The Greatest Psychologist

Drum roll please…..and the winner is…..

Charles Darwin!

This is a fascinating argument, which I have seen made implicitly but never as directly and as comprehensively as this. After all, many of the pioneers of psychology and psychiatry (William James, Edward Thorndike, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, Sigmund Freud) embraced a Darwinian interpretation of human mind.

The HuffPo article is a bit misleading, however, because it gives the impression that Charles Darwin was a guiding light throughout the rise of psychology as a science.  He was not.  Even in Darwin’s time, Wilhelm Wundt, widely considered one of the founders of experimental psychology, rejected Darwin’s account of the evolution of emotion. The early history of psychology in the late 19th century was dominated by a debate between Wundt’s anti-Darwinian “structuralism” and James’s Darwin-inspired “functionalism.”

In the 20th century, psychology came to be dominated by the “behaviorism” of J.B. Watson, a movement that systematically and comprehensively expunged Darwinian thinking from psychology. Watson, with the help of thinkers such as Jacques Loeb and Franz Boas, also pushed Darwin from the social sciences generally, although this situation has been partially reversed in the past 20 years.

Ironically, the behaviorists were famous for relying upon studies of animals–especially the white rat–to develop general “laws of learning” that were assumed to apply to humans as well as animals.  This is a gambit widely used in biology, as seen in the use of pea plants or fruit flies or maize to study principles of inheritance, squid axons to study how nerve cells transmit signals along their length, or bacteria to infer principles of genetic recombination. All of these have led to insights that have proved broadly true for other organisms, including human beings. This “model organism” gambit works. The reason it does is because of one of Darwin’s key insights: that evolution works through a process of “descent with modification”–a genealogical process whereby traits, once evolved, get passed down, albeit with modification, as species diversify through time. Thus, the behaviorists may have rejected Darwinism, but it is because of a process discovered by Darwin that their methods produced general and lasting insights into how learning works.


About ethologist

Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University
This entry was posted in Animals, Cognitive Science, Ethology, Nature of science. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Greatest Psychologist

  1. Pingback: Carving Nature | Ethologist

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