Tag: The Open University

Do animals fall in love?

Opening our minds to a beautiful concept!

One of the better things about my old home country, the United Kingdom, is The Open University.  As Wikipedia explains:

The OU was established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971. The University administration is based at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, but has regional centres in each of its thirteen regions around the United Kingdom. It also has offices and regional examination centres in most other European countries. The university awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as well as non-degree qualifications such as diplomas and certificates or continuing education units.

With more than 250,000 students enrolled, including around 32,000 aged under 25 and more than 50,000 overseas students, it is the largest academic institution in the United Kingdom (and one of the largest in Europe) by student number, and qualifies as one of the world’s largest universities.

For reasons that I am unclear about, I subscribe to the OU’s newsletter.  Thus it was that a few weeks ago, this dropped into my ‘in-box’.

Do animals fall in love?

Do romantic relationships exist in the animal kingdom?

Throughout his lifetime, evolutionist and biologist Charles Darwin researched and wrote about how he felt that love can exist within the animal world. Particularly in his papers ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’ and ‘Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals’, he explored how animals can display supposed ‘human emotions’ like pleasure, pain, happiness and misery. He investigated how animals could seemingly appear to feel ‘down’ when separated from their companions, and seemed to jump for joy and touch one another in a way similar to a human hug when reunited.

Although monogamy and lifelong pair bonds are generally rare in the animal kingdom, some animals seem to thrive on it. Recent research has shown that Gibbons, who were thought to mate for life, have more complicated relationships, with mates occasionally philandering, and even sometimes dumping a mate, suggesting some similarity to human relationships. Swans also form monogamous pair bonds that last for many years, and occassionally for life. Loyalty to their mates has made them a virtually universal symbol of love. But some researchers believe it isn’t as romantic as it first appears, and that they stay together because spending extra time attracting a new mate has the potential to impact on the otherwise reproductive time.

Darwin’s theories have paved the way for further studies. In this free article, Tim Halliday explores natural selection and evolution in the animal world.

Here is that article.


Natural Selection and Evolution

Tim Halliday explores natural selection and evolution in the animal world

By: Professor Tim Halliday (Department of Life Sciences, The Open University)*

In the Rules of Life series, and its accompanying CD, Aubrey Manning looks at the behaviour of animals and describes many new discoveries about the way that this is beautifully adapted to meet the challenges which animals face in their daily lives. The scientific study of animal behaviour, or ethology, was founded some 50 years ago by Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. Their most significant contribution was to bring together the study of natural history with an understanding of evolution by natural selection. Since then, the numerous studies that have been made of animal behaviour have revealed that animals do many things that challenge many of the ideas that people had about natural selection 50 years ago. Natural selection theory has developed enormously since that time, largely as the result of animal behaviour studies, and a number of popular misconceptions about evolution have been revealed to be false as a result.

One such misconception is embodied in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, first coined by Herbert Spencer, and often used to encapsulate the way natural selection works. It is misleading, because ‘survival’ is only part of the story. Evolutionary change comes about because some individuals are more successful in reproduction and so pass on their genes to succeeding generations. As a result, the characteristics that make individuals successful in reproduction become more common in the population. It is thus reproduction that is important in evolution, and survival becomes simply a means to that end.

The importance of this point becomes apparent when we appreciate that, for most animals, reproduction is a very costly and sometimes dangerous activity, as illustrated many times in the series. To engage effectively in reproductive activity requires a great deal of energy and other resources that could otherwise be put towards survival. This is apparent in the common observation that animals show a greatly reduced growth rate, or stop growing altogether, when they reach sexual maturity. The resources that they derive from feeding are diverted from growth to reproduction.

A second common misconception is that natural selection acts ‘for the good of the species’. There are numerous examples of animal behaviour that show that this cannot be the case. For example, African lions live in prides, consisting of several females and their cubs, controlled by a group of two or three males. Other mature males are excluded from living in a pride. From time to time, a coalition of excluded males is formed and they attempt to take over a pride, by attacking and driving away the current pride-holders. If they succeed in doing this, their first act is to kill any cubs in the pride that are still being suckled by their mothers. To kill the young of one’s own species cannot benefit the species. The adaptive value of this behaviour for males is that, deprived of the cubs they have been suckling, the females very quickly come on heat and can conceive cubs fathered by the new pride-holders.

