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© 2017 Patrick Bateson, CC BY 4.0

The effectiveness of education, the role of parents in shaping the characters of their children, the causes of violence and crime, and the roots of personal unhappiness are matters that are central to humanity. Like so many other fundamental issues about human existence, they all relate to behavioural development. The catalogue continues. Do bad experiences in early life have a lasting effect? Is intelligence inherited? Can adults change their attitudes and behaviour? When faced with such questions, many people want simple answers. They want to know what really makes the difference.

Development presents many wonders, but one of the most remarkable is how a fully functional individual grows from a microscopic embryo. The processes that are involved have often seemed beyond understanding and, even now, much remains to be discovered. Nevertheless, the factual certainties of stability and change have been known for a long time. The robust constancies of development are profound and real. Nobody will confuse a human with a rhesus monkey. At the same time, the plasticity of each individual is as remarkable as his or her robustness. Humans possess great capacity for change, a capacity that, as in other species, emerges very early in development. It does not follow, though, that two distinct processes can be cleanly separated, one leading to invariant outcomes and the other generating differences between individuals due to culture, education and experience. If such separation were possible, it might be sensible to ask the question how much of a behaviour pattern is innate and how much is learned or, more generally, how much is genetic and how much is due to the environment. This dichotomy, which was popular in the early days of my own subject of ethology, is neither valid nor helpful but unfortunately it persists in popular accounts of where behaviour comes from and in some scientific literature. I suspect that some of the persistence is due to a hangover from folk psychology and folk biology. I also suspect that some cultural lag has occurred partly because dichotomies are easy to remember and understand.

In ethology, many of us were bird watchers before we started our careers as scientists and were accustomed to the free-flowing run of behaviour of animals. Although we wouldn’t have thought of it in these terms, we were accustomed to what we now see as systems.1 The actions of one moment become the triggers of the next and feed back so that behaviour brings to an end its own performance. Other scientists have been trained analytically and assume that any research programmes should hunt down the crucial factor that produced a qualitatively distinct effect. The talk of systems may sound to them like so much waffle. Their mantra is that science is about uncovering causes.

Changing minds is always difficult, but it is possible to be optimistic that systems approaches will become widespread. Indeed, in recent years the mood has started to change. Experimentalists are less likely these days to hold all but one variable constant and, when a single independent variable is found to produce an effect, it is not immediately taken to be the cause, nor is everything else deemed unimportant. The nature of the feedback in free-running systems is such that the experimentalist’s distinction between independence and dependence evaporates. The dependent variable of a moment ago becomes the independent variable of the present.

Maybe these changes in thinking have come about because computer literacy has made it possible to think about the interplay between many different things with comparative ease. It is not difficult to construct simple working models on our personal computers. When the rules of operation are non-linear, the behaviour of these models, when the parameters are altered, can change in complicated ways that are difficult to predict. Without basing them rigorously on what is known about behaviour and underlying mechanisms, such models merely serve to teach us a simple lesson about causality. But the more general point is that the development of individuals is readily perceived as an interplay between them and their environments. The current state of the individual influences which genes are expressed, and also impacts on the social and physical world. Individuals are then seen as choosing and changing the conditions to which they are exposed.

A central theme in biology has been the ways in which the various features of an organism all fit together to create a well adapted whole. Charles Darwin’s great theory of natural selection provided a cogent way of thinking about how such adaptations evolved. Organisms are highly adaptable and their abilities to meet environmental challenges are also represented in the fit between their characteristics and their ecology. The appearance of design strikes us again and again and is the basis for the first chapter, but the theme runs throughout the essays in this book.

My own research interest, starting as a graduate student, has been in the development of behaviour, with a particular focus on the remarkable process of imprinting in birds. Part of this was a long-standing collaboration with Gabriel Horn on the neural basis of imprinting2 but my work also had a strong whole-animal dimension to it. I was trained as a zoologist and frequently ask questions about the biological function and evolution of behaviour. In the second chapter I describe imprinting as a system well adapted by evolution to its current use and central to the attachment of offspring to one or both of their parents.

