Be careful with human examples when teaching animal behavior


You may or may not have heard of this weekend’s debacle from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (They promoted a paper using images of women appearing to have an orgasm. Though the paper was an ovulation experiment in rabbits. Do they have any women involved in the social media process over there? Yikes.)  I hold the new EIC in high regard, and I imagine she’ll get to the bottom of this. But it reminds me of a thing I’ve been meaning to address here for a while.

I suspect a lot of us are teaching animal behavior and behavioral ecology very badly, whenever it comes to our own species.

It’s bad enough that most of us are thrown into the classroom with scant training in pedagogy. But for those of us who are teaching about animal behavior (either as part of an introductory sequence, or in a specialty class of its own), we haven’t received any training about how to talk about human beings when we’re talking about animal behavior. I think this puts us in a pedagogical and rhetorical minefield.

I am, to some extent, a scholar of animal behavior. I mean, the word “behavior’ appears in the title of my dissertation, and I occasionally publish research about animal behavior. Involving ants. I’m not an anthropologist, nor a sociologist, nor a psychologist. I’m not even close to being any of those things. I think that’s true for nearly all of us teaching biology courses. Yet, nonetheless, when you put us in a classroom with students and we’re teaching about animal behavior, the probability of discussing the behavior of human beings is nestled in the neighborhood of inevitable, unavoidable, and right in front of us. Even if we don’t bring up human behavior when discussing animal behavior, our students will mention it. And if they don’t mention it, then at least for some of them, it will be on their minds.

After all, we are animals.

When we step into a classroom discuss animal behavior or behavioral ecology, we need to prepare ourselves in advance, so that we know how we are going to address the application of animal behavioral theories to humans. I think we need to identify what lies within our expertise and what lies beyond, and be sure to not profess in realms that are beyond our training. We need to provide context where it is needed, and make sure that we can appropriately conceptualize ideas as students bring them up.

This really matters when it comes to theories in animal behavior involving power, dominance, hierarchies, sex, reproduction, fighting, and the like.

When it comes to foraging behavior, then I’m fine with using an example involving lines at the grocery store to illustrate the ideal free distribution, and discussing the division of labor among roommates when it comes to task partitioning, and talking about how many grocery bags we choose to carry at once when it comes to priorities affecting decisions.

But I think when we start to apply some other theories to human systems, we might unleash a high personal cost upon students when we play amateur sociologist. For example, in a medium-sized class, it’s a near-certainty that there are multiple survivors of sexual assault. If we are teaching about dominance hierarchies and sexual behavior in the realm of animal behavior, and we start discussing this in the context of our own species, our students can rightfully perceive that we are evaluating their own experiences and inappropriately using our authority. We are putting ourselves in the situation where we can do harm*, perhaps without not even knowing it.

Is it appropriate to evaluate human behavior using theories of animal behavior? Yes, I do think it is. Without a doubt. But I also think that this is outside my wheelhouse to do effectively or appropriately, and I think animal behaviorists should tread lightly. For example, I think this paper in Behavioral Ecology, about the appearance of men and their social status, is fascinating. When I taught a behavioral ecology course in the early aughts, we used this paper in class. And did related lab activities. Now, I see that the way I did this was misinformed, and I should have done better. I think it’s possible to do this type of teaching in a proper manner, though it was not in my training. It still is not in my training.

When we teach animal behavior, it’s fundamental to study the differences between males and females. Depending on the environmental context, these differences are reflected in life history, social interactions, parental investment, secondary sex characters, and so on. I’m not sure it’s pedagogically useful to extend these theories to our own species if we’re teaching a class in animal behavior. But, nonetheless, it’s there in front of us as we are teaching. If we ignore human sociology, then it probably will end up on the minds of students anyway. So we should address it, but how?

At the very least, I think we need to make it clear to students the distinction between sex and gender. Which means we need to understand those differences, and make it clear that in animal behavior, we’re dealing with sex and not gender. Which means that we’re not dealing with human systems (unless human societies are part of the course description and we are qualified to teach it).

I spent a reasonable amount of time this morning trying to find some kind of guide or set of best practices for addressing the topic of human behavior while teaching animal behavior. And I came up empty. Do any of you have resources you can recommend? I wonder if it would be useful to invite a sociologist or an anthropologist or a one-day lesson in human social behavior for an animal behavior class?



*I don’t think we can or should overlook the fact that we are animals, and that at individual and societal levels, we should not pretend that we are exempt from our biology, and that includes behavior and society. Nor should we overlook the complexity of our culture that explains much of who we are. (I have zero interest in revisiting antiquated arguments about sociobiology — I hope that as scholars, we have gone beyond that and acknowledge highly complex genetic x environment interactions that explain who we are, that our behavior is associated with culture, and that we cannot use biological determinism as a pretext for excusing harm.)

2 thoughts on “Be careful with human examples when teaching animal behavior

  1. I used to teach behavioral endocrinology and neuroscience, and the texts I used had decent treatments of human reproductive behavior in the context of animal behavior. Check out 1) Carlson & Birkett’s Physiology of Behavior, 2) Behavioral Endocrinology, edited by Becker, Breedlove, Crews, and McCarthy; 3) Essential Reproduction by Johnson & Everitt. (1) also has a chapter on emotion which talks about aggressive behavior from both a human and non-human (neuroscience) angle. Comparative psychology in these kinds of areas (emotion, stress, reproduction) is one of my interests/knowledge areas, happy to help out if anyone has questions!

  2. I had the benefit, while in graduate school, that all of our behavioral ecology/animal behavior courses were team taught by faculty in the department of biology teamed up with faculty in the department of psychology. I did not like it at the time (not interested in human psychology) but have grown to appreciate it more as I get older.

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