What is Human Ethology

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Written By NKFI

Human beings are undoubtedly an animal that involves great mysteries. We observe our species stunned, disbelievers at all the good and the bad of what we are capable of, feel like a different “bug” than what inhabits nature. And also, why not say it, as the most important.

This vision, known as anthropocentrism, has been apart of our lives for many years, promoted by different religions, and has prevented us from “assuming” our primitive and natural side. Or what is the same, our animal roots, which come from a lineage of huge primates to which we are joined by an inexorable kinship.

In recent years, however, ideas of species evolution have begun to settle in popular culture. With them, new questions have also arisen to think about: is human beings as free as they think? To what extent has evolutionary history conditioned our decisions? Are we, perhaps, just one more animal?

These questions, among many others, try to answer each other from human ethology. Despite being a relatively recent discipline, it has already taken its place among the sciences responsible for addressing human fact. In this article we will talk about what it is, and on what basis it builds its broad collection of knowledge.

What is Ethology?

The word ethology comes from classical Greek, and more specifically from the terms “ethos” (habit or custom) and “logos” (knowledge or science). It is therefore a discipline of multidimensional cutting (biology, genetics, medicine, psychology, etc.) whose purpose is the scientific approach of the behavior of animals in their natural environment, as well as the description of their interactions with other subjects of the group or with their physical environment. For this reason, theories such as those of evolution, based on sexual reproduction and adaptation to the environment, are often used.

Ethology is separated from psychology not only in its study perspective, but also in the fact that its field of knowledge focuses solely on the behavioral, ignoring many of the internal processes that the observed subject might be “reproducing” at any given time. Its explanatory power lies in the phylogeny, that is, in the evolutionary history of the species; being able to explain any individual action in light of the shared experience of the group to which it belongs.

Ethology as a discipline was founded by Austrian physician Konrad Lorenz (whose work concluded in a relevant doctoral thesis in the field of zoology) and by Netherlands zoologist Nikollas Tinbergen in the late 1930s. Their work at the Ethological School of Animal Behavior led them to achieve the Nobel (shared) prize in 1973, for their crucial contribution to the knowledge of mother-child relationships and for the detailed description of the phenomenon of the “imronta”, which would later be added to the sciences of human behavior (with the construction of attachment).

In the early days of ethology, it focused solely on field research (live) of non-human animals. As time went on, and especially at the moment when human beings descended from the pedestal they had once occupied (to understand themselves as another being of nature), a new branch sprang up in charge of the study of our species. In this way, and as with psychology and/or philosophy, this area of knowledge matched his object of study with the subject who observes him.

The branch of human ethology was born in the early 1970s, by the hand of Irenus Eibl-Eibesfeldt,and focused primarily on social dynamics and the definition of behavioral repertoires that people could use during their exchanges with the environment. He inherited from classical ethology his comparative method interspecie, so that primates would be the creatures chosen for analysis (at least with regard to elementary gestures, not communication or symbolization), emphasizing behavioral overlap with our ancestors.

In short, human ethology would start from the same premise as the original discipline; and its purposes would be the study of the stimuli (both internal and external) that are associated with the onset of motivated behavior, the analysis of the usefulness of such actions, the exploration of the origin of habits that facilitate a correct adaptation and the assessment of results according to reproductive or survival criteria. Likewise, all this would be carried out in view of the evolution of the species itself (phylogeny) and the unique development of the subject (ontogenia).

What is Human Ethology?

Human ethology seeks to know the one who is, without a doubt, the most complex animal on the planet. And this is especially because of our ability to reason and become aware of ourselves, which is possible by the extraordinary development of neocortex (the most recent of all brain structures in an evolutionary sense). As a direct consequence of this our species experienced, at some point, a real cognitive revolution and became the first capable of living in spaces where thousands or millions of individuals lived. The social structure of primates was quickly overcome, and laws or rules sprang up to regulate interactions.

Both phenomena, at least in magnitude, are unique to the human species and explain the relevance of a branch separated from the thick epistemological trunk of ethology. However, they share their roots, sombas are planted in the field of the evolution of the species proposed by Darwin. This theoretical prism is intended to account for human phenomena, being sensitive to the inheritance of our most remote ancestors and biological sacrifice for their survival. Issues such as genetic kinship, reproduction and instincts are at the basis of their postulates.

Because the best way to understand the concept of human ethology is through examples, we turn to exposing how it interprets certain phenomena. It is important to note that, given the breadth of its field of study, it must necessarily be nurtured by advances in related sciences (such as sociology, psychology and biology).

Some examples

In order to clarify what is the objective of human ethology, it is appropriate to use some simple examples of the many that would be possible. In the future, four almost universal assumptions will be raised in the life of every individual, and the way in which this science interprets them under the theoretical models that underpin it.

Goal of life

Most people like to believe that our lives have a purpose, andevery day we strive precisely to achieve it and be able to feel satisfied. These objectives can be very disparate, and fluctuate over time according to the needs of each evolutionary period, but in any case they give us a profound meaning that goes beyond the mere fact of existing. Achieve a certain social position, take on the cusp of a profession, build a happy family or just be proud to have tried it; are common examples of vital goals that people set for themselves.

