Behavioral Biology: Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Behavior

Behavior is the change in activity of an organism in response to a stimulus. Behavioral biology is the study of the biological and evolutionary bases for such changes. The idea that behaviors evolved as a result of the pressures of natural selection is not new. Animal behavior has been studied for decades, by biologists in the science of ethology, by psychologists in the science of comparative psychology, and by scientists of many disciplines in the study of neurobiology. Although there is overlap between these disciplines, scientists in these behavioral fields take different approaches. Comparative psychology is an extension of work done in human and behavioral psychology. Ethology is an extension of genetics, evolution, anatomy, physiology, and other biological disciplines. Still, one cannot study behavioral biology without touching on both comparative psychology and ethology.

One goal of behavioral biology is to dissect out the innate behaviors, which have a strong genetic component and are largely independent of environmental influences, from the learned behaviors, which result from environmental conditioning. Innate behavior, or instinct, is important because there is no risk of an incorrect behavior being learned. They are “hard wired” into the system. On the other hand, learned behaviors, although riskier, are flexible, dynamic, and can be altered according to changes in the environment.