This example illustrates another common misconception about evolution, that, when mating, males and females are acting cooperatively. While it is in the interests of both parents that reproduction is successful, the way that that success comes about is not necessarily the same for the two sexes. For male lions, it is of no reproductive benefit to them to guard females that give birth to cubs fathered by other males. Infanticide is of benefit to them because it ensures that cubs born in the pride are their offspring. Infanticide is costly for females because the considerable time and resources that they have put into producing cubs is wasted. There is thus a conflict between the sexes, even though they have to behave cooperatively if either is to reproduce at all.

The interplay of cooperation and conflict is also apparent in the relationship between parents and offspring. For animals that produce more than one young at a time, it is usually to the advantage of the parent to share food more or less equally among its progeny. For each individual progeny, however, it is to its advantage if it receives more food than its siblings. There is thus a great deal of competition among progeny. This takes a bizarre form in the European Fire Salamander, and in a species of shark described in one of the programmes. In these animals, the young develop within the mother and, as they grow, they eat one another until only one, very large young is left. It may be that producing one offspring at a time is a good strategy from the mother’s point of view, or it could be that she would have higher reproductive success if she produced more; it may be, however that she has no choice in the matter.

The key to understanding evolution by natural selection is to think of it, not in terms of an individual’s survival, but in terms of its effectiveness in passing on its genes, what in the series is referred to as ‘genetic accounting’. Natural selection favours those individuals that pass on the most copies of their genes. This enables us to explain many aspects of animal behaviour that are difficult to explain purely in terms of survival. For example, in many species, particularly among birds, certain adult individuals do not breed themselves, but help other adults to do so, for example by feeding their young. In almost all cases, helpers turn out to be close relatives of the parents they are helping and so they are, in an indirect way, helping to spread those genes that they share with their relatives.

* Tim Halliday is professor of biology at The Open University, where he has worked on newts, toads and frogs since 1977.


Two photographs that offer my answer to the question: Do animals fall in love?



Hazel asleep with her dear friend Cleo. (Hazel to the left.)
Hazel asleep with her dear friend Cleo. (Hazel to the left.)

Who am I?

An intriguing examination of how we build our sense of self.

Note: This article goes back to 2007, part of a programme that I was involved in back then.  However, re-reading the article shows it to be timeless, so trust you find it interesting.  There is a fascinating test, still online, details provided at the end of the article – but if you can’t wait, it’s here.

Finding the self.

What is Self?

Edited by Fiona Kerr from original text by Dorothy Miell

So what is self and how do we study its development? As we grow older we become aware of differences between ourselves and others, for example: what I look like; my gender; what makes me happy or sad. A sense of self is not achieved in a single step; we don’t emerge from our mother’s womb as fully formed adults. As our bodies grow and change we also learn more and more about ourselves. How we describe ourselves to others changes as we get older. This process is not necessarily constant – some aspects of self may stay the same for many years, others may change rapidly.

There may also be big differences to how you feel and how you want others to think you are. This may colour your choices in self-description.

A sense of self is also a cultural construction – in some societies individual uniqueness and self-expression is seen as vulgar and uncivilised. In Open2.net’s “Who Am I?” test we will be examining self in a Western sense, the gradual formation of becoming a self-aware individual. We’ll be grouping the results in age groups, so you can see how the self-descriptions change as people get older. Although self development is most significant in childhood, we’ve decided to keep the results going to see how things change into adulthood (if at all!).

I exist!

A child’s first step to self-understanding is the recognition that she or he exists. As an infant explores the world and interacts with caregivers, she becomes aware that she has power – she is an agent of change within her own environment. She is able to cause things to happen and control objects. This awareness is known as “self-as-subject”, “I” or the “existential self”:

There are thought to be four elements to the existential self:

  1. an awareness of one’s own agency (i.e. one’s power to act) in life events,
  2. an awareness of the uniqueness of one’s own experience, of one’s distinctiveness from other people,
  3. an awareness of the continuity of one’s identity,
  4. an awareness of one’s own awareness, the element of reflexiveness.

For example, if a child closes his or her eyes, the world goes dark. If a toy is touched, it moves. The interaction with the world is physical, external and, in developmental terms, it helps the child differentiate between self and other.

