Behavioral biology

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The behavioral biology is a branch of biology . Behavioral biologists describe, teach and research the behavior of animals and humans using scientific methods . They analyze which innate and environmental factors trigger and control behavior and make comparisons between individuals and species . They also try to reconstruct the emergence of behavioral patterns in the course of tribal history . The statements and results of theIn addition to biology, behavioral research is also being considered in other scientific disciplines such as sociology and education .


The precise observation and analysis of the behavior of animals by humans probably goes back to the earliest prehistoric times, as this was vital if one wanted to hunt animals. Research into animal behavior has been reliably documented since ancient times. Already Aristotle (384–322 BC) stated in his Historia animalium, for example, that it should be investigated whether behavior is controlled by internal drives and how one can explain its causes. For centuries, however, the behavior of humans and animals was often simply interpreted according to the following points:

  • Vitalistic : All living beings have a "life force" that cannot be understood physically or chemically, lat. Vis vitalis , chin. ;
  • Teleological : nature acts consciously, i.e. purposefully and purposefully;
  • Anthropocentric : Man has a special position and is superior to all other living beings;
  • Anthropomorphic : things in the outside world are assigned human characteristics such as intention, insight, virtue, understanding, a sense of justice, etc. Ä. attributed.

But wealthy nature watchers not only in ancient Greece wrote down their findings about the behavior of animals - especially birds - centuries ago . An early example from the High Middle Ages is the work De arte venandi cum avibus , a textbook on the art of hunting with birds , written by Emperor Friedrich II in the 1240s . In the 16th century Conrad Gessner published a “bird book” in Latin ( Avium natura , 1555), and Ulisse Aldrovandi devoted himself a little later to the birds in his eleven-volume work Historia animalium . In the early 18th century, Ferdinand Adam von Pernau even gave a guide for bird lovers under the title Pleasant Land-Lust / Which one can innocently enjoy in cities and in the country, or of difference / catch / attitude and training of the Birds […]. and in the early 1870s Bernard Altum published three forest zoological volumes on mammals , birds and insects from the point of view of usefulness or harmfulness . Jean-Henri Fabre, in turn, wrote several popular scientific treatises on insects from the later 1870s.

The scientific analysis of the behavior of animals in today's sense began with the question of the ontogeny of behavior and the origin of its adaptation - a consequence of Charles Darwin's main work On the Origin of Species ; Darwin had tried out artificial selection on domestic pigeons for years, paving the way for behavior to be viewed as inheritable in the same way as physical characteristics. The investigation was initially mainly the so-called instinct , "an above arrived hypothetical construct, would differ from that of the people with whom you planned actions of the animals." So already described Douglas Spalding (1840--1877) the later of Oskar Heinroth as embossing named Phenomenon. In addition, behavioral experiments were carried out with the help of breeding animals .

Their entrance into the academic teaching at the universities behavioral biology was only in the 20th century after William Morton Wheeler (the important first ethologist North America applies) from the embryology during his professorship switched to the study of the behavior was John B. Watson - also in the USA - from 1908 onwards, thanks to his professorship for experimental and comparative psychology, he formulated the basics of behaviorism , Johan Bierens de Haan was appointed private lecturer in experimental zoology in the Netherlands in 1924 and Nikolaas Tinbergen in the Netherlands and Konrad Lorenz in Germany in 1940 had been awarded a professorship. In terms of the history of science, behavioral biology is therefore a joint "subsidiary discipline" of zoology and psychology and a neighboring discipline of behavioral genetics . Its current, extremely diverse branches are rooted in pre-scientific observation of nature, animal psychology of the 19th century, behaviorism and the “classical” comparative behavioral research ( ethology ) of the early 20th century. In the Anglo-American language area, comparative behavioral research remained more closely linked to the subject of psychology and is known as comparative psychology .

Classical comparative behavioral research was still primarily concerned with the question of how something happens, i.e. with the triggering stimuli and the physical mechanisms of behavior control, that is, with the immediate (proximate) causes of behavior; this was particularly true of behaviorism and its stimulus-response model . The more recent branches of behavioral biology - especially behavioral ecology and sociobiology - deal primarily with the question of why something happens, i.e. with the evolutionary adaptation of a behavioral characteristic (with the ultimate causes). The emphasis on the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes of behavior goes back to the Dutch-British ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen.

