Ethological Attitude


As a matter of everyday routine, most of us maintain a ‘natural attitude’, grounded in our subjective experiences of an objective world and even of ourselves. We act to navigate our world based on these experiences and the expectations they engender. Experiences that fail to meet any part of the test of expectation create a stressful dissonance that we avoid with all the cognitive resources available—both nonconscious as well as elaborately calculated. 


The ethological attitude, most simply put, involves our best effort at bias-free observing, documenting, and analysing a unit of behaviour or a pattern of units by means of an integrative biological approach to its causes and consequences (DEEP ethology, described below). The integrative approach requires that we take every effort to interpret the causes and consequences of phenomena in both bottom-up and top-down terms. These resonate with analytical and integrative approaches that are often viewed as alternatives with a long history of antipathy, but that are, in fact, intertwined: the ethological attitude views specific acts of behaviour in the context of their participation in larger patterns as well as being the outcome of interactions at successive subordinate levels. The effort (if not success) in perceiving these perspectives simultaneously is often called Janusian, referring to Janus, a Roman god of doorways and dualities, discussed below.


Table 1.

Practice Informed by the Ethological Attitude

Prioritise the Organism: Our direct perception of the animal we interact with is the center of our concern. A sense of the whole animal and its welfare should precede any analysis of its parts or incorporation into a larger construct[we need to meet the organism at the same level of organization] 

Define the Behaviour: Utilise a shared vocabulary at all levels of complexity. Describe behaviour in as much detail as possible and from multiple perspectives such as those organised in DEEP ethology. Elements of definition involve:

  • Direct Description: Avoid inferences about behaviour at one level based on expectations from other levels, while being mindful that some participant phenomena are barely or only subliminally presented or perceived. 
  • Indirect Description: Reliance on technological prostheses to extend our senses  must be approached with care and provided with independent corroboration utilising alternate techniques.

Cultivate a Janusian Perspective: Aim at simultaneously adopting both past/future and analytical/synthetic perspectives. Consider top-down and bottom-up perspectives.  Balance generalities and specifics.

Be Aware of and Eschew Congenital and Acquired Bias [more about BIAS from A&O web]

  • Consider the respective umwelten of ourselves and of others: This will emerge out of the attention to all four perspectives in DEEP ethology.
  • Employ epoché: A process at the core of the Phenomenological Method that allows for the bracketing—setting aside but not denying–the possible influence of preconceptions and assumptions.

*The ‘ethological attitude’ is informed by a ‘phenomenological attitude’, close to heart of the qualitative data gathering and the interpretative procedures of generations of philosophers, theoreticians, and practitioners of the phenomenological method.


The eschewal of the biases that subvert valid understanding is a crucial element of the ethological attitude. This sounds simple, but biases exist at many levels of organisation of which conscious attention is only the most obvious, but they can be particularly difficult to identify and cope with when they have roots deeply conserved in our evolutionary biology and ingrained throughout our social and cultural development. Biases may be implicit as well as explicit and not the least of these is human exceptionalism—the venerable and persistent view that there is a profound discontinuity between ourselves and the rest of the natural world. Of course, there are discontinuities between species—indeed between all categories—but the paths that lead to them are (or should be) subject to scientific scrutiny. However, this scrutiny must be bi-directional or we are handicapped by apparently conflicted alternatives. Awareness of these (if not their suppression) can be difficult and we are likely best served, as Kuhn (1959) would put it (speaking of divergent and convergent thinking), by cultivating the ability to tolerate tensions “that can become almost unbearable but are one of the prime prerequisites for the very best sort of scientific research.” The single mind looking in two directions, the ‘Janus face of science’ (Burghardt 2013) has been identified as contributing significantly to a wide range of creative activities (Koestler 1978; Rothenberg 1979), but crucially for us, the Janusian perspective of simultaneously considering causes and consequences—looking up and down the apparent chain of events at  appropriate levels of organisation—is a key element of the ethological attitude. In my own research, the Janusian perspective was first apparent in simultaneously considering the reciprocity of top-down and bottom-up neurological causes and social behavioural consequences of specific units of behaviour.


We can fairly say that the ethological attitude is also the basis for ethologically informed design and practice. It includes explicit strategies to be deployed whenever we undertake organised efforts to better understand, remediate, repair, or otherwise secure the wellness of animals we encounter and for which we have responsibility. Such an approach has the added advantage of minimising our effects on an animal’s experience when we intrude into their lives to conduct experimental research, or prepare or modify their environment when in captivity, or determine causes for a health problem. Indeed, distorted experimental findings in particular have a way of cascading through the community of researchers and subsequent experiments in a pernicious and wasteful way. 


