Ethological Approach to the Study of Human Behavior
by Zdenek Klein
human ethology; behavior
innate; behavior learned;
human nonverbal communication; cultural anthropology;
Human ethology, which was established on the basis of classical
zooethology, can be an inspirational contribution to the study
of human behavior. The study of behavior in natural conditions
is stimulating as well as the primary interest of ethologists
in such behavioral patterns showing evolutionary success and
benefits and which are called inborn or innate. The extensive
area of human behavior, nonverbal communication, can be investigated
also with the application of some ethological knowledge. Human
ethology can bring significant insight to the evaluation of
the pathology of human behavior in various medical disciplines.
An important task of medical prediction (prognosis) can be made
more reliable by considering the ethology. A specific attribute
of the species Homo sapiens, his culture, is acknowledged and
discussed through human ethology.
Heritage of Classical Ethology
All sciences and their subdisciplines which study human behavior
from the physiology of the central nervous system, behaviorism,
psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, sociobiology to cultural
and social anthropology, including sexology, partly pediatrics,
psychiatry, etc. can be included under the term behavioral
sciences (Porket 1966).
Especially the approach resulting from natural sciences is very
inspirational. One of these disciplines is human ethology which
can be defined as the biology of human behavior and which follows
classical zooethology. Zooethology arose from comparative zoology
in the nineteen thirties and nineteen forties. Konrad Lorenz
published his most essential studies in 1935 and 1943 (Lorenz
Ethology is closely connected with the names of Konrad Lorenz,
Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. All three scientists
were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in
1973 (Tinbergen 1974). The founder of human ethology is Professor
Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt of Germany who collaborated with Konrad
Lorenz. He is also the author of studies and books on human
behavior including important transcultural comparisons (Eibl-Eibesfeldt
1970, 1971, 1989).
The fixed-action pattern (inherited movement coordination) is
a fundamental ethological concept (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989). An
important aspect for the survival of organisms is behavior actualized
on the basis-innate releasing mechanisms (Tinbergen 1951), some
of them having the nature of a so-called key stimuli,
eg. baby-scheme, etc. (Lorenz 1943). In the majority of cases,
topical behavior of the organism results from certain kinds
of motivational states and its intensity and a specific external
stimulus. The searching of organisms with a high inner motivational
state for such an adequate stimulus situation is called appetitive
behavior. Other important concepts of zooethology, e.g., territoriality,
hierarchy, sensitive periods in ontogenesis, etc., are also
useful when discussing human behavior. For detailed information
about ethology, please refer to the original works of Lorenz,
Tinbergen, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, etc. Special monography devoted
to man is the book Human Ethology (Eibl-Eibesfeldt
Versus Learned Behavior
versus learned behavior is a very old problem and both terms
have many synonyms. Innate behavior: inborn, genetic, instinctive,
biologically based, inherited, natural, etc. Learned behavior:
acquired, social background, nurture, etc.
A strict dichotomy between innate and learned behavior is not
useful for the research of human behavior. The probability of
sudden neurophysiological change which would cause innateness
of certain behavioral patterns is extremely low, (in other words,
the innateness of certain behavioral programs). The optimal
morphological structures were developed over many generations
in the long-term, phylogenesis; and those living organisms which
were not capable of adaptation and specific learning, did not
survive. The long-term evolutionary succession of these programs
caused their specific fixation and also their heritage as well
as in the case of morphological structures, which are called
innate or inborn. This term is descriptive provided that such
behavior is actualized without preliminary experiences and that
its external expression cannot be influenced in a conspicuous
way. The evolution of behavioral programs is a long-term matter
because their usefulness and advantage for the survival of the
individual (and for the whole species) to be verified, their
specificity to external conditions and also their other important
attributes had to be learned by organisms. In my
opinion, we can speak about a specific kind of learning, the
so-called phylogenetical learning.
Another objection to such a strict dichotomy, innate versus
learned, is that the creation and manifestation of those behavioral
patterns which we designate as learned is a very complicated
process, not only from the point of view of biochemistry and
neuro-physiology, but mainly because of the biological and psychosocial
consequences. The term learned behavior should be
used in a descriptive sense for those behavior patterns or programs
which were created on the basis of ontogenetic experience and
formed on the field prepared during long-term phylogenesis.
