Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Emperor's New Anthropomorphism

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Emperor's New Anthropomorphism

Article excerpt

Anthropomorphism--the attribution to nonhuman species of human mental qualities--originated in the search for psychological continuity between species following the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Eclipsed by Behaviorism and classical ethology, mentalistic anthropomorphism has undergone a r Skinner's reasons for rejecting anthropomorphism remain valid today. Mentalistic explanations involve explanatory fictions, they imply a mental homunculus, they rely on introspection, and they are not parsimonious. Thoug y branch of science, to use folk psychological notions of human psychology in attempting to understand animal behavior cannot be constructive.

Key words: Anthropomorphism, mentalism, behaviorism


The use of the word "Anthropomorphism" to describe the ascription of human qualities to nonhuman species is a product of the Darwinian revolution. The original sense of this word (and still the only one listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 2005) is the attribution of human form to a deity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), the extension of the word to animals is due to George Henry Lewes in his 1858 book, "Seaside Studies." Lewes, believing that mollusks have eyes but only a rudimentary sensitivity to light, wrote that, "... we speak with large latitude of anthropomorphism when we speak of the 'vision' of these animals." (Lewes, 1862, p. 359.) Lewes' book was first published the year before Darwin's "Origin of Species" (1859). Lewes and Darwin were acquainted with each other, and clearly it was Darwin's emphasis on psychological continuity between humans and other species, especially as developed in "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex" (1871) and "The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Men" (1872) that created a niche for the use of "anthropomorphism" in this new sense. Though Darwin wrote that there was "no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties" (Darwin, 1882, p. 66) he never used the term "anthropomorphism" in his published writings. It was his protege, George Romanes, who gave the term wider currency by making "inverted anthropomorphism" his method in, "Animal Intelligence" (1884).

... Just as the theologians tell us--and logically enough--that if there is a Divine Mind, the best, and indeed only, conception we can form of it is that which is formed on the analogy, however imperfect, supplied by the human mind; so with 'inverted anthropomorphism' we must apply a similar consideration with a similar conclusion to the animal mind. The mental states of an insect may be widely different from those of a man, and yet most probably the nearest conception that we can form of their true nature is that which we form by assimilating them to the pattern of the only mental states with which we are actually acquainted. (Romanes, 1884, p. 10).

Skinner (1938) would later write that it was Conway Lloyd Morgan who, "with his law of parsimony, dispensed with [mental faculties in animals] in a reasonably successful attempt to account for characteristic animal behavior without them." (1938, p. 4). However, Skinner's characterization of Morgan's "Canon" (or "basal principle" as he called it, 1894, p. 53) was substantially in error. Morgan's intent was not in any way to banish mentalistic explanation from the study of animal psychology. His 1894 work, "An Introduction to Comparative Psychology" commences with fulsome praise of the recently deceased Romanes. Morgan's argument was not with Romanes' anthropomorphic method--the method of inferring animal mentation by analogy with human mental life. Morgan's only concern was that the interpretation be constrained by some principles of parsimony.

In his oft-quoted maxim, Morgan stated; "In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale. …

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