[Crossposting from NeuroDojo. Deep breath.]

As I’ve written recently, I don’t feel all that at home and comfortable in the field of neuroscience. I feel much more at home in the discipline of neuroethology, which investigates the neural bases of naturally occurring animal behaviour. It is populated by people who still appreciate diversity.

Having said that neuroethology is my intellectual home, I would like to rattle the windows in my own house a bit.

Neuroethology has a bunch of great people working on cool stories. And yet it is not a vibrant or growing discipline right now. This is partly due to neuroscience losing touch with comparative biology as it emerges as its own discipline. But I think it’s deeper than that. The field seems without direction.

Neuroethology’s sister discipline, animal behaviour, provides an interesting case study of how to galvanize a field. In the early 1980s, animal behaviour was hopping. Just a few years before that, E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiologyand Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene had brought to many people’s attention a whole series of ideas that had been gestating in theoretical biology, or were just starting to emerge in the scientific literature. That had thrown up a whole series of hypotheses and ideas about altruism, fitness, optimal strategies, and kin selection that needed testing.

Wilson, Dawkins, and many more challenged the field. And researchers stepped up.

If that wasn’t enough, DNA technology arrived. For the first time, people really started to be able to pinpoint paternity, which was key to underlying explanations of so much of why animals did what they did. A technological revolution is always helpful in getting interest and excitement going.

The discipline of neuroethology needs a challenge. It needs some choice problems for its practitioners to grapple. Something that someone working with hawkmoths or archerfish can contribute to.

I don’t pretend to know what that problem might be. Just to get conversations going, here are a couple of examples.

How do animals analyze complex and biologically relevant signals? Animal behaviour is filled with examples of evidence that animals are attending to, and making decisions, based on quite complex sensory signals. Many experiments show that animals pay attention to symmetry, for instance. Others show individual recognition.

How do small circuits evolve? Neuroethologists have this catalog of fantastic case studies: bat echolocation, fish escape, songbird learning. But in keeping with the model organism tradition, people have tended to milk those case studies. Why not put our knowledge of those neural circuits to use, and use them to work on brain evolution in a more detailed way than more typical size size comparisons? (I freely admit to a bias here, which is obvious since I discussed this a bit in my last review article.)

I don’t know if those questions will galvanize my colleagues. I mean, Ted Bullock set questions similar to those out as “pregnant agendas” a decade ago, and I’m no Ted Bullock. But I’ll be listening closely if I manage to get to the next international congress to see if there’s anything that might galvanize them.

Reference

Bullock T. 1999. Neuroethology has pregnant agendas Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology 185(4), 291-295. DOI: 10.1007/s003590050389

Image from here.

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Comment by David D. Olmsted on July 31, 2010 at 2:07pm
This has been one of my pet peeves for a long time. If the goal is really to understand how the brain works then you must understand simple systems first and follow the course of evolution. Yet the funding bias has always been in the other direction, trying to hit a miracle home run by understanding primate brains directly.

What I think will re-energize neuro-ethology will be an alliance with the artificial-life community combined with new computer simulation tools that will allow simple brains to be simulated on small clusters of computers. Only simple brains will have any chance of being simulated in total and put into virtual animals living in a virtual environment. In this way a true synergy will develop between the experimental neuroethologists and the theoretical a-lifers.

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