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6 Feb 08 – Lloyd Morgan’s Canon, Anthropomorphism, and Mechanomorphism

6 February 2008

On this day in 1852, Conwy Lloyd Morgan was born. Morgan developed a fundamental precept of comparative (animal) psychology often known as “Lloyd Morgan’s Canon”:

“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.”


This precept relates to a concept known as “anthropomorphism,” the attributing of human characteristics (motivation or behaviors) to animals.  Essentially, Morgan was saying that we should not apply human characteristics to animals – we should keep descriptions of animals as simple and non “humanistic” as possible.  Lloyd Morgan’s Canon is considered a special instance of Occam’s Razor (or the Law of Parsimony), which is named after a Friar (William of Ockham).  This principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should involve as few assumptions as possible.  Unfortunately, Lloyd Morgan’s Canon has been applied not only to non-human animals but also to human “animals” in the sense that there was a strong push in psychology, especially in the 1940s, to not attribute human characteristics to…well, humans. 

In the 1940s, R. H. Waters wrote about this interesting tendency in psychology, noting that this rise culminated in the development of behavioristic psychologies, which were focused on constructing mechanical analogies of human behavior.  Essentially, Waters concluded by stating that this was a limiting conceptualization:

“To think of the organism as a machine is to adopt a premise and a method that leads the investigator into a blind alley – a blind alley that precludes the observation of certain types of evidence clearly indicating the presence of activities or capacities which are included in our concept of a conscious human being.”

This was likely an outgrowth of the fact that we chose our method of investigation in psychology before we considered our subject matter.  With our “physics envy” (as Leahy put it), we borrowed the mechanical methods of physics and applied them to psychological studies.  Given this, it was short step to begin to withdraw human characteristics from humans and, instead, apply mechanical conceptions to them.  In the 1950s, Robert Oppenheimer, the respected physicist, warned us about this tendency to “mechanomorphize” (as Waters put it) in our efforts to emulate classical (which in physics means “outdated”) physics:

“…the worst of all possible misunderstandings would be that psychology be influenced to model itself after a physics which is not there any more, which has been quite outdated.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred.  In fact, quite prophetically, 20 years earlier than Oppenheimer’s warning, the psychologist Robert Yerkes stated that, “Almost unconsciously…psychologists are becoming physiologists.  The probably outcome of this movement is the disappearance of psychology as a science of experience and its assimilation first by psychobiology and ultimately by physiology.”  By the 1970s, psychologists such as Donald Hebb flatly stated that, “Psychology is a biological science.” 

Fundamentally, the point I am trying to make is that the Morgan’s Canon and Ockham’s Razor have come to symbolize that explanations of psychological phenomena, even human mentation, motivation, etc., should rely on biological explanation.  In essence, in the “simplest form,” everything psychological is biological and should be understood (and treated) as such.  For this reason, there is currently a noticeable rise in biological understandings of psychological phenomena (what some, including me, refer to as “the biologization of psychology”).  It is also related to the increasing trend in psychology toward pursuit of prescription privileges – a traditionally biological treatment conducted by biologically – medically – trained practitioners (psychiatrists).Still, such understanding, as Waters was ready to admit in the 1940s, limits perspectives and ignores such issues as agency.  In essence, by conceptualizing humans as machines, the humanity of humans and the creative process and agentic action that they engage in is lost.  Worse still, it is ignored and unaccounted for. 

My belief is that the problem is not with the idea of using the simplest description, it is with not recognizing that the simplest description must still account for all the variations that exist.  Biological explanations certainly are a component of understanding and treating psychological phenomena but they are a necessary and not sufficient component. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

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February 6, 2008 - Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Cheers, really helped to clear up ther relationship between the law of parsimony and LLoyd Morgan’s canon!

    Comment by Tom Windsor | January 10, 2012 | Reply


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