Raccoons & Scientific Biography

The September 2010 issues of The British Journal for the History of Science and Isis each contain an article on the history of psychology. The former journal features an article by Michael Pettit on the history of the raccoon as a psychological research subject and why the animal failed to attain prominence in the discipline in the way of rats and pigeons. In Isis historian of science Michael Sokal uses the case of early American psychologist James McKeen Cattell to argue that scientific biography can be enhanced if one puts to use the insights derived from modern psychology. Also in this issue of Isis is a review of Alexandra Rutherford‘s book Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behaviour from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s by Jill Morawski. AHP has previously discussed Beyond the Box here, here, and here. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“The problem of raccoon intelligence in behaviourist America” by Michael Pettit. The abstract reads:

Even during its heyday, American behaviourist psychology was repeatedly criticized for the lack of diversity in its experimental subjects, with its almost exclusive focus on rats and pigeons. This paper revisits this debate by examining the rise and fall of a once promising alternative laboratory animal and model of intelligence, the raccoon. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, psychological investigations of the raccoon existed on the borderlands between laboratory experimentation, natural history and pet-keeping. Moreover, its chief advocate, Lawrence W. Cole, inhabited the institutional and geographic borderlands of the discipline. This liminality ultimately worked against the raccoon’s selection as a standardized model during the behaviourist era. The question of raccoon intelligence was also a prominent topic in the contemporaneous debates over the place of sentiment in popular nature writing. Although Cole and others argued that the raccoon provided unique opportunities to study mental attributes such as curiosity and attention, others accused the animal’s advocates of sentimentalism, anthropomorphism and nature faking. The paper examines the making and unmaking of this hybrid scientific culture as the lives of experimenters and animals became entangled.

“Scientific Biography, Cognitive Deficits, and Laboratory Practice: James McKeen Cattell and Early American Experimental Psychology, 1880–1904” by Michael Sokal. The abstract reads:

Despite widespread interest in individual life histories, few biographies of scientists make use of insights derived from psychology, another discipline that studies people, their thoughts, and their actions. This essay argues that recent theoretical work in psychology and tools developed for clinical psychological practice can help biographical historians of science create and present fuller portraits of their subjects’ characters and temperaments and more nuanced analyses of how these traits helped shape their subjects’ scientific work. To illustrate this thesis, the essay examines the early career of James McKeen Cattell—an influential late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century experimental psychologist— through a lens offered by psychology and argues that Cattell’s actual laboratory practices derived from an “accommodation” to a long-standing “cognitive deficit.” These practices in turn enabled Cattell to achieve more precise experimental results than could any of his contemporaries; and their students readily adopted them, along with their behavioral implications. The essay concludes that, in some ways, American psychology’s early twentieth-century move toward a behavioral understanding of psychological phenomena can be traced to Cattell’s personal cognitive deficit. It closes by reviewing several “remaining general questions” that this thesis suggests

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.

2 thoughts on “Raccoons & Scientific Biography

  1. Raccoons are still important. Neocortical representation in raccoon re coati nicely reflects their habits of hand vs nose when fiddling for food, with elaborated paw areas vs nose areas in the two procyonids. Wally Welker, late of Neurophysiology at U Wisc, discovered this, and I cite it in the Festschrift book Anthropologists gave me. My citation:
    Jerison, H. J. (2001) The study of primate brain evolution: Where do we go from here? In Falk, D. & Gibson, K. (Eds.) Evolutionary anatomy of the primate cerebral cortex, Pp. 305-337. Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press.
    In that article I also present another bit of history on the Lashley-McCulloch-von Bonin-Halstead Chicago discussion group of the early ’30s on brain and behavior. That was partly to credit von Bonin with regression analysis of brain-body allometry but also to disassociate myself from accusations of a belief in Lashley’s “mass action.” Foolishly, I called Welker’s effect “proper mass,” though I also pointed out that Lashley was probably no more than half wrong.

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