History of Research on Animal Intelligence

The March 2010 issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences includes an history of psychology related article. Authored by Sofie Lachapelle (left) and Jenna Healey, the article documents investigations of so-called wonder animals by French psychologists and psychical researchers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The authors are argue that as animal feats came to be explained as the result of deceptive practices, investigations of the cognitive abilities of animals declined.

“On Hans, Zou and the others: wonder animals and the question of animal intelligence in early twentieth-century France,” by Sofie Lachapelle and Jenna Healey. The abstract reads:

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the advent of widespread pet ownership was accompanied by claims of heightened animal abilities. Psychical researchers investigated many of these claims, including animal telepathy and ghostly apparitions. By the beginning of the twentieth century, news of horses and dogs with the ability to read and calculate fascinated the French public and scientists alike. Amidst questions about the justification of animal cruelty in laboratory experiments, wonder animals came to represent some extraordinary possibilities associated with their kind. Psychologists speculated on the feats of wonder animals. They considered the possibility that these animals shared consciousness and intelligence with humans, and that—if confirmed—their alleged amazing abilities could lead to a new understanding of cognition for all animals. This article focuses on the few years during which claims of wonder animals occupied a significant place in French psychology and psychical research. It argues that as explanations involving deception or unconscious cues gained increased acceptance, the interest in wonder animals soon led to a backlash in comparative psychology that had repercussions for all animals, particularly those used in experimentation, in that it contributed to the decline of research addressing cognitive abilities in non-human species.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.