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Douglas Alexander Spalding (1841–1877) was an English biologist. He was one of the founders of ethology (animal behaviour), but it took a long time before this was appreciated.

He was born in Islington in London in 1841, and began life as a workman. Later, when he lived near Aberdeen, he attended courses without charge. He studied philosophy and literature, but after a year he returned to London. Spalding trained to be a lawyer, but contracted tuberculosis.

He travelled in Europe in hopes of finding a cure. In Avignon he met John Stuart Mill, and through Mill he met John Russell, Viscount Amberley. Russell was the son of the former British Prime Minister Lord John Russell. Spalding became tutor to Viscount Amberley's children, including perhaps the very young Bertrand Russell. He also carried on an intermittent affair with Katharine Russell, Lord Amberley's wife. After the Lord Amberley's death in 1876, Spalding returned to the continent and died there the following year.


Spalding carried out some remarkable experiments on animal behaviour, and discovered the phenomenon now known as imprinting. This was later rediscovered by Oskar Heinroth, then studied and popularised by Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.

Instinct and imprinting were the first scientific concepts in ethology. Spalding was able to prove that the behaviour of chicks after hatching from the egg happened even when they had no experience, practice or even information from the senses. Therefore the capacity was inherited. J.B.S. Haldane reprinted Spalding's essay On Instinct in 1954 to show how important it was for the history of ethology.

Spalding is credited by some as being the first to suggest genetic assimilation. He thought the evolution of instincts must have its origin in learning. He argued that selection of those individuals which were the best learners would eventually result in the appearance of the behaviour in the absence of learning.

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