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Summary: Social Ethology

Tinbergen and Lorenz emphasized solitary animals or pairs of animals, in their classic work of the 1930s through 1950s. With the 1960s and 1970s came a new emphasis on group interactions of animals, such as competition, communi­cation, and predatory/prey relationships.

Predator/prey competition led to specialized adaptations in many animals. Bats are highly effective predators, so the noctuid moth evolved a defensive response triggered by the frequency of bat sonar.

Many moths have eyespots on their wings. Birds are highly sensitive to visual patterns but relatively insensitive to the size of a pattern, so eyespots might scare away predator birds, as well as diverting pecks.

Alarm responses are often shared between different species, benefiting all. In the 1980s, researchers discovered that vervet monkeys had at least three different alarm calls for different types of predators: a simple form of communi­cation.

Humans also participate in shared alarm calls (with watchdogs). Humans themselves have a stereotyped alarm call: the scream.

Struggles for territory and social status are common in group living animals. Monkeys, rams, and porpoises (among others) are known for aggressive combat to establish who is dominant.

Animals use signals to avoid damaging combat when possible. Threat displays often involve what Tinbergen called intention movements. Submission postures and appeasement displays are used to ward off aggression by higher status animals.

Prosocial behaviors are friendly interactions of group-living animals. Grooming is one such behavior, often elicited with invitation displays. For example, monkeys turn their backs to other monkeys to elicit grooming.

Harry Harlow discovered that baby rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers would cling to a surrogate (substitute) mother made of soft cloth. He said there was a need for "contact comfort."

Most animals have highly developed action patterns devoted to courtship, mating, nest building, and raising the young. Odors are often involved in identifying a home territory, for example, when salmon return to the stream where they were born, for spawning.

Social ethology has generated many concepts that can be applied to humans. The discipline of sociobiology, proposed by Edward O. Wilson in 1975, was very controversial because simplistic references to genetic influences.

Evolutionary psychology slowly gained credibility, and by the 1990s and 2000s it was a vigorous sub-discipline of psych­ology. There is ample evidence for the influence of evolution on human behavior, but evolutionary reasoning applied to humans is tricky because of factors like polygenic traits and pleiotropy.

Genetic and epigenetic influences are complex and subtle. The human ancestral environment has changed rapidly, particularly in the last 20,000 years.

Cultural evolution is much faster than biological evolution. Perhaps the most outstanding trait of modern humans is flexibility and adaptability to change.


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