International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-1420
Organized session / standard talks
Are you a romantic or killjoy? (2) Issues in comparative psychology

Rachael Brown (Macquarie University, Australia)


Rachael Brown (Macquarie University, Australia)
Marta Halina (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)
Hayley Clatterbuck (University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States)
Kristin Andrews (York University, Canada)
Simon Fitzpatrick (John Carroll University, United States)

Comparative psychology has been disparagingly described by some as a field of “romantics” and “killjoys”; some researchers being keen to attribute human-like mental states and cognition to non-human animals, and others arguing that to do so is anthropocentrism. This session brings together five researchers working in the philosophy of comparative psychology offering different perspectives on the “romantics” and “killjoys” debate. Each of the researchers will present an aspect of their most recent work followed by an open panel discussion.

Standard talks
Explanatory constraints in comparative psychology
Marta Halina
The problem of bias is central to discussions of research on nonhuman animal behavior and cognition. This problem is often framed in terms of how to identify and avoid anthropomorphic and anthropocentric tendencies in the interpretation of experimental results. In this talk, I draw on general work in mechanistic philosophy of science in order to reframe the problem of assessing bias within comparative psychology. Using research on visual perspective taking as a case study, I show how the constraints on good explanation are often greater than supposed in the literature. Evidence from recent studies in psychology and neuroscience allow us to narrow down the range of how-plausibly mechanisms available for explaining visual perspective taking abilities in nonhuman animals. In addition, comparative research facilitates the discovery of differences and similarities in the mechanisms underlying visual perspective taking in humans and nonhumans. When assessing the available explanations of experimental results in comparative psychology—whether romantic or killjoy—one would be remiss not to take these additional sources of evidence into account. Doing so, however, limits the role of bias in this domain.

What the crow cannot do: Assessing the “signature-testing” approach to comparative psychology
Rachael Brown
New Caledonian Crows manufacture and use tools and have been shown to be impressive causal problem solvers. Though it is clear from empirical work to-date that neither a “romantic” nor “killjoy” explanation of this behavior is wholly vindicated, the exact nature of New Caledonian Crow cognition remains unclear. In an attempt to some empirical traction on this issue, a new approach to corvid research has been proposed – “signature testing” (Taylor, 2014; Taylor & Gray, 2014). In contrast to focusing on successes (i.e. what the crows can do), under this new approach experimenters explicitly set out to search for errors, biases and limits to the capacities of their subjects (i.e. what the crows can’t do), and then use both of these features of crow behaviour to look for cognitive similarities between corvids and humans. In this paper, I critically assess this approach and consider its broader utility for avoiding killjoy and romanticism disagreements in comparative psychology.

Panel discussion
Romantic or killjoy: Where to from here?
Kristin Andrews, Hayley Clatterbuck, Simon Fitzpatrick, Marta Halina, Rachael Brown
This 30 minute panel Q and A session will focus on general issues raised by the five preceding papers. It will offer the speakers and the audience a chance to give general comments and feedback on the session topic and further comments on particular papers.