The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

By James J. Gibson | Go to book overview

ONE
THE ANIMAL AND THE ENVIRONMENT

In this book, environment will refer to the surroundings of those organisms that perceive and behave, that is to say, animals. The environment of plants, organisms that lack sense organs and muscles, is not relevant in the study of perception and behavior. We shall treat the vegetation of the world as animals do, as if it were lumped together with the inorganic minerals of the world, with the physical, chemical, and geological environment. Plants in general are not animate; they do not move about, they do not behave, they lack a nervous system, and they do not have sensations. In these respects they are like the objects of physics, chemistry, and geology.

The world can be described at different levels, and one can choose which level to begin with. Biology begins with the division between the nonliving and the living. But psychology begins with the division between the inanimate and the animate, and this is where we choose to begin. The animals themselves can be divided in different ways. Zoology classifies them by heredity and anatomy, by phylum, class, order, genus, and species, but psychology can classify them by their way of life, as predatory or preyed upon, terrestrial or aquatic, crawling or walking, flying or nonflying, and arboreal or ground-living. We are more interested in ways of life than in heredity.

The environment consists of the surroundings of animals. Let us observe that in one sense the surroundings of a single animal are the same as the surroundings of all animals but that in another sense the surroundings of a single animal are different from those of any other animal. These two senses of the term can be troublesome and may cause confusion. The apparent contradiction can be resolved, but let us defer the problem until later. (The solution lies in the fact that animals are mobile.) For the present it is enough to note that the surroundings of any animal include other animals as well as the plants and the nonliving things. The former are just as much parts of its environment as the inanimate parts. For any animal needs to distinguish not only the substances and objects of its material environment but also the other animals and the differences between them. It cannot afford to confuse prey with predator, own-species with another species, or male with female.

-7-

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