The main branches of behavioral biology

Behavioral biology is a synthetic science, the working methods and questions of which overlap to a considerable extent with other disciplines.

Comparative behavioral research

"Classical" comparative behavioral research, initially known as animal psychology and later ethology , was founded in the 1930s by Oskar Heinroth , Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen . These researchers started with the approach that was fundamentally new at the time, namely that the behavioral processes of animals, which appear to be extremely diverse and complex, are built up from certain basic building blocks of behavior, the so-called hereditary coordination or instinctive movements . Therefore, they tried above all to a precise description of the behavior of individual animal species with the help of ethograms , which was also done experimentally (including the phenomenon of imprinting ). Furthermore, in stark contrast to behaviorism , they assumed internal, spontaneous drives for behavior.

Central concepts of classical ethology were criticized in 1990 by Wolfgang Wickler , a pupil of Konrad Lorenz, and in 1992 by Hanna-Maria Zippelius , a pupil of Karl von Frisch (cf., inter alia, skipping movement and idling action ). In the course of this discussion, the experimental findings of Tinbergen and Lorenz, which had originally led to the central concept formation, were recognized as non-reproducible.

The term "ethology" is occasionally used as a synonym for the entire behavioral biology.

Human ethology

Human ethology researches in particular those behaviors in humans that are considered innate and that are therefore understood as adaptations to the natural environment. Such behaviors must have developed in the course of the tribal history and should therefore be demonstrable in a similar form in people from the most diverse cultures. In fact, when comparing cultures, for example, numerous gestures and many aspects of facial expressions have proven to be surprisingly similar. Biolinguistics researches the language skills of humans and sees itself as an interdisciplinary research area in which the connection between biology and linguistics is at the center.

A well-known German-speaking researcher in the field of human ethology is Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt , the biolinguistics goes back to publications by Eric Heinz Lenneberg and Noam Chomsky .


Both the ethology in the field of zoology and various approaches in psychology such as depth psychology focus primarily on internal drives for behavior. The behaviorist school within psychology, which became "very influential" in the first half of the 20th century, on the other hand, allowed "only observable stimuli, muscle movements and glandular secretions as explanations for the emergence of behavior." John B. is considered to be the founder of behaviorism . Watson (1913), who - after preliminary work by Edward Lee Thorndike - applied the principles of classical conditioning described by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov to human behavior. Later, BF Skinner steered the research interest away from the stimulus-response chains and towards operant conditioning , which in biological behavior research is mainly associated with the so-called Skinner box .

Behavioral Neurology (Neuroethology)

In a certain sense, neuroethology is a continuation of “classical” comparative behavioral research with the methods of neurology . For example, she examines the neurophysiological correspondences for phenomena such as spontaneous instinctual behavior and innate trigger mechanisms (AAM), but also reception (recording), transmission and processing of light sensory impressions. Working methods for this are u. a. the derivation of electrical impulses from individual cells, the use of modern imaging methods , the electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain and the examination of failure symptoms.

Behavioral Endocrinology (Ethoendocrinology)

The Ethoendokrinologie is a subspecialty of endocrinology . It examines the interactions between the endocrine system and behavior, e.g. the influence of the hormones adrenaline and serotonin as well as endorphins on behavior and - vice versa - the influence of behavior on the release of hormones. Such interactions have long been known (but not understood) from the field of sexual behavior and research into stressors, for example . While the neuronal system, which primarily ensures rapid and short-term effects, is researched in the neuroethology department, the behavioral endocrinology department focuses on the control of long-term effects resulting from the release of endocrine glands and their interaction with hormone receptors .

Behavioral Ecology (Ethoecology)

Behavioral ecology (also: behavioral ecobiology) describes and analyzes the behavior of living beings in a specific environment and examines the evolutionary adaptability of behavior to specific environmental conditions. The basis for this research direction is the theory of evolution , which says that the adaptation of a trait to the environment of the trait carrier (the individual) is ultimately the result of a selection that leads to an increase in the probability of survival (to maximize fitness ). Among other things, one tries to describe in mathematical models how optimally adapted individuals should behave.


Sociobiology can be seen as a sub-area of behavioral ecology ; it deals with the social behavior of animals and humans: for example, the conditions under which social groups (social associations, insect states ) and hierarchies arise; the phenomenon of territoriality and altruism (see also: registration behavior ); Reproductive strategies ( monogamy , polygamy , polygyny ).

Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology sees itself as the biological basis for many disciplines within psychology and tries to understand human behavior from the perspective of evolutionary development. One sub-area is, for example, research into the ability to differentiate between quantities in animals , since the linguistic counting ability in humans cannot suddenly appear ( de novo ) in the course of their tribal history , but must have arisen from biological precursors.

Further areas

Other branches of biology who are close to the behavioral sciences, in particular, the psychobiology , the genetics of behavior , the behavior of cybernetics , the chronobiology , and - in very general terms - the biology of individual development , of learning and communication .

  • Reflexology (1905): The Russian physiologist Ivan Pawlow (1849–1936) carried out his experiments on the saliva reflex on dogs and developed the reflex chain theory : Even complex behavior is nothing more than a simple chain of stimuli and reflex reactions.
  • In particular, Karl von Frisch perfected experimental behavioral physiology (method of conditioned discrimination).
  • Group selection : Vero Wynne-Edwards (1906–1997) advocated the group selection thesis in 1962, which aims to explain, for example, that altruistic behavior ultimately serves to preserve the species.
  • Also William D. Hamilton (1936-2000) was in 1964 on the assumption that behavior has a genetic basis, but turned his gaze on the fitness of the individual, behavior serve successfully as possible dissemination of their own genes. With the principle of kin selection ( kin selection ), he could also explain altruistic behavior. Also put John Maynard Smith , George C. Williams and Robert L. Trivers the theoretical foundations for a new branch of behavioral research for Edward O. Wilson in 1975 with his book Sociobiology - the new synthesis the term " sociobiology " was coined.
  • Richard Dawkins sharpened the theses of sociobiology in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976 and contributed a lot to their dissemination through his provocative formulations.
  • The Israeli researchers Amotz and Avishag Zahavi presented another approach to explaining behavior , under the catchphrase The Handicap Principle : Since the fitness of the potential sexual partner is always taken into account when choosing a partner, unmistakable signals arise in the process of evolution based on which the extent can be read from fitness. Such signals are only reliable if they represent a real handicap for the signal transmitter: bulky antlers, colorful plumage, a loud voice.

Methods of behavioral biology

Observation and description

At the beginning of many behavioral studies there is the observation of the animals, preferably under natural conditions and without any influence from the observer. The observable behavior is described and quantified as precisely as possible, usually with the help of behavioral logs .

It is often difficult

  • the clear assignment of behavior to certain behaviors in stationary (sedentary) states;
(Example: Should the cleaning movement of an obviously sleeping mouse be rated as personal hygiene?)
  • the assignment of stimulus and reaction when internal (endogenous) stimuli were the immediate trigger and external (exogenous) stimuli - if at all - only play a minor role;
(Example: The length of day affects the hormone mirror, of the migratory behavior in migratory controls: What is here the "real" cause of the migratory behavior?)
  • the interpretation of behaviors that can be understood as a reaction to stimuli that occurred before the start of observation and the consequences of which are recorded during the observation period;
(Example: Is a certain observed behavior innate or learned?)
  • the interpretation of behaviors whose physiological causes are still completely inexplicable.
(Example: The behavior of migratory birds that - coming from Germany - fly west over France and Spain and suddenly turn "left" (south) at the height of Gibraltar .)


Behavioral biologists carry out both free-hand and laboratory experiments . The latter are often used to research the physiological basis of behavior, for example to determine hormone concentrations in the blood and activity patterns of nerve cells, as well as to clarify relationships. Behavioral experiments are usually carried out on live animals (for example the open field test , cross-fostering and the use of a skinner box ); To clarify, for example, neuronal and hormonal detailed questions, isolated tissues or individual cells are also examined.

A still important approach taken by behavioral biologists can be described as the physiological variant of the black box method , because despite the steadily growing knowledge of neurophysiology and brain research, the specific internal structures that control behavior are still unknown: One researches the connection between certain stimuli and certain ones Reactions, but hides many details of the internal regulation processes from the analysis.

Conclusions and modeling

As in every experimental scientific discipline, the individual findings of a behavioral study are finally summarized into a model of behavior from which new conclusions can be drawn. These conclusions are often the starting point for further experiments. Since no experiment is started without certain preliminary considerations, experiments are always based on certain (conscious or unconscious) basic assumptions, the working hypotheses .