What Makes Me?

At around a child’s second birthday, many children recognise themselves in a mirror or in a photograph. In Western cultures, from the age of 18 months to 3 years of age, infants start to display self-awareness through the use of the word “me” or “mine”. This self-sense isn’t a passive, self-reflective discovery, but is often the result of effort, particularly in rivalry with others. It arises from striving in the face of obstacles.

These are the second steps in establishing a full sense of self, the acquisition and elaboration as “self-as-object” or “me”, now often referred to as the “categorical self”. This aspect of self concerns the qualities that define oneself as a person, e.g. gender, name and relationships with others. Once a child has gained a certain level of self-awareness (of the existential self) he or she begins to place herself (or is placed by others) into a set of categories. This aspect of self is the most influenced by social factors, since it is made up of social roles (such as being a student, a sister, a friend) and characteristics that come from a comparison with others (such as trustworthiness, shyness or sporting ability). Social context is an important feature in self-development.


Measuring self-esteem is difficult. We might feel good about ourselves in one aspect of our lives, but not so good in others. One way of measuring self-esteem in children is to ask questions about how they feel in the different aspects of their life, such as: scholastic competence; athletic competence; social acceptance; behavioural conduct; physical appearance.

How we feel about ourselves overall may bear little or no relationship to how we feel about ourselves in these different areas. It’s the importance we place on our areas of achievement or failure that leads to an overall level of self-esteem. A child who is anxious to succeed at sport would have a high level of self-esteem if she did well at sport, but low self-esteem if her performance in sport was poor, even if the child was good academically or socially. The match between our aspirations and performance is one important factor in determining self-esteem. Another factor which might influence a child’s overall feeling of self-esteem is the regard in which they are held by “significant others”, people whose opinion the child values, such as parents, teachers and peers.

Gender identity

Children by the age of about two are able to correctly label themselves as a boy or a girl. But it is not until later that they understand that gender is a stable concept, e.g. that boys cannot become mothers. Being able to identify themselves in terms of gender helps children develop a sense of categorical self and helps define appropriate behaviour for boys and girls. Children develop their gender roles in part through imitation of models, so parents’ reactions to the behaviour of children are an important influence on children’s developing sense of gender identity. Parents who try to raise their children in a non-sexist way have encountered difficulties, as other influences such as the media and society itself can counter their attempts.

If children are shown individual differences between people, that different people believe different things, they can see that contradictory beliefs and behaviours can co-exist, that the rules for their family may not be true of the family next door, but both are valid.

Describing self changes as we grow older

A child uses comparison with others to see how he or she fits into different categories. In order to evaluate if he or she is short, tall, clever or shy, a child either has to compare themselves physically with others, or consider their evaluation by others.

This contrast between self and others helps the child to develop an increasingly complex understanding about self. Children’s self-descriptions change as they become more able to evaluate themselves and develop a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Children seem to think about themselves in different ways as they get older. Younger children seem to focus more on physical features, activities and behaviours, whereas older children mention more psychological characteristics. So, by the age of about 18, individuals are able to describe themselves in terms of the world of emotions, attitudes, secrets and wishes. Self-reflection is focused inwards, on their inner, private world.

OpenLearn, part of The Open University, have designed a test to illustrate how people of different ages define themselves. Once you take the test, you can then compare yourself to the database of other people who have taken the test to see how you compare with others in your age group, how you compare with people from other age groups and how people differ according to gender. Alternatively you can view the database without taking the test first. Try taking the test with a child and see how your results compare. So why not take the test to find out “Who Am I?”

That test link is here.

MIELL, D. (1995) ‘Developing a Sense of Self’
BARNES, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers

The above article was published by the BBC as part of their Child of our Time series, unfortunately no longer available online.

The results of the Who Am I test based on 53,345 entries as at October 30th, 2011, show overwhelmingly that both sexes at all ages describe their relationships and inner emotions as more important than their physical or character descriptions. For men from the age of 16-19 until 61+ their description of their relationships scores more important than their inner self but the margin is slight. For women over the same age span the situation is reversed; inner emotions score marginally higher than relationships.

What is very revealing is that for both sexes across the whole of their adult life, their physical and character identities are significantly less important than their social and emotional selves.