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Dilemmas in the constitution of and exportation of ethological facts

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Early ethologists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz faced a problem: What constituted a fact about behaviour? How reliably must a behaviour be exhibited (and in how many specimens) before it could be said to be species-typical? And how similar do the behaviours of two species need to be before it is reasonable to say that the behaviour is true of both? They sought to convince others of their claims for interspecific behavioural commonalities through a number of means – writings, diagrams, films – and enjoyed some notable successes. But establishing facts about behaviour that would hold across multiple species was a dispute still largely contained within the relatively esoteric discipline of ethology. It was only a matter of time before the species boundaries being crossed were more controversial. For if the problem of establishing that a fact about goose-behaviour is also a fact about duck-behaviour was of limited interest, it was of considerably more significance when one of those species was human. With the publication of works such as Lonrenz’s On Aggression and E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, what had been a marginal issue for zoology was now of considerable political significance, and the original claims for inter-specific behavioural similarities fell under renewed and intense scrutiny – leading to the reexamination of the original facts on which ethology was predicated.

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