This question is complicated and we are not sure whether this
is relevant to further research on human behavior. However,
it is not possible to neglect programs which arose from phylogenetic
learning, e.g. the motivational structure of sexual behavior
or mother-child interaction in early childhood, which are actualized
during ontogenesis including its disturbances, e.g. homosexuality.
Behavioral patterns which were created by phylogenetic learning
and formed and actualized by ontogenetic learning cannot be
omitted and not at all improved or treated
in the framework of preventive or therapeutic procedures. Because
their origin is in long-term phylogenesis which happened in
a natural environment, the ethological approach to human behavior
based on the description of behavior in natural conditions is
adequate and inspirational.
Nonverbal Communication (HNC)
Active interaction with other members of the species is a basic
attribute of all living organisms. The aim of such interaction
is the exchange of information between members of their own
species (communication intraspecific) and also between members
of different species (communication interspecific). Articulated
speech is the main channel for such communication exchanges
in species Homo sapiens. A specific biological psycho-social
phenomenon called human nonverbal communication (HNC) is of
great importance. The importance of human non-verbal communication
increases rapidly in cases of disturbances of verbal communication.
We not only observe disturbances because of pathological conditions
(e.g. neurosis, psychosis, etc.), but also in so-called normal
interaction (e.g. when disregarding transcultural differences,
in unfamiliarity with a foreign language, etc.). A special situation
arises in early human postnatal life when communication between
mother and child (approximately until the 30th week of baby-life)
is by means of non-verbal communication only.
The pioneer work in this area was Darwins book, The
Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin 1872
[Czech version 1964]). It is remarkable that the majority of
the main components of HNC can be studied by applying ethological
knowledge and a conceptual apparatus. For example, the concept
of territoriality (i.e. territorium and territorial behavior)
or so-called space behavior; the concept of hierarchy (i.e.
domination and submission) in gazing behavior; but also in touching
behavior. Generally speaking, HNC is a complicated and relevant
system with a biological background. The following classification
of the main components is useful in our work and in thinking
about this phenomenon. The HNC components are divided into four
categories in spite of the fact that in reality their presentation
and perception by the partner in the interaction are mainly
Category (condition sine qua non for realization of more sensitive
functions of HNC)
1. Space behavior
3. Angle of frontal planes of the partners
1. Facial expression (mimic changes inclusive of grimace)
2. Gaze behavior (the direction and length of the look)
3. Paralanguage (nonverbal parts of speech)
4. Gesticulation (illustrative, semantic, acoustic gestures)
5. Touching behavior (autocontact and touch of others)
6. Olfactory communication
7. Taste communication
Long- or short-term (reversible or irreversible) changes in
color, shape or size of parts of the human body resulting
from mutilation behavior. This is a very interesting area
of cultural and social anthropology with meaningful consequences
for HNC. This theme warrants a separate article and here we
note only some examples occurring in early childhood. For
example mutilations which are performed on small children
and are irreversible, as artificial deformations of the skull
by certain Indian tribes, the reduction of the size of the
females feet in China, perforations of the auricle of
ears, male and female circumcision, etc.
The broad area of clothing and decorating the human body with
jewelry, including various kinds of distinctions for sex,
job, status, etc. This also includes various types of garb,
uniforms, etc. We can observe many interesting transcultural
differences in this area. In the socio-cultural region of
middle Europe, the color blue is typical for little boys and
the color pink for little girls, the color black is the symbol
of mourning, white is the symbol of innocence, etc.
must mark very carefully the pathology (abnormality) of certain
kinds of behavior. We present here the following scheme for
suicidal behavior in the majority of cultures is evaluated as
abnormal; inadequate reaction to Lorenzs baby scheme
(Lorenz 1943) whose presentation in normal persons not only
inhibits aggression but also releases protective behavior; etc.
Disturbances of behavior on this level are, in the majority
of cases, an indication of serious psychosocial problems and
medical intervention is necessary.
b) Behavior cultural-specific
Transcultural differences in human behavior are very diversified.
