The Importance of Ethology for Evolution

This July I attended the International Society for Human Ethology Summer Institute in Orono, ME. Besides meeting some extraordinary people (and having an amazing time!), I also discovered how important ethology is for evolution.

At the heart of ethology is observation. Some of the most important ideas in evolution were found by ethologists or evolutionary scientists using ethological methodology.  Darwin himself began his inquiries into natural selection by observing animals, the most famous being finches. Human ethologists generally focus on observing human behavior using methodology from biology and behavioral sciences.

At the ISHE summer institute I saw amazing research done by scientists in many different fields like Elizabeth Oberzaucher, Daniel Povinelli, Karl Grammer and Glenn Weisfeld, just to name a few.  The most important thing I learned from this institute was that observing animal behavior (human or other animals) could lead to many discoveries not found inside a laboratory.

So, what does this have to do with evolution in higher education? Quite simply, we should encourage our students to become human ethologists and observe the world around them. In your next course, think of how easy it would be to assign students to go out in the real world and observe human behavior. They could observe facial expressions, interactions between people at bars or coffee shops, or local customs (which many colleges have).  Instruct students how to take field notes and then have students report back about the behavior, describing the behavior in detail.

There is something to be said for learning how to observe, learning what details to pay attention to, how to not interfere with the targets, and looking at the things one looks at everyday in a new light.  Most students learn about research in evolutionary psychology by handing out questionnaires, or conducting experiments, but very few get the opportunity to do observational research. For your assignment, you might ask students to apply evolutionary theory to their observations, but really just the act of observing will help students not only in their evolutionary careers, but also in their daily lives.

For some interesting reads on human ethology I suggest:

Human Ethology (2007) by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

The Ethological Approach to the Study of Human Behavior by Zdenek Klein (2000) available at:

New Aspects of Human Ethology (Recent Advances in Phytochemistry) (1997) Editors: Klaus Atzwanger, Karl Grammer, Katrin Schäfer and Alain Schmitt.


About Sarah Strout

Sarah Strout is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Southern New Hampshire University and Co-Founder and Co-Editor of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. Her research interests focus on examining the effects of social norms, culture and evolution on human mating strategies. This blog will explore the interaction of culture/social norms and evolution.
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One Response to The Importance of Ethology for Evolution

  1. Avatar James Doyle says:

    Hello Sarah,

    I could not agree more!

    The International Society for Human Ethology (ISHE) has some awards to encourage and promote student participation in human ethology that may be of interest to human behavior researchers: .

    Also, ISHE is considering transforming the, “Human Ethology Bulletin”, into an online journal. I’d encourage those who are interested in human ethology to see the website and contact the editor, Thomas Alley, to show support for this proposal.

    For those who are interested, The Human Ethology Yahoo Group is an online spot to discuss human ethology:

    Did I mention I like human ethology?


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