See also


  • John Alcock: Animal behavior. An evolutionary approach. Sinauer Associates, 2013 (10th edition), ISBN 978-0-87893966-4 .
  • Charles Darwin : The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals . Critical edition, introduction, afterword and commentary by Paul Ekman. Translated by Julius Victor Carus and Ulrich Enderwitz. 1st edition. Eichborn Verlag , Frankfurt am Main 2000, ISBN 3-8218-4188-5
  • Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt : Outline of Comparative Behavioral Research. Ethology. Piper Verlag, Munich 1967 (8th edition 1999).
  • Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt: The biology of human behavior. Outline of human ethology. Piper Verlag, Munich 1984 (5th edition 2004).
  • Rolf Gattermann (Ed.): Dictionary for the behavioral biology of animals and humans. Elsevier, 2006 (2nd edition), ISBN 978-3-827-41703-9 .
  • Margaret Gruter: The Importance of Behavioral Science for Law. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1976.
  • Klaus Immelmann (ed.): Grzimeks animal life . Special volume "Behavioral Research". Kindler Verlag, Zurich 1974.
  • Ilse Jahn and Ulrich Sucker: The Development of Behavioral Biology. In: Ilse Jahn (Ed.): History of Biology. 2nd, corrected edition of the 3rd edition. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg and Berlin 2002, pp. 580–600, ISBN 3-8274-1023-1 .
  • Peter M. Kappeler: Behavioral Biology. 4th, revised. u. corr. Ed., Springer, 2017, ISBN 978-3-662-53144-0 .
  • Konrad Lorenz : Comparative behavior research. Basics of ethology. Springer, Vienna / New York 1978, ISBN 978-3-7091-3098-8 .
  • David McFarland: Biology of Behavior. Evolution, physiology, psychobiology. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg 1999 (2nd revised edition), ISBN 978-3-8274-0925-6 .
  • Aubrey Manning, Marian Stamp Dawkins: An Introduction to Animal Behavior. Cambridge University Press, 1998 (6th edition 2912), ISBN 978-0-521-16514-3 .
  • Frank-Hermann Schmidt: Behavioral research and law. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1982, ISBN 978-3-428-05099-4 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Behavioral biology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Peter M. Kappeler: Behavioral Biology. 4th, revised. u. corr. Ed., Springer, 2017, p. 3, ISBN 978-3-662-53144-0 , online , accessed October 1, 2019.
  2. a b Uta Seibt and Wolfgang Wickler : History of behavior research. In: Lexicon of Biology. Volume 10, 1992, p. 354.
  3. Douglas Alexander Spalding : Instinct, with original observations on young animals. In: Macmillan's Magazine. Volume 27, 1873, ZDB -ID 339417-7 , pp. 282-293.
  4. Even the ethologist Konrad Lorenz became a professor for comparative psychology in the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Königsberg in 1940 . See: Leopoldina: Curriculum Vitae Prof. Dr. Konrad Zacharias Lorenz. At: , accessed October 1, 2019.
  5. Nikolaas Tinbergen : On aims and methods of ethology. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Volume 20, No. 4, 1963, pp. 410-433, doi: 10.1111 / j.1439-0310.1963.tb01161.x .
  6. Wolfgang Wickler : From ethology to sociobiology. In: Jost Herbig, Rainer Hohlfeld (ed.): The second creation. Munich 1990, p. 176.
  7. Hanna-Maria Zippelius : The measured theory. A critical examination of the instinct theory of Konrad Lorenz and behavioral research practice. Vieweg, Braunschweig 1992, ISBN 3-528-06458-7 .
  8. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt : The biology of human behavior. Outline of human ethology. Piper, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-492-02687-7 .
  9. Cedric Boeckx and Kleanthes K. Grohmann: The Biolinguistics Menifesto. In: biolinguistics. Volume 1, 2007, pp. 1–8, access to the full text
  10. David McFarland: Biology of Behavior. Evolution, physiology, psychobiology. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg 1999 (2nd revised edition), p. 281, ISBN 978-3-8274-0925-6 .
  11. ^ John B. Watson : Psychology as the behaviorist views it. In: Psychological Review. Volume 20, No. 2, 1913, pp. 158-177, doi: 10.1037 / h0074428 .