However, from an ethological perspective, all of them can be summarized in one: the transmission of our genes,which has been coined as reproductive success. At a metaphor level, living organisms would be just a physical vehicle from which the genes themselves would be maintained over time, this being the ultimate end of existence. It is perhaps an un romantic view of a reality that has inspired thinkers of all time, but which proposes a useful framework for understanding why we act as we do in certain circumstances.

This reproductive success, or biological efficacy, can be expressed in two differentways: direct and indirect. The first depends on the sexual activity itself, by which genetic background extends to the lineage (children), while the second goes one step further and includes the reproduction of those with whom we share kinship. Both are, for human ethology, the most basic of the motivations that all people harbor to live. It is for this reason that it tysitly conditions many of our actions, even though we are not aware.

Social relations

Human ethology addresses issues such as altruism or prosocial behavior, which often unfold during relationships between two individuals, especially when they belong to the same family. This way of acting would promote the survival of the species by “redressing” the difficulties of themembers of the collective, which sometimes come to compromise life. For many years it was thought that this explanation was valid to understand why we help each other, but all this changed with the theory of The Selfish Gen (1976), published by Richard Dawkins. It was a twist.

This postulate presented an innovative idea to the scientific community, which quickly spread to human ethology and was established at the very heart of the discipline. He raised that acts that benefit groups lack adaptive value, while selfish ones would be effective in promoting genetic continuity. Acting in such a way (self-centered) would be more likely to provide the essential resources to survive, but why do so many people continue to care for others?

This theoretical model suggests, for example, that parents may be able to give their lives for their children because it is up to them that in the future their genetic legacy will be maintained. Thus, privileging its safety over its own, indirect biological efficacy (which we are talking about in the previous heading) would be strengthened. This vision of things applies to many animals, such as primates or cetaceans, and gives good account of why they tend to cluster into small groups according to insanguinity.

In the case of humans, it is considered that, although at some point in its extensive evolutionary history it may have been a fundamental explanatory element for its survival, its usefulness is now questionable. And this is because our brains allow an unprecedented degree of reasoning, which often manifests itself in cultural constructions that transcend the limitations of biology and genes, tending to chart paths where other beings only get carried away by the intense flow of biology. All these issues remain, today, the subject of ardent debates among ethologists.

Interpersonal attraction

Being attracted to someone, or even being in love, are two experiences that (if reciprocated) bring enormous happiness. When it comes to being romantically curious about someone else, the truth is that there are many variables that come into play, from how it is physically to character or material resources. Every human being has their priorities when choosing a partner, and makes them preconditions for mixing their chromosomes with someone else’s.

However, a large percentage is able to recognize that “physical” is basic. So it’s no wonder to hear statements like “you have to come through my eye” or “I have to like what I see” when you look at what reasons you weigh yourself to opt for someone. Although most believe this, voices are raised accusing those who express it loudly. But does such a question make sense from the prism of human ethology? Obviously, the answer is a resounding yes.

Certain physical attributes, such as height or muscle and lipid distribution, allowed in ancient times to infer the genetic quality of theone who held them. Firm buttocks, broad chest or burly arms indicated that the subject had appropriate athletic skills for hunting, which would allow food to be available even at times of greatest calamity. Wide hips and generous breasts were, for their part, an unequivocal sign of fertility. All of them became desirable traits in the eyes of women or men, because they facilitated the replicative will of genes. In some ways, they remain in force today.


Infatuation has also been an object of interest to human ethology. A large part of the population has ever felt this way in their life: difficulty to stop thinking about each other, need to share time at their side, feeling “distracted”, excitement at the thought of encounter, desire to have physically intimate contact, etc. And although it is a wonderful feeling, ethology has understood it as a mechanism to promote contact between two individuals as long as it is necessary for them to reproduce. Thus, in fact, this feeling usually fades at the age of a few, leaving behind it a much more measured and rational love.


One of the most important contributions of ethology to the relationship between parents and their young is that of the imronta. It is a link that is drawn between two living beings in the moments near the birth of one of them,from which both will seek a physical closeness that facilitates the survival of the most vulnerable. It has been observed in many animal species, especially birds. We can all imagine, right now, the bucolic scene of a “duck mom” crossing a road or road next to its chicks. All move in a straight and joined line, forming a compact group that prevents loss.

Well, the phenomenon has been described in human beings through attachment. This concept was formulated by John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist who studied how human offspring relate to their linking figures during the early years of life, in search of essential security that allows exploration of the environment and the development of behaviors such as symbolic play. Attachment is key in understanding the mother-child relationship, and stands as a phenomenon that conditions how we will interact with others in adult life (although it can be modulated by other constructive experiences that are forged beyond childhood).

All these examples are just a discreet brushstroke of the very diverse postulates that are emerging from human ethology in recent years, and that bring to mind something that we should never have forgotten: that we are a primate with a very particular brain, but not a being alien to nature or the forces that evolution exerts on everything that is alive.


  • Leedom, L. (2014). Human Social Behavioral Systems: a Unified Theory. Human Ethology Bulletin. 29, 41-49.
  • Martínez, J.M. (2004). Human Ethology. Isagogé, 1, 31-34.

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