We search for principles of animal behavior across species.
The behavior of animals is not the behavior of their brains, but the processes emerging from the interaction between neural activity, body biomechanics and environmental constraints. Recent advances in neuroscience comprise a wide range of “big tools” enabling the collection of “big data”, both being promissory notes for understanding the brain and explaining behavior. This has lead to much emphasis on techniques and causal accounts of explanation in the flavour of the latest interventionist techniques and reductionist views, thus giving the impression that detailed studies of behavior and its algorithmic composition are less important. However, dissecting “necessary and sufficient” neural circuits for behavior is no shortcut to the proper study of behavior itself. After all, to ask how the brain works is different than (and requires) to ask what it is for — neurons indeed compute information yet nervous systems evolved to produce adaptive behavior. Thus, in the lab we try to avoid missing the forest for the trees. For us, the question is primary —the answer, secondary—, and the technique is tertiary.
We advocate for a more pluralistic notion of neuroscience where the dissection of neural processors (“hardware explanations”) are best investigated after a careful decomposition of behavioral processes ( software explanations”). This has lead us to pursue a theoretical/computational approach to animal behavior, and across species. From worms and flies to mice and humans, we study shared principles of animal movement from which the fundamental properties of these complex systems should be derivable, interpretable and explainable. Our current efforts target three fronts: (i) seeking the perceptual origins of the speed-curvature power-law in human drawing and maggot locomotion, (ii) exploring the organization of posture sequences in foraging worms and fish, and (iii) establishing behavioral homologies in the unfolding of locomotor degrees of freedom in flies and rodents.
We are hopeful that searching for principles of animal behavior across species will offer general insights into the neurobiology, ecology and evolution of animal behavior. Seeking to fulfill the promise of nowadays “big science”, our more abstract complementary approach moves towards a grounded integrative grasp of animal behavior. Quoting Woese, “without the proper technological advances the road ahead is blocked, without a guiding vision there is no road ahead”. Or, as Gallistel put it: “No Mendel, no Watson & Crick”.