This attitude is also informed by comparable principles developed in phenomenology, the philosophy that undertakes to include subjective experience in the perception of phenomena.  Phenomenology as presented and developed as opposed to traditional philosophy in the last half-century has had considerable success, but has regrettably neglected relationships with non-human animals. Important exceptions to that neglect are driven in part by the self-created existential crises for ourselves and nature in general and may enable healthier relationships, catalyse more productive understandings, and hopefully mitigate the environmental difficulties in which we are embroiled; see, for example, Phenomenology And The Non-Human Animal: At The Limits Of Experience, where Painter and Lotz (2007) point out the harmful ideology of human exceptionalism and the need for mindful ethics in dealing with non-humans. The seminal philosopher of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1970), believed that the attempt to separate observations from contaminating ideology is crucial and involves considerable personal effort, the outcome of which would result in the adoption of the deceptively simple ‘phenomenological attitude’ (see K Greenberg et al. 2019). Nothing less than this is required to invoke an ethological attitude, distinctive by its eschewal of bias—most conspicuously human exceptionalism—and acknowledging and suspending other more subtle, but comparably misguiding, assumptions about the natural world and its constituent processes, not  least of which is its conformation to traditional, often arbitrary ideals. Thus, in ethology as in phenomenology, observers or researchers avoid idealisations or generalisations about their subjects and rather emphasise real animals in their real worlds. Here, the important concept of epoché—along with its rigorous eschewal of bias—is applied. The concept is central to phenomenology but is, in the view of the physicist Piet Hut (2001), common amongst creative scientists. A related core element of phenomenology is ‘bracketing’—a much more general  setting aside of the burdens of acquired hypotheses and theory, of bias and expectations, in order to enjoy a greater clarity of perception that will enable us to conceptualise major revisions of received theories. An large-scale example of epoche may be Freud’s setting aside his efforts at naturalizing psychology (“Project of a Scientific Psychology”[1]).  Further, practitioners can better focus on securing immdiate remediation, recovery, and future welfare of specific subjects. 


In an earlier report (Greenberg 1995) I made much of the pernicious effects of neglecting independent natural variables associated with the life history of the animal subject in any situation involving their care and welfare, not least in scientific inquiry. However, this neglect is sometimes strategically calculated when an ethological inquiry evokes ‘investigative optimising’ as researchers seek to balance urgency of question, available resources, efficiency, and effectiveness in the conduct of their work and the analysis of their findings. For example, zoological facilities are particularly eager for captive reproduction of their animals, but the expense and effort needed to cope with the many—often very sensitive—elements of reproductive behaviour require balancing their mandate to educate the public with that of conservation. 


Questions asked at different levels such as the proximate (e.g. physiological) and ultimate (e.g. evolutionary) causes and consequences of a specific unit or pattern of behaviour are characteristically answered by different modes of analysis, but when question, process, and mode of analysis are not carefully matched, much sterile controversy may be generated (Sherman 1988).  This is often attributable to the conflating or misattributing of levels of organisation. The familiarity of lists of levels such as cells to tissues to organs can  obscure the fact that to specialists, functions at each level can often be subdivided (as particularly prominent in the brain, Freeman 1995; Goebel 2014). Within a more proximate domain, levels from gene transcription to cellular activity have been sketched out for the stress response at levels that precede levels subject to specific adaptive contexts (Kassahn et al. 2009). A multitude of natural variables are much too infrequently considered conjointly because research methods and historical traditions have served to isolate them. While isolation can be an important component of the analytic part of creative inquiry, it cannot be allowed to exclude the integrative part and dominate the discourse. I turn now to the integrative vision of biology applied to behaviour that inspired the earliest ethologists and that is still central to effective and productive animal care.


adapted (enlarged and annotated) From Greenberg, N.  (in press 2021)  Ethologically Informed Design and DEEP Ethology in Theory and Practice. In: Health and Welfare of Captive Reptiles, 2nd Edition. C. Warwick, P.C. Arena, G.M. Burghardt, F.L. Frye, and J.B. Murphy (Editors) Cham, Switzerland: Springer.


[1] “At the end of the 19th century, Freud sought to elaborate the assumptions of psychology as a natural science. This work became known as the “Project of a Scientific Psychology”, whose objective was to deal with themes hitherto discussed by psychology, however, using a neurophysiological language. However, due to the scientific limitations of the time, Freud migrated from the neurological model to a metaphysical model proposed in 1900, which allowed him to proceed with his theory of mind without the impasses of the neurology of the time.” de Souza 2020