History and Philosophy Of Science | History & Philosophy of Comparative Psychology & Ethology
X521 | 23750 | Colin Allen


X521: History and Philosophy of Comparative Psychology and Ethology
Spring 2006
Colin Allen

As with biology generally, the study of animal behavior was
revolutionized in the 19th Century by Darwin's theory of evolution.
Because Darwin recognized that human mental powers were a potential
point of difficulty for his ideas of common descent and gradual
differentiation, he and his followers were keen to stress mental
continuity between humans and other animals.  In their zeal to
promote the idea of mental continuity, early comparative
psychologists left themselves open to the charge that they were too
reliant on anecdotes and anthropomorphic thinking.

The rise of behavioristic psychology in the early 20th Century,
particularly among American scientists, fostered distrust of claims
about inner psychical causes of behavior, and distrust of field
observations as a source of knowledge about animal learning and
memory.  The quest to discover general laws of learning by
experimental methods also moved comparative psychology into a
laboratory setting, and effectively limited the range of species
studied.  In contrast, ethologists, beginning in Europe after the
First World War, insisted on the importance of naturalistic
observations, and on comparing a variety of species with a view to
identifying differences in behaviors that were attributable to
specific adaptations to particular niches.

In this course we will study the philosophical and scientific
contexts in which these different approaches to animal behavior
emerged, and the different approaches to Darwinian continuity that
result. A major goal of the course is to relate ongoing debates to
their historical antecedents, and students will be encouraged to
pursue research projects which deepen our understanding of the
philosophical disputes by examining the sources of the
presuppositions of key participants in those disputes.