Early Childhood Autism: An Ethological Approach
Niko Tinbergen is one of the founders and grandmasters of ethology, and the papers published here are among its most important documents. They are a source book for students of animal behavior and will give the historian of ideas an insight into one of the most influential movements in modern science.
Anybody who thinks ethology consists of passively imbibing the information offered by nature about animals has much to learn about both science and ethology. The first stage in behavioral analysis, of course, is to observe and record what is going on. This will involve intent and prolonged observation until what an untrained observer might dismiss as a sequence of unrelated behavioral performances is seen to fall into well-defined and functionally connected sequences or “behavior structures.”
These structures do not declare themselves in any obvious way. Their identification depends upon an imaginative conjecture on the part of the observer, which further observation may or may not uphold. As in other branches of science, this is a creative process in which the imagination must take the initiative. A very important element in the ethological approach is the comparison of behavior structures as they occur in different but related animals, which in turn opens up the possibility of identifying homologies of behavior. The word “homology” is not in itself easy to define, but in ethology it may be exemplified by saying that the behavior associated with mother love and suckling is obviously homologous or genetically cognate in man and apes. Obviously this complex behavioral repertoire did not spring into being with the inception of the species Homo sapiens.
Because it was felt to be too descriptive and not sufficiently experimental in character, the ethological method was slow to gain ground, for in Tinbergen’s early days as a research worker “experimental” was the boss word much as “molecular” is today. Everything had to be experimental: embryology, pathology, physiology, and if not theology, then certainly the study of animal behavior. Plus c’est la même chose, for today, after the triumphs of DNA, anybody who studies “molecular” something—it might be molecular taxidermy—instead of humdrum old everyday something feels an inexplicable increase of stature. The idea that there is something essentially meritorious about experimentation has been carried over from Bacon’s original use of the term1 and the advocacy that went with it. It just so happens however that some of Tinbergen’s earliest work was indeed experimental.2 Much of the success of his work is due to his adoption of a judicious blend of observation and critical experimentation.
Except in those laboratories, all too common in England, where behavioral analysis centered upon applying bracing electric shocks to sea anemones in order to lay bare their behavioral repertoire, ethology was soon recognized as one of the really important developments of modern biology and became the subject of excited discussions in zoological departments. Many bright young zoologists—among them Desmond Morris—cherished an ambition to study under Tinbergen in Oxford. At the time when many of these papers…
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