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Problems of Comparative Behavior

Harvard University Psychological Laboratories

A seminar on Problems in Comparative Behavior was held, with the support of the National Science Foundation, in the Psychological Laboratories, Harvard University, 5-15 July 1954. The seminar was aimed at bringing together for free and informal interchange of experimental data and theoretical problems a small group of active ethologists, neurophysiologists, psychologists, and zoologists. Over the past twenty-odd years two groups of students of animal behavior have been working along parallel lines, but in very little contact with each other. They have, nonetheless, emerged with remarkably parallel findings in both data and theoretical constructions.

The first group includes experimental psychologists who have been objectively studying learning and motivation, sometimes in primates, usually in small mammals (especially the white rat), and latterly, in the pigeon. These psychologists have laid stress on the problems associated with the acquisition of new behavior, and the laws governing such acquisition. The second group is made up largely of zoologists, among whom is a very active subgroup, productive of theory, called ethologists. These men have been objectively studying instinctive behavior, usually of a number of varieties of birds and fish. They have stressed the dependence of behavior on genetic and evolutionary variables.

Superficially, the two groups might be expected to show little convergence in either problems or interests although they both define their fields as “the science of behavior.” This is not the case. If one examines the yield of the experiments and observations that have been performed by the two groups, it falls into three classes: conclusions peculiar to the ethologists, conclusions peculiar to the psychologists, and conclusions common to both. The third class is remarkably large. More interesting, it is the third class of finding that has determined to a great extent the theoretical structures involved. In fact, one can demonstrate not only that the two groups share their basic theoretical concepts (to the extent that their technical vocabularies are composed of words that both use, or that are readily translatable), but also that the kinds of theories they have evolved from the data are alike in content, even though they deal respectively with “learned” and “instinctive” behavior.

On examination, the other two areas of research, the areas peculiar to the experimental psychologist and those peculiar to the ethologist, prove to be largely complementary to one another. No contradictory assertions, empirical or theoretical, arise in them, but rather statements about the action of variables neglected by the members of the other group. These variables, neglected though they have been, are of importance to the behavior examined by both groups. The “reinforcing stimuli” of comparative psychologists occur in the execution of “instinctive behavior,” and the “displacement activities” of the ethologists are observable in the T-maze and in the Skinner box.

Both groups have somewhat ambiguous relationships with a third group–those neurophysiologists who deal with the internal events that are presumed to be correlated with behavior. Once again, there are areas that overlap or complement each other. But the relationships are somewhat different. Many ethologists emphasize the importance of achieving a neurophysiological model for behavior, and usually try to construct one; however, they seem to lack the experimental tools and the detailed information that are necessary to make one that is verifiable. At the same time, many comparative psychologists deprecate such attempts at theoretical formulations, sometimes without inquiring into the neurophysiological data that may be available. They stand for “psychology without physiology” (as a minority of ethologists propose “ethology without physiology”). Neurophysiologists, on the other hand, engaged in active research on the functioning of the central nervous system, seem to work with either of two points of view–first, studying electrical and other activities as they depend on direct manipulation without reference to behavior, and second, finding whatever events they can that are correlated with behavior. Unfortunately, behavioral data suited to the needs of the neurophysiologist are scanty and inappropriate; the great bulk of them are of no use because of the choice of variables or species. Willy nilly, neurophysiologists are often forced to deal with neurophysiology without behavior.

The three groups, then, share a broad area of knowledge, and at the same time have each developed special areas peculiar to themselves, though highly relevant to the work of the others. It was thought, then, that an opportunity for free exchange of data, points of view, and techniques would familiarize members of each group with the work of others (a purpose which, unfortunately, the journals do not seem to serve as well as they might) and might clarify and define the extent of overlap among the fields, so that a more coherent, fuller set of data on behavior would be available to each. Eventually the neurophysiologists’ potential contribution may be more fully realized, and purely contextual and verbal differences between ethologists and psychologists in their experimental and theoretical treatment of behavior may be minimized.

The meetings at Harvard were organized and run by a committee of five, consisting of: Frank A. Beach, Harry F. Harlow, C. F. Pribram, W. S. Verplanck (chairman), and Carroll M. Williams. Participants were invited to bring data and reprints for exchange, and to be prepared to talk informally for about an hour on such of their own recent work, experimental or theoretical, as they believed would be of interest to the group. Whether or not the material had been published was of no concern. It proved new to the majority of the group. The group met morning and afternoon. On each day, two or three members of the group talked. The speakers were so scheduled that the first of them spoke on topics close to the area of overlap of most members of the group, the later ones on the more specialized topics of their own areas.

These informal reports served to set off the vigorous discussions hoped for; discussions usually took their points of departure from issues specifically raised by the report, although there were frequent returns to topics that had been taken up earlier. The meeting established that most of the problems raised, both experimental and theoretical, were shared by all the fields represented. Moreover, the views expressed by various members of the group, though often in conflict, did not separate the members of the group according to the field they represented. An ethologist, a psychologist, and a neurophysiologist often found themselves disputing a point with an “opposition” made up also of an ethologist, a psychologist, and a neurophysiologist. And, unusual in such discussions, more light than heat was generated.

It may be of interest to list the topics about which the most provocative (and longest lasting) discussions rotated: (i) clarification of the meanings and connotations of terms, for example, what is meant by innate and learned; what psychologists mean by learning; (ii) the role of theory, and the use and abuse of experiment in “verifying” theory; (iii) various aspects of the similarities and divergences of specific concepts among the fields represented; (iv) the role of evolutionary theory in biology and psychology; (v) neurophysiology and its current usefulness in the explanation of behavior; (vi) drive and motivation (two much abused words) ; (vii) current theories of learning.

This list is not exhaustive, nor were the discussions. In fact, these tended to center on specific issues, and hence to avoid the less fruitful generalities.

This seminar was planned as a series of free discussions, without formal papers. It was designed to establish a community of ideas among a group of people working on much the same subject matter. It was designed not only to make communication possible, but also to stimulate active communication, mutual interest, and hence, implicitly, an exchange of problems and techniques. It was a highly successful meeting with respect to these ends.

The consensus of the group, at its last meeting, was that this seminar had been of unusual interest to its members, that it had been especially stimulating and informative, and that its small size and compatible membership, its informality, and the absence of any obligation to prepare formal papers, publishable or not, had been very important to its success. The results of the conference from these points of view suggest that other such conferences, held in various fields, may be worthy of support in the future.

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