— version 2015-08-23
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional HPSC X755 — History & Philosophy of Comparative Cognition
Meeting time: Mondays 1:00-3:30; Location: Goodbody 107
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Instructor: Colin Allen <> Goodbody 113 Mondays 11-noon, Tuesdays 4-5 pm

Course Description

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 a selection of original texts with the goal of identifying the philosophical presuppositions 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 current disputes by examining the historical sources of the presuppositions of key participants in those disputes.


All readings are will be provided electronically. Older items (pre 1928) are available from multiple sources, including the HathiTrust Digital Library, Project Gutenberg, and the Internet Archive. Where available, author's self-archive links or direct journal links will be provided (may require IU authentication) Other items will be made available in Canvas.

This is a research class and a lot of what we do will require you to pursue your own lines of investigation, including picking readings for your classmates. Hence the schedule is not filled in past the first half of the semester.

You may also want to look at these books for background reading on historical and philosophical issues:

  • Boakes 1984 From Darwin to Behaviourism
  • Allen & Bekoff 1997 Species of Mind
  • Burkhardt 2005 Patterns of Behavior
  • Radick 2007 The Simian Tongue
  • Shettleworth 2012 Fundamentals of Comparative Cognition
  • Andrews 2015 The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition


Grades are based on overall contributions in the classroom via weekly responses posted in the online forum, two scheduled classroom presentations, and a research paper that you will deliver in two steps: a draft due at the beginning of November, and the final paper due during finals week.

You are also encouraged to collaboratively take class notes using IU Box at

Paper Topics

You will develop a paper topic in consultation with me by mid-October. Your topic selection allows a lot of latitude within the general frame of History & Philosophy of Science. Thus you may choose to address historical questions concerning specific individuals, experiments, episodes, or intellectual trends in comparative cognition, or you may address conceptual questions concerning current theoretical disputes among scientists pursuing comparative cognition projects.

Here's a list of current topics that provides a start for thinking about the latter kind of project. I can suggest readings on any of these. Perusing the contents of the journal Animal Cognition may also be a source of ideas.

  • Concepts such as: instinct, reasoning, habit, anthropomorphism, parsimony, general laws, communication, emotion, consciousness
  • Cognitive capacities such as: memory, tool use/making, theory of mind, abstraction, causal reasoning, metacognition, episodic memory and prospective planning, self-awareness, mirror self-recogntion, morality.
  • Boundaries of cognition, such as: reptiles & fish, invertebrates, groups/colonies/swarms, and even micro-organisms and plants


Note that readings more than three weeks out are tentative, and may be changed.

Statement for Students with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact IU Disability Services for Students.

Statement about Academic Misconduct

University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details. You will also be required to review materials and take the test at IU School of Education plagiarism tutorial. The College of Arts and Sciences also provides a guide to "Plagiarism: What it is and How to avoid it"