For some time now, attempts have been made to explain the relationship between animal behavior and human thought proper. In other words, there have been many times that mental states have been attributed to animals, both primates and others.
The problem with this is that sometimes too much has been inferred, seeing in every action of certain animal species the result of complex mental processing.
Lloyd Morgan’s cannon it is a principle that before giving complex mentalistic explanations of animal behavior, a simpler explanation is more likely to allow an understanding of its behavior. Let’s see a little better below.
What is the Lloyd Morgan Canon?
Also known as the Law of Parsimony in Animal Behavior and Thinking, the Lloyd Morgan Canon is a principle applied in animal research, particularly in animal psychology.
This law states that an action performed by an animal should not be interpreted as the result of the exercise of a higher psychic faculty if it can be interpreted as the result of inferior psychic activity.
The maxim is not to attribute complex mental processes to animals to the bare minimum that human-like behavior is observed in them. Our behavior and that of other species can sometimes seem similar, but that doesn’t mean that behind their behavior is complex thinking, awareness, planning, or that they can infer what other individuals are thinking. The basic principle of Lloyd’s canon was to always try to explain the behavior of other species using the simplest explanation.
The reason Lloyd Morgan made this statement has a lot to do with the scientific context in which he lived, particularly the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, the theory of Darwin’s evolution had become very popular, and few people wanted to see an indication of early human behavior in other species., Especially in primates. A whole scientific current had emerged which attributed anthropomorphic behavior to a large repertoire of species, some phylogenetically quite distant from humans.
This is why Morgan wanted to be careful and came up with this maxim. According to him, what the science of his day had to do was try to explain animal behavior with the least complex explanation possible, if at all. Overly complex and unproven theories end up being difficult to manage, and far from expanding knowledge and research, they hinder them.
Morgan applies his idea in his book Habit and Instinct (1896), focusing on learning about animals. Far from offering mentalistic explanations of why animals behave the way they do, he chooses to limit himself to explaining behavior that can be attributed to associations of types of trial and error. Morgan distinguishes between innate reactions, which we might well consider instinctive, and reactions acquired through imitation as a source of experience acquisition.
Morgan himself considered that the psychological study of his day called for two types of inductions. On the one hand, we have retrospective introspection, which is that which starts from subjective data, while on the other hand, we have the most objective induction, based on the observation of external phenomena.
The science of its day started with both methods, interpreting animal behavior in terms of the researcher’s subjective experience. Therefore, if the observer attributes mental states to the observed animal, he may make the mistake of thinking that there is obviously thought.
The psychological version of Ockham’s razor
Lloyd Morgan’s cannon can be seen as a sort of psychological version of Ockham’s famous razor. This principle formulated in the 14th century by the famous English philosopher William of Okcham maintains that beings should not multiply if it is not necessary. In other words, that is to say if enough variables are available to explain a phenomenon, it is not necessary to include more.
If we have two scientific models that can explain the same natural event, applying the razor, the simpler will be the one worth considering.
Naturally, Ockham’s Razor and Lloyd Morgan’s Cannon are not without criticism. The main thing is that sometimes, when studying a complex phenomenon, it is impossible to select the simplest model that explains it without incurring bad science, especially if the phenomenon cannot be approached empirically. In other words, since the simple explanation given cannot be falsified, since there is no way to verify it, declaring that this explanation must be the most probable is pseudo-scientific behavior.
The other criticism is that simplicity does not necessarily have to correlate with plausibility. Einsein himself noted that it is not the simplicity of the explanation that makes it taken more into consideration, but its explanation of the phenomenon studied.. Moreover, to speak of “simple” models is a little ambiguous. Is a model with only one variable but very complex a simple model? Have several variables but all easy to manipulate / verify a complex model?
As we have mentioned, the study of animal behavior and, more recently, the cognition of the human species has increased, raising all kinds of mentalistic explanations. Therefore, in order to avoid giving overly anthropocentric explanations for the behavior of other species, we run the risk of claiming that other living beings have self-awareness or thoughts similar to ours, Lloyd Morgan’s cannon has become a necessary requirement in research.