We can observe differences in the interpretation of some semantic
gestures even in such similar cultures as Czech and Slovak (Klein
1995), so-called qualitative differences and also quantitative
differences in the total expressiveness of nonverbal display
between inhabitants of Southern Europe (Italians) and Northern
Europe (Englishmen). We talk about the various cultural areas
such as middle Europe, South America, equatorial Africa.
c) Behavior individual-specific
Every individual has a specific ontogenetic development, which
includes specific family education and individual life experiences
and we should respect all of these factors. Our evaluation is
made with regard to:
1. Age of person (infantile behavior, adolescent behavior, senile
2. Sex of person (masculine, feminine, androgynous behavior).
In this case we sometimes use the term tertiary signs of sexual
dimorphism (Klein 1984) for differences in emotions, thinking
as well as for various expressions of non-verbal behavior.
ethological approach to the study of human behavior is now accepted
in many medical disciplines. It is useful in pediatrics (e.g.
Papousek and Papousek 1984), psychiatry (e.g. McGuire and Fairbanks
1977, White 1974), pharmacology (Krsiak 1991) and sexology (Freund,
Scher, and Hucker 1983).
Prediction of Behavior
of the most important tasks in medicine is prediction (prognosis),
and the prediction of behavior in the future is also interesting
for ethologists. The broad medical area of prevention is a primary
behavioral matter. Such prediction supposes a detailed knowledge
of the mechanisms of human behavior and supposes our correct
answers to many questions. It is evident that our forecast or
prediction will never be quite reliable; we can only reach various
degrees of probability. An interesting article about prediction
in relation to psychiatry and psychopharmacology was published
by Höschl (1993). The author presented four kinds of predictions:
logical, heuristic, tautological and irrelevant. In this important
discussion, ethology can be useful. I would like to mention
here four basic questions presented by Tinbergen (1963) in his
article which he dedicated to K. Lorenz. Tinbergen defined ethology
as the biological study of behavior and quoted some
ideas of Julian Huxley. He stated, Huxley likes to speak
of the three major problems of biology, that of causation, that
of survival value and that of evolution and Professor
Tinbergen added, ... to which I should add a fourth, that
We have reformulated these four basic questions in such a way
which will facilitate our prediction of certain behavior in
the future (see Table 1).
first task in the process is a descriptive analysis by means
of a detailed observation and reliable description, then searching
for causality and for the function of certain kinds of behavior.
Not only in the present time (topical), but also in its ontogenetic
expression and, if it is possible, also in the phylogenesis
of our closest animal relatives. I think that correct answers
to these nine questions can increase the success of our prediction
of behavior in the future in a relevant and essential way.
is undoubtedly a cultural being. His distinction from other
animals is not only anatomical and morphological, but primarily
determined by his behavioral ability for making tools (the first
was Homo habilis).
K. Lorenz wrote (Lorenz et al. 1969) ... the human ontogenesis
cannot have a normal development without cultural tradition.
I think that it is useful to remember the concept of human culture
as a phenomenon which expresses and results from the behavior
of species Homo sapiens with its long-term phylogenetic history.
It is conceivable that culture is primarily derived
from human behavior which is, in turn, influenced
by the culture.
I think that the most important emphasis should be on our species-specific
ability, abstract thinking, to make use of it for a better understanding
of all mechanisms of human behavior (innate as well as learned).
We are not sovereigns of nature; we are only its component part.
This approach is a genuine expression of our culture.
While searching for causality of catastrophies which man has
caused throughout history such as wars, epidemics and horrific
events such as the holocaust, the pandemic disease of AIDS,
Chernobyl, etc., we can determine that in the majority of these
events, the basic cause was the failure of Homo sapiens in his
I end this paper with a quotation from the preface of I. Eibl-Eibesfeldts
excellent book, the validity of which is as true today as it
was twenty-five years ago, Ethology. The Biology of Behavior:
... this ethological knowledge, based on animal studies,
can contribute to a better understanding of human behavior,
and K. Lorenz recognizes this as essentially the most
important task of the branch of science which he founded
(Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970, p. VIII).
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