Selous, Edmund

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(b. London, England, 14 August 1857; d. Weymouth, England, 25 March 1934)

ethology, field ornithology.

Edmund Selous was an ardent Darwinian who insisted upon the importance of fieldwork for resolving major issues in animal behavior and evolutionary theory. His painstaking studies of what he called the “domestic habits” of birds—their behavior in courtship, mating, nest building, rearing their young, interacting with other members of the same species, and so forth—were virtually unprecedented in their approach and attention to detail. Especially significant were his observations on display behavior and on the role of female choice in sexual selection. His work provided an important model for the development of animal behavior studies in the twentieth century.

Selous, whose family name was spelled Slous at the time of his birth, was the son of Frederick Lokes Slous and Ann Holgate Sherborn Slous. His father was a stockbroker who became chairman of the board of the London Stock Exchange, His mother was a talented amateur poet and painter who impressed upon her three daughters and two sons, of whom Edmund was the youngest, a strong love of natural history. Edmund believed it was from his mother that he and his older brother, the famous big-game hunter Frederick Courteney Selous, inherited “the call of the wild” that was so important to each of them.

Selous entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1877 and studied law. He was called to the bar in 1881. He married Fanny Margaret Maxwell; they had a son and two daughters. Though interested in wild animals from his youth, it appears that it was not until 1898 that Selous began to devote himself seriously to watching birds. He seems to have supported himself not through practice as a barrister but through possession of a small private income and writing articles and books on natural history (including books for children). In his writings he waged a constant battle against the zoological establishment of the day, which he regarded as being more interested in killing animals than in studying how animals lived. Selous does not appear to have belonged to any scientific societies, and when he died in 1934, no obituary notices were written for him in any British scientific journals, though two appreciative notices of his work did appear abroad.

Selous’ first scientific publication was an article on the breeding habits of the nightjar (1899). In it he initiated the practice of publishing his field notes in full. Insofar as possible, he made it his practice to record his observations on the spot and as soon as the actions observed took place, noting precisely the date and time.

Selous prided himself on observing not just what was expected of animals but also how they deviated from that expectation, maintaining that such deviations were the material upon which organic evolution was based. He was attentive both to the intraspecific variations that made natural and sexual selection possible and to particular patterns that he believed represented behavior in the course of evolutionary change. He hypothesized, for example, that the frenzied motions of birds when sexually excited were the basis from which courting displays and nest-building habits gradually evolved.

Among Selous’ most important papers were his studies of sexual selection in the ruff (1906-1907) and the blackcock (1909-1910). In his paper on the ruff he provided a powerful confirmation of Darwin’s view of the importance of female choice in sexual selection, a view that had few proponents among the scientists of the day. Selous found that the females of this lek-breeding species play an active rather than a passive role in the mating process, that they do indeed choose among the males, and that this choice is not simply a reflection of male “vigor.” His subsequent studies on the blackcock, another lek-breeder, provided further support for the role of female choice in sexual selection.

In addition to his studies of breeding behavior, Selous paid special attention to the movements of birds in flocks. He believed their synchronized movements could not be explained simply on the basis of cues from one bird to another, but instead were the result of what he called “collective thought” or “thought transference.” This idea, first mentioned in Bird Watching (1901), was the primary subject of his later Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds (1931). His conclusions about the evolution of formalized behavior patterns, nest building, sexual display, sexual selection, parental care, domestic cleanliness, and bird song, together with his thoughts on territoriality, were summed up in his final book. Evolution of Habit in Birds (1933).

Selous was not an easy person to deal with, and he did not endear himself to the professional zoologists of his day by characterizing them as murderers or “thanatologists.” Though slated to be a major contributor to F. B. Kirkman’s four-volume British Birds (1910–1913), Selous was dropped from the project after the first volume, when his written assaults on the collectors of birds’ eggs and skins led to a quarrel between him and Kirkman. Nor did Selous make friends among contemporary field ornithologists by refraining from reading their writings, on the ground that he wanted his conclusions to be based entirely upon his own observations.

Selous’ strong sense of alienation no doubt allowed him to relish the solitude that his field studies demanded, and it also enabled him to make unusually penetrating observations regarding the way that common societal assumptions about male dominance and female passivity permeated scientific thought. On the other hand, it may have prevented him from playing a larger role than he did in the reformation of biological thought and methodology at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, his pioneering researches were read, and they did have an influence on the development of field studies of behavior.

Among the professional biologists who appreciated Selous’ work were Julian Huxley in England and Jan Verwey in Holland. They in turn influenced the Dutch ethologist Nikolaas (Niko) Tinbergen, whose career demonstrated a claim Selous had made years earlier: “The habits of animals are really as scientific as their anatomies, and professors of them, when once made, would be as good as their brothers” (Bird Life Glimpses, pp. 49–50).