Chapter 3 deals with the rules that underlie the development of the individual and the reciprocity between those rules and the individual’s experience. I was much influenced by the writings of C.H. Waddington3 whose systems approach was not fashionable in the last decades of the twentieth century but now becomes increasingly important in making sense of the complexity of development.4

The young organism has to deal with the challenges that meet it as it develops. Its ecology may be very different from that of the adult, in which case it may have special adaptations to deal with those conditions. Like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, even a human child has adaptations to deal with each stage of its life cycle. Sometimes the changes from one stage to the next are marked by discontinuities. These are the subject of Chapter 4.

Despite the changes in the individual’s repertoire of behaviour as it grows up, early experience can have long lasting effects on its preferences and habits when it finally matures. These aspects of its behaviour are often very stable, but in stressful conditions they may change when the stress is accompanied by new forms of experience. The change is usually adaptive to cope with a world that may be very different from the one in which the individual grew up. The phenomenon is explored in Chapter 5.

In mammals, parent and offspring are often thought to be in conflict. The communication between them takes the form of mutual manipulation. The offspring seeks to gain maximum advantage from its parent, and the parent seeks to defend its long-term reproductive interests if it is able to have more than one offspring. This argument is explored in Chapter 6 after a brief review of the nature of communication in animals. The conclusion is that parents do well to take into account the condition of their offspring and the offspring must likewise pay attention to the condition of their parent.

Many animals choose their mates carefully. This is especially true in birds and many mammals. Inbreeding has costs but so too does outbreeding too much. The way in which an optimal balance is achieved is in part by the experience of close kin in early life. The role of imprinting-like processes is described in Chapter 7. Is avoidance of inbreeding the same as the avoidance of incest found in most human societies? I argue that it is not. The taboos may be an expression of conformism directed at individuals doing what most people would not do.

The enormous success of molecular biology has led to the prominence given to the role of genes in development. Genes in their different guises are unquestionably needed for the inheritance of much behaviour. I argue in Chapter 8 that the importance of genes does not mean that a simple link can be found between genes and behaviour. Unfortunate metaphors such as genes providing a blueprint for behaviour have proved extremely misleading. I return to the theme, first outlined in Chapter 3, that understanding development requires a systems approach which takes into account all the genes and environmental inputs that affect development.

Organisms do not simply react to changes in the environment. They play an active role in choosing and controlling the optimal conditions for themselves. By their activities in early life they prepare themselves for becoming an adult. An important aspect of such behaviour is play. This is a subject that formed another part of my own research life.5 These aspects of behaviour are discussed in Chapter 9 and provide a bridge to the next chapter.

Organisms’ adaptability provides a major part of the link between development and evolution. This link is the subject of Chapter 10. Of central importance is understanding the relationship between what an individual does and how its activities might influence the genomes of its descendants. This issue is still a relatively under-researched area because development and evolution have usually been thought to be separate topics.

In the final chapter I pull the threads together. Inevitably many aspects of behavioural development are omitted.6 My book presents an approach that is deeply embedded in ethology7 as I attempt to bring together many of the factors that affect the development of behaviour. I then relate the results to their function and their role in biological evolution. The changes in thinking have important implications for the relations between the biological and social sciences.

My original intention in planning this book was to republish essays that had first appeared in multi-authored books. I am not alone in rarely reading such chapters written by others so I can hardly complain if others do not cite my chapters. As I started work, I felt the need to rewrite the essays in order to make a more cohesive book. I also wanted the ideas to be available to a wide group of people who are interested in where our behaviour comes from and what effects behaviour has on evolution. I stripped out much of the scholarly apparatus such as long lists in the text of authors whose work I had depended upon. I also disregarded potential accusations of self-plagiarism since much of the material would not otherwise have been available to the public.

Inevitably I am indebted to a large number of friends and colleagues for their influence on my thought. I want to mention here some people for whom I have special affection and to whom I am especially indebted. These are Niko Tinbergen,8 Robert Hinde9 and Gabriel Horn.10 In different ways they provided the inspiration for a major part of my own research.

