Morgan’s Canon, meet Hume’s Dictum: avoiding anthropofabulation in cross-species comparisons

Biology and Philosophy 28 (5):853-871 (2013)
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Abstract

How should we determine the distribution of psychological traits—such as Theory of Mind, episodic memory, and metacognition—throughout the Animal kingdom? Researchers have long worried about the distorting effects of anthropomorphic bias on this comparative project. A purported corrective against this bias was offered as a cornerstone of comparative psychology by C. Lloyd Morgan in his famous “Canon”. Also dangerous, however, is a distinct bias that loads the deck against animal mentality: our tendency to tie the competence criteria for cognitive capacities to an exaggerated sense of typical human performance. I dub this error “anthropofabulation”, since it combines anthropocentrism with confabulation about our own prowess. Anthropofabulation has long distorted the debate about animal minds, but it is a bias that has been little discussed and against which the Canon provides no protection. Luckily, there is a venerable corrective against anthropofabulation: a principle offered long ago by David Hume, which I call “Hume’s Dictum”. In this paper, I argue that Hume’s Dictum deserves a privileged place next to Morgan’s Canon in the methodology of comparative psychology, illustrating my point through a discussion of the debate over Theory of Mind in nonhuman animals

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Cameron Buckner
University of Houston

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