I. Original Works. No complete bibliography of Selous’ scientific works has been published, but see N. Diana Giffard, “A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Edmund Selous, Ornithologist” (M.A. thesis, School of Librarianship and Archives, University College, London, 1951). An annotated catalog of Selous’ publications and manuscripts is being prepared for publication by Dr. K. E. L. Simmons. A collection of Selous’ manuscripts (primarily field notes) is in the Edward Grey Library. Oxford. Selous’ major scientific articles are listed below: “An Observational Diary of the Habits of Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus), Mostly of a Sitting Pair. Notes Taken at Time and on Spot, “in The Zoologist, 4th ser., 3 (1899), 388–402, 486–505; “An Observational Diary of the Habits of the Great Plover (Edicnemus crepitans) During September and October,” ibid., 4 (1900), 173–185, 270–277, 458–476; “An Observational Diary of the Habits—Mostly Domestic—of the Great Crested Grebe (Podicipes cristatus), and of the Peewit (Vanellus vulgaris), with Some General Remarks,” ibid., 5 (1901), 161–183, 339–350, 454–462, and 6 (1902), 133–144; “Variations in Colouring of Stercorarius crepidatus,” ibid., 6 (1902), 368–373; “Observations Tending to Throw Light on the Question of Sexual Selection in Birds, Including a Day-to-Day Diary on the Breeding Habits of the Ruff (Machetes pugnax),” ibid., 10 (1906), 201–219, 285-294, 419-428, and 11 (1907), 60–65, 161–182, 367–381; “Some Notes on a Habit of the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) in Relation to a Similar but More Developed Habit in the Californian Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus),” ibid., 12 (1908), 81–91; “An Observational Diary on the Nuptial Habits of the Blackcock (Tetrao tetrix)” in Scandinavia and England, ibid., 13 (1909), 401–413, and 14 (1910), 23–29, 51–56, 176–182, 248–265; “An Observational Diary on the Domestic Habits of the Red-Throated Diver (Colymbus septentrionalis),” ibid., 16 (1912), 81–96, 171–180, 210–219: “An Observational Diary on the Domestic Habits of the Carrion-Crow (Corvus corone),” ibid., 321–337; “A Diary of Ornithological Observation Made in Iceland During June and July,” 1912, ibid., 17 (1913), 57–66, 92–104, 129–136, 294–313, 409–422, 18 (1914), 63–74, 213–225, 19 (1915), 58–66, 169–174, 303–307, and 20 (1916), 54–68, 139–152, 267–272.

“Ornithological Observations and Reflections in Shetland,” in The Naturalist (1914), 355–357, 365–379, (1916), 324–326, 363–366, 384–388, (1917), 89–92, 260–269. (1918), 131–135, 158–160, 294–296, 317–320, 347–350, 381–383, and (1919), 167–168, 259–262, 357–360, 381–385; “The Earlier Breeding Habits of the Red-Throated Diver,” in Wild Life, 3 (1914), 138–144, 206–213; “The Early Breeding Habits of the Shag,” ibid., 6 (1915), 151–155, 177–181; “An Observational Diary of the Domestic Habits of the Little Grebe or Dabchick,” ibid., 7 (1915), 29–35, 38–42, 98–99, 137–141, 175–178, 219–230; “The Spring Habits of the Stone Curlew,” ibid., 8 (1916), 51–54, 76–81, 112–115, 152–158; “On the Sexual Origin of the Nidificatory, Incubatory, and Courting Display Instincts in Birds: An Answer to Criticism,” in The Zoologist, 4th ser., 20 (1916), 401–412; “Sex-Habits of the Great-Crested Grebe,” in The Naturalist (1920), 97–102, 195–198, 325–328, and (1921), 173–176, 197–200, 301–305; “The Courting-Habits of the Heron,” ibid., (1925), 179–182; and “Further Observations on the Nuptial Habits of the Heron,” ibid., 335–336.

“In addition to eleven children’s books and books of a popular nature, Selous wrote the following books on bird behavior: Bird Watching (London, 1901); Bird Life Glimpses (London, 1905); The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands; with Some Notes on Seals—and Digressions (London, 1905); Realities of Bird Life, Being Extracts from the Diaries of a Life-Loving Naturalist (London, 1927); Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds (London, 1931); Evolution of Habit in Birds (London, 1933).

II. Secondary Literature. There has been to date no extensive study of Selous’ work, though such a study is being undertaken by Dr. K. E. L. Simmons. Two appreciative biographical notices appeared after Selou’s death: Margaret Morse Nice. “Edmund Selous: An Appreciation,” in Bird-Banding, 6 (1935), 90–96; and Jacques Delamain, “Edmund Selous,” in Alauda, 6 (1934), 388–393. Additional comments on Selou’s work are in John Durant, “Innate Character in Animals and Man: A Perspective on the Origins of Ethology,” in Charles Webster, ed., Biology, Medicine and Society, 1840–1940 (Cambridge, 1981), 157–192; David Lack, “Some British Pioneers in Ornithological Research, 1859–1939,” in lbis, 101 (1959), 71–81; and Erwin Stresemann, Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 342–344. The most extensive review of the details of Selous’ life is K. E. L. Simmons, “Edmund Selous (1857–1934): Fragments for a Biography,” in Ibis, 126 (1984), 595–596.

Richard W. Burkhardt. Jr.