It should be understood that since psychology is a science, there has always been an attempt to determine whether other species can think like humans. It is not a controversial subject and, in fact, demonstrating a human conscience in everyday animals, such as cows, pigs or chickens, would be a great ethical debate, fueled in particular by animal rights associations. .
In many cases, these same associations use so-called scientific studies to reaffirm their positions, which is legitimate. However, if the same research has attributed too human mental traits to species which, unlike for example chimpanzees, do not have a very sophisticated intelligence or self-awareness, without applying Morgan’s canon or relativizing their claims, we can hardly speak of a scientific article.
The debate over mentalism and behavioralism, although moderate in recent decades, has been a classic in the history of psychology. Behavioralism was a current which, in its most radical version, was fueled by Morgan’s canon, making psychology a science. Focus only on the observable of the animal instead of attributing to it any patterns, thoughts or perceptions of any kind it allowed psychology to cease to be as dispersed as it had been with psychoanalysis.
Today, there is no doubt that mental processes in animals are not necessarily a bad thing or a pseudo-scientist. However, the problem, as we have said, is to exaggerate the mental capacity of some animals, attributing to them a psychological process that they probably cannot harbor in their brains. There are a lot of animal behaviors that may seem motivated, there is complex thought behind them, but it may just be a coincidence..
Animal behavior case
It has often happened that mentalistic explanations have been raised for phenomena which, viewed more critically, correspond to less sophisticated behaviors. Below we will see two cases which, while not the only ones, explain quite well why we should resort to the simpler when studying animal behavior.
1. Mating at the Penguins
Many species practice courtship and mating rituals. These behaviors, in principle, are intentional. As a rule, males boast in front of many females inviting them to mate with him. In the case of females, most species seek out the male with the best characteristics and therefore have strong and sexually attractive offspring when they reach maturity.
King penguins in the Kerguelen Islands also have courtship rituals and, in most cases, mate for life. But it is interesting to note that some pairs of penguins are gay. There are male penguins that court other males and mate, but naturally they will have no offspring..
This phenomenon is not uncommon in this species and therefore an attempt has been made to give a sophisticated mentalistic explanation. These homosexual behaviors would occur when the penguin population had disparate sex ratios, such as having many more males than females. Male penguins, being conscious, would try to balance the scales by sacrificing reproduction and mating with other males.
However, this explanation ran into a small glitch: penguins of this species do not seem to know the sex of their congeners. In fact, these clumsy birds are all the same, making it hard at first glance to know if there are more males or more females.
By applying the Lloyd Morgan canon, instead of assuming mental processes on these birds, as the idea of majority and minority would be, what would happen in homosexual mating would either be that these penguins are in fact homosexuals. , or that a male is courted by another male. and this one “went with the flow.”
2. Fight between butterflies
Competition between animals, especially males, is a well-studied behavior. The reasons that push two individuals to fight are, basically, the defense of the territory, the search for possible partners, a female or for food. In some species, the fight changes depending on the motive behind it. Fighting for a female is not the same as fighting for territory or food, because in fighting for reproductive purposes one tries to be as attractive and strong as possible.
Male butterflies also fight. In many species, two forms of fighting have been found for purported sexual purposes. One passes through the air, fighting the two males as they fly. The other occurs when there is a cocoon that is still immature but which shelters a female.
While the second way to fight seems like a woman’s way to fight, the first doesn’t have to be, and the application of Lloyd Morgan’s other canonical research has brought up a very interesting third option.
Although most butterflies exhibit sexual dimorphism, some species are unable to distinguish between males and females. It seems that sometimes a male butterfly meets another flying male butterfly, and as the sexual urge drives him to desperately seek a mate, he walks up and tries to mate with her.
Seen from the outside, and knowing the observer that they are two male butterflies, one can think that they are really fighting but what could indeed happen is that they copulate, or that the ‘one tries to force the other. Also, the physical struggle between men is usually so sweet that it resembles sex between men and women.
- Heyes, CM (1998). Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21 (1): pages 101-134
- Premack, D. and Woodruff, G. (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4: pages 515-526.
- Dennett, DC (1983) Intentional Systems in Cognitive Ethology: The Defended “Panglossian Paradigm”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6: pages 343-390.