The How and Why of Animal Behavior

There are two fundamental types of explanations for animal behavior. Ultimate explanations are based on evidence suggesting reasons why the behaviors contributed to the fitness of individuals over the evolutionary history of the species. Therefore, ultimate explanations are closely related to the effects of the behaviors in solving a species's problems in its natural habitat.

Proximate explanations address the questions of how a behavior occurs. These explanations answer questions about a behavior's ontogenetic development and how it was affected by learning, physiological and neurological variables, genes, and environmental stimulation. Proximate explanations incorporate variables that exert effects within an animal's lifetime. In contrast, ultimate explanations incorporate mechanisms that have been affecting natural selection long into the phylogenetic past of the species (Al-cock, 2001).

Both ultimate and proximate explanations are legitimate scientific approaches to understanding animal behavior. There has been considerable recent interest in finding ultimate or evolutionary explanations for basic learning phenomena that had previously been explained only in terms of proximate causes (Shettleworth, 1998).

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