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Behavior: Biological Explanations

Updated on May 20, 2012

Biological explanations of behavior will fall into one of four categories: physiological, functional, ontogenetic, and evolutionary. Normal behavior or commonsense behavior does not fall into any of these categories. For example someone does something, such as eats icecream, that is a "want to". However, those things that are not explained, such as why someone yawns or why a bird flies south for the winter without thinking about it. These things fall into one of the categories listed above.


Physiological Explanation

The Pysiological explanation relates the behavior to an activity of the brain or other organs. It correlates with the mechanics of the body. The chemical reaction that allows hormones to trigger brain activity and the path by which brain activity controls the movement of muscles through contractions would fall into this category.


Functional Explanation

A functional explanation defines or elaborates why a behavior evolved in the way that it did. Within a small population a gene that spreads by pure accident is called a genetic drift. At times one dominant male, such as an african lion, has a large number of offspring and spreads all of his genes. The larger the population or community the less impact or powerful the genetic drift is. A functional explanation can pinpoint the advantage.

Another example would be a species that can change his color to match his surroundings. The functional explanationt to this would be the species can change colors to hide from his predators.


Ontogenetic Explanation:

Ontogenetic explanation describes the development of a behavior or structure. It maps the influences of nutrition, genes, experiences, and the correlations or interactions of these factors in producing behaviors.

In specific species, a young male bird learns songs by listening to the adult males. Being able to develop the song and sing it requires both the genes that make it possible and the chance to hear it early in life when it can be learned. This would be an example of Ontogenetic Explanation.

Baird's Sandpiper
Baird's Sandpiper | Source

Evolutionary Explanation:

This explanation looks at a behavior or structure by way of evolutionary history. When a cat becomes frightened it's hairs will stand up on it's body. When a person becomes frightened they get goosebumps. This erection of hairs makes an animal look larger to its predator. This leads to the belief that our ancestors were hairier and thus our goosebumps were at one time a defense mechanism where hairs would stand out just as the cats does.

An exmaple of this type of explanation would be when a species of birds has a song that sounds almost identical to that of another type of bird of a different species. Baird's sandpipers and dunlins are two different types of shorebirds, but both give their calls in distinct pulses, not like any other shorebirds. This relation suggests that the two types of birds evolved from a single ancestor.


We can understand behavior much better when we can combine as many approaches as possible. It's important to understand the body mechanisims that bring about the behavior, how it comes about in the individual, how it has evolved, and to what function it serves. Knowing how each explanation works helps us understand behavior more effectively.


Niko Tinbergen (1973, p. 161)

Tinbergen (1951)


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    • profile image

      Siddhant Goyal 

      3 years ago

      So what exactly is the difference between an evolutionary and a functional explanation?

    • libby1970 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from KY

      Thanks dahoglund. My degree is in science. I have always enjoyed it so much. This hub is actually just scratching the surface. I'll be doing much deeper hubs but am doing the basic stuff on synapses and neurons...things of that nature. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I have studied behavioral psychology in college but did not get this deep into the biology of it. Interesting hub.

    • libby1970 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from KY

      Thank you prasadjain. I appreciate the comment. It does take research and a science background. I love science and it's my life. Thanks again.

    • prasadjain profile image


      8 years ago from Tumkur

      A useful hub. It takes time to plan and produce articles like this.

    • libby1970 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from KY

      Thanks I appreciate your comment. Some people's behavior I don't think can fall in any category--lol

    • profile image 

      8 years ago

      Nicely little summary Libby. Next time I'm people watching I'll think of what category their behaviour stems from but I'll also wonder why I'm thinking about the categories in the first place! Where does that behaviour come from! LOL

    • libby1970 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from KY

      Thank you gipsiecrone. I appreciate that. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

    • gipsiecrone profile image

      Martha Bowman 

      8 years ago from presently St Augustine, FL

      I enjoy your writing and would love to see some of your poetry or other writings Good luck

    • libby1970 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from KY

      Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • daisyflowrs profile image


      8 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I will have to read this to my son later. He will love it too! Great hub!


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