I have co-authored three books with Paul Martin11 who was originally my student and, for some years afterwards, my colleague. After leaving academia, he continued to publicise many different aspects of science in outstanding surveys.12 The books he wrote with me were genuinely collaborative and his stimulation and good sense were invaluable in our joint projects. I am deeply grateful to him, all the more so because he commented on a complete draft of this book. Much of what we wrote about both together and separately pertains to human existence. These topics are taken up in many of the chapters in this book. Another dear friend Michael Yudkin also read critically the whole draft of the book, not once but twice, and my gratitude to him is profound.

Patrick Bateson Cambridge, October 2016

1 See Oyama, S., Griffiths, P.E. & Gray, R.D. (eds.) (2001), Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2 Bateson, P. (2014), Thirty years of collaboration with Gabriel Horn. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 50, 4–11,

3 Waddington, C.H. (1957), The Strategy of the Genes. London: Allen & Unwin.

4 Capra, F. & Luisi, P.L. (2014), The Systems View of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

5 Bateson, P. (2015), Playfulness and creativity. Current Biology 25:1, R12-R16,

6 Many accessible essays about behavioural development are given in Blumberg, M.S., Spencer, J.P. & Shenk, D. (eds.) (2016), How We Develop: Developmental Systems and the Emergence of Behavior. WIREs Cognitive Science.

7 Bateson, P. (2015), Human evolution and development: an ethological perspective.In: Overton, W.F. & Molenaar, P.C.M. (eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science. Vol. 1: Theory and Method. 7th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, pp. 208–243.

8 In my first year at Cambridge I went to the Edward Grey Institute student conference held each year in Oxford. Chris Plowright, who was also at the conference, and I hatched a plan to take an expedition to Spitsbergen to study the rare Ivory Gull. Niko Tinbergen, who was engaged in a comparative study of gull behaviour was keen to join us because Ivory Gulls often nest on cliffs and might have special cliff-nesting adaptations. Niko spent considerable time with us, planning what we should do. To our sorrow and his, he was prevented by illness from joining the expedition. When we returned, he gave us much help as we wrote up our results for publication. After that experience, I was set on doing research for a doctorate with him at Oxford and in my final year as an undergraduate spent some time at his field site. In the end, however, I stayed in Cambridge to do my post-graduate research. But Niko’s interest in the biological function of behaviour remained with me thereafter.

9 Robert Hinde supervised my postgraduate research on behavioural imprinting. He was a superb supervisor, taking tremendous trouble over the written work of his research students. He taught us how to think. Robert exerted an extraordinary influence on ethology, primatology and latterly on studies of human behavioural biology and development. He wanted his research to be of use to humanity and had a deep concern about the causes of aggression and the peculiarly human institution of war. He was a wonderful friend and colleague throughout my career.

10 Gabriel Horn had a long-standing interest in the brain going back to his student days at Birmingham where he had written a brilliant essay on the neurological basis of thought. He had been working on attention and habituation but was very interested in the effects of learning on the nervous system. I met him for the first time at a dinner in our Cambridge college where we were both Fellows. As Gabriel and I talked animatedly, we realised that imprinting in naïve chicks would be an excellent form of learning in which to study the neural basis of memory. We agreed to work together. Thus started a warm and lasting friendship and scientific collaboration that continued for the next thirty years.

11 Bateson, P. & Martin, P. (1999), Design for a Life: How Behaviour Develops. London: Jonathan Cape. Martin, P. & Bateson. P. (2007), Measuring Behaviour: An Introductory Guide. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Bateson, P. & Martin, P. (2013), Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

12 Martin, P. (1997), The Sickening Mind: Brain, Behaviour, Immunity and Disease. London: HarperCollins. Martin, P. (2002), Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams. London: HarperCollins. Martin, P. (2005), Making Happy People: The Nature of Happiness and its Origins in Childhood. London: Fourth Estate. Martin, P. (2008), Sex, Drugs & Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure. London: Fourth Estate.