Comparative Psychology, or Animal Psychology is a multidisciplinary field designed to study the behaviors and cognitive processes of non-human animals. The epistemology of this field draws from many related areas of inquiry, including but not limited to ethology, general psychology, and evolutionary biology. The findings and inquiries related to this field potentially bear great significance not only on our general knowledge of behavior across species but also on human social sciences.
Goals and Related Fields of Inquiry
The main goal of this field of inquiry is to examine differences or lack thereof in observed behaviors across many different species. This analysis can ultimately come from many different angles. Disparities across species in terms of behavioral traits can be used to assess what may or may not be considered “normal” animal behavior. By establishing a norm in terms of animal behavioral traits, we can then pose the question of whether or not certain traits persist as evolutionary stable strategies. If this is in fact the case for a given trait, the genes associated with that trait are more likely to survive the “battle” of natural selection than those associated with less viable traits. A third point of inquiry concerns the physiological mechanisms involved in the establishments of these behaviors.
Animal Psychology vs. Ethology
A distinction that ought to be made is that between animal psychology and ethology. The two fields in many ways overlap but the latter tends to focus on explaining the social behaviors of animals. Ethology looks to scientifically examine the behavioral traits across species under the conditions of their natural habitats. While the ethologist would be interested in the socio-cultural creations of a group of social animals, the animal psychologist would focus in on the cognitive or mental processes involved in the ability to synthesize such social creations.
Cognitive Animal Psychology
One particularly significant subset of the physiological school animal psychology is the focus on the cognitive abilities of non-human animals. This particular field of inquiry focuses upon the ability of animals to learn, pay attention, create organizing principles, and to think symbolically or in an abstract manner. Studying mechanistic physiological reactions that occur at the neurological level may help us to one day better understand the biological origins of animal behaviors.
Additionally, there are hotly debated topics within the field of Animal Psychology that can potentially hold significance in terms of philosophical knowledge. One such controversy surrounds the question of whether or not non-human animals are conscious beings. If the non-human animal in fact has a concept of self, the philosophical definition of what it means to be a human being, distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, would be rendered somewhat invalid. There has been some research pointing to a potential ability of certain non-human species to engage in meta-cognition. These results, if replicated, can potentially serve as evidence of consciousness. The debate over whether or not non-human animals can possess this trait may perhaps be the most significant philosophical area examined by animal psychology. If corroborating evidence were to be found suggesting that non-human animals do in fact operate at a level of consciousness, the distinction between humans and non-human animals may become quite blurred.
Conclusion and Implications
Animal Psychology as an up-and-coming field has a lot of explanatory potential for the behavior of both human and non-human animals. By comparing the behavior of humans with other species, we can potentially better separate biological from environmental or ecologically influenced behaviors. By understanding the behavior of non-human animals in a more nuanced way, we not only stand poised to learn more about ourselves, but we stand to acquire a more detailed understanding of physiological behavioral mechanisms and the process of natural selection as it pertains to social and behavioral traits.