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Metaphors in Behavior

The study of animal behavior requires careful attention to subtle assumptions and sources of bias.  One particularly interesting example of this is how biases are built into our language.  Let’s take male and female birds sitting close together.

Back when the term “pair bond” was applied to this behavior, scientists though that most birds were monogamous partners that stayed together for multiple years.  So, this term conjures up a nice notion of ‘devoted couples spending time together being intimate’.  The problem is that this leads us to think we know the function of a behavior, when often we really don’t.  It leads to a bias in how we view a behavior.  

Researchers then began to notice that in a pair, the first bird to fly away from the perch was always the female – that is, males follow females.   Around this time, new technology led to the discovery of very high rates of extra-pair fertilization in birds.  So, in a clutch, all offspring are genetically related to the female, but not necessarily to the male.  This means that males are caring for offspring that aren’t his.  Because parental care is costly, males would like to have some confidence that the kids are actually his.  In other words, natural selection should favor behaviors that decrease extra-pair copulations.

This new information challenges what we knew as “pair bonding.”  Could it be that time spent in close proximity to the female helps a male fend off rivals and make sure offspring are his?  Lots of evidence supports this, and so over time the language was modified and we now call this behavior “mate guarding”.

Here’s why I love this example: this new term is itself a metaphor!  More recent research demonstrates some of the physiological benefits of males and females spending time together, and in fact these behaviors may turn out to be more mutualistic than we currently think.

The point is to understand that the use of metaphors can influence how we perceive behavior!

For more information, see:

Dickinson, J.L. and Leonard, M. L. 1996.  Mate attendance and copulatory behaviour in western bluebirds: evidence of mate guarding.  Animal Behaviour 52:981-992.

Hebers, J. M. 2007. Watch your language! Racially loaded metaphors in scientific research. BioScience 57: 104-105.

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