In this project Marga Vicedo-Castello examined the methods used by students of animal behavior in the context of their historical development, concentrating on Niko Tinbergen’s and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological approach to animal behavior. They claimed that the key to understanding behavior is to observe many different species in their natural environments, in contraposition to experimental research that only induced “artificial” behaviors. To make sure that observations are not “contaminated” by the subjectivity of the observer, Lorenz called for the use of the camera to film animals. Vicedo-Castello focused on the discussions between ethologists and comparative psychologists such as TC Schneirla and DS Lehrman about the role of field observation and experimental results, the use of photography and the movie camera, and the influence of the scientist’s emotions toward the animals under study in the description of their behavior.
This research was part of a history of scientific ideas about maternal care and love. The central methodological issue address in this study was: How do scientists establish a link between maternal care (an observable behavior), mother love (a subjective feeling), and maternal instincts (an underlying biological process)? What roles do scientists confer to observation and experimentation? How do these methods allow them to connect biological and psychological explanations?
Vicedo-Castello's study was organized around several periods of intense scientific and cultural debate about biological explanations of human behavior. These were:
- The rise of evolutionary definitions of instincts at the turn of the twentieth century, and specifically the influence of Darwinian ideas in psychology
- The impact of Freudian psychoanalysis and of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen’s ethology on views about maternal instincts after WWII
- Harry Harlow’s experiments on mother love with rhesus monkeys and other research on primates in the 1950’s and 1960s
- The development of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology from the 1970s to the present