cover another area, described by the title of a book by Lesley A. Sharp, Animal Ethos — The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science.

This field of interest encompasses the moral challenges that arise from encounters between species in laboratory science, where “experimental research involving nonhuman species provokes difficult questions involving life and death, scientific progress, and other competing quandaries.” The publisher describes…

[…] the rich — yet poorly understood — moral dimensions of daily lab life, where serendipitous, creative, and unorthodox responses are evidence of concerted efforts by researchers, animal technicians, veterinarians, and animal activists to transform animal laboratories into moral scientific worlds.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What’s the difference between ethnology and ethology?,” CompareWords.com, undated
Source: “Animal Ethos — The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science,” UCPress.edu, 2018
Image by Tambako The Jaguar/CC BY-ND 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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