Conway Lloyd Morgan

The English comparative psychologist and social evolutionist Conway Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936) was one of the first to consistently apply the experimental method in observing animal behavior. To interpret animal behavior he formulated his "law of parsimony."

On Feb. 6, 1852, C. Lloyd Morgan was born in London. He attended the Royal School of Mines in London, the Royal College of Science, and the University of Bristol, receiving doctorates in science and in law. He taught for five years at the Diocesan College in Rondesbosch, South Africa. On his return to England in 1884 he joined the University of Bristol as professor of geology and zoology, and three years later he became principal. In 1910 he assumed the chair of psychology and ethics.

One of the major problems raised by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was that of animal psychology. There was need for a continuity based on similarities between different animal forms, including similarities between man and the animals. At that time workers dealing with animal behavior ascribed complex and complicated humanlike motivations to the behavior of the nonhuman animals they observed, tending to "read" animal behavior motivations that were in the workers' minds but not necessarily in the minds of the animals they observed. This was called the anthropomorphic or anthropopsychic interpretation of animal behavior.

These early workers also relied on reports of animal behavior from untrained and uncritical observers. Imagination and superstition distorted their accounts. This careless way of collecting information, relying on stories instead of establishing criteria to distinguish fact from fancy, was called the anecdotal method.

It was to these two offenses against scientific accuracy and integrity that Morgan addressed himself. Somewhat unjustly he singled out George John Romanes, a friend of Darwin, as a primary target. Romanes, who coined the phrase "comparative psychology," attributed to animals as much intelligence as their acts would justify. His Animal Intelligence (1882) was the first comparative psychology ever written. Morgan reacted against Romanes in Animal Life and Intelligence (1890-1891), later revised and retitled Animal Behavior (1900); he held that "one should, in such a situation, attribute as little intelligence as their acts would justify."

In his best-known work, Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1894), Morgan sought to counteract the errors inherent in the anecdotal method, particularly the error of anthropopsychic interpretation. In this book is his famous canon of interpretation: "In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale." He derived this "law of parsimony" from William of Ockham's razor. Considered by some to be of little value as a scientific tool, Morgan's canon had some validity in offsetting a bias of interpretation. He used it as a corrective to the inaccuracies resulting from the twin evils of anthropopsychic interpretation and the anecdotal method, as exemplified in Romanes's works.

In 1920 Morgan became emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Bristol. He was the first person honored by the Royal Society for scientific work in psychology. In his Gifford Lectures he expounded his philosophy of emergent evolution, basing the books Emergent Evolution (1923) and Life, Mind and Spirit (1926) on them. Mind at the Crossroads (1929) and The Emergence of Novelty (1933) followed.

As a philosopher or social evolutionist, Morgan was interested in the relation of science to philosophic issues. He felt that it was essential to create a metaphysical system within which the naturalistic demonstration of evolution might be placed. He believed that there was one continuous process called evolution, which at irregular intervals was interrupted by discontinuities or critical turning points. These points are distinguished by the abrupt appearance of "emergents." Successive emergents progress evolutionarily as a "pyramidal scheme." This evolution is jumpy rather than uniformly continuous. The emergence of consciousness, he believed, came about not by design or plan but by chance.

On March 6, 1936, Morgan died at Hastings, England.


Further Reading on Conway Lloyd Morgan

Excerpts from Morgan's Introduction to Comparative Psychology are in William S. Sahakian, Psychology: A Source Book in Systematic Psychology (1968). His autobiography is in History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 2, edited by Carl Murchison (1932). For Morgan's place in psychology see Edwin G. Boring, History of Experimental Psychology (1929), and Boring's "The Influence of Evolutionary Theory upon American Psychological Thought" in Stow Persons, ed., Evolutionary Thought in America (1950).