This is a question about education. I am trying to come up with a very visual and clear example, to explain a particular concept in evolution.

The concept I am trying to explain is,

the fact that an animal does not need to understand why it's doing something in order for that behaviour to be selected

(by "why" I mean, the evolutionary/functional role of that behaviour, the reason why it increases the animal's fitness).

Students who don't yet intuitively understand evolution, sometimes mistakenly think that in the theory of evolution, animals need to understand why their behaviour is leading to offspring in order to do that behaviour. (they might say: "the bee looks for flowers because it wants to feed his children", although bees (probably) don't actually make this computation, but simply act on stimuli).

(Note by the way that this is not simply about anthropomorphization: e.g. humans also don't need to understand what sex is for, in order to produce offspring).

What I'm looking for is an example of an animal, and a behaviour that is characteristic for that animal, that very clearly shows this principle:

  • It should be clear and intuitive, that the animal doesn't understand "why" it's doing what it's doing, because to reason about this would clearly be too complicated for the animal (I don't think the bee example really satisfies this).

  • It should be visual, and memorable.

  • $\begingroup$ I may give an answer at some point. But what you're referring to is the distinction between ultimate and proximate explanations for a phenomenon. You can see the Wikipedia article for one example. This is also widely discussed with many examples in many books on animal behavior, for example in chapter 3 ("Hormones and Neurobiology") in the book "Principles of Animal Behavior" by Lee Alan Dugatkin. This part is actually in the free preview of the book on Amazon, so you could look there. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Jul 27, 2018 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Eff, I would say that the category I'm referring to is an example of a ultimate and proximate explanations, but that concept is far more general. In any case, thanks for the comment :). $\endgroup$
    – user152497
    Jul 27, 2018 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ just use things that don't have a brain like trees. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @John, that would actually not bring the point accross, since people would retain the intuition that it holds with things that have brains $\endgroup$
    – user152497
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ if you can show how it works in plants you can only explain it works the same in animals. Trying to use an animal as an example has a big problem, if the person does not know basic evolution they will have no idea of what an animals brain is or is not capable of. You are expecting two vastly different levels of biological knowledge from the student. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


Use human behavior, they're human, do they understand why they like salty foods or why thiols smell bad to them. These behaviors still work even when you have no idea why you are doing them.

Using humans circumvents the problem of them not understanding animal behavior, which they already have to do to grasp your explanation for animal behavior. Using any other animal requires them to understand that animals mind which an entry level student will not, however as humans they can assess their own knowledge directly.


It's very hard for people not to see volution in actions of external entities. Thus, use the students themselves: choose a completely autonomous motor function like the contraction of the pupil in different lighting to give them the opportunity to observe themselves during an involuntary act.


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