C. Lloyd Morgan

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Lloyd Morgan's Canon is both the most quoted and the most misrepresented statement in the history of comparative psychology

C. Lloyd Morgan (Conwy Lloyd Morgan) (February 6, 1852 - March 6, 1936) was a British psychologist. His experimental approach to animal psychology which helped establish psychology as an experimental science. Morgan is best remembered for his statement that became known as "Morgan's canon," which states that higher psychological processes should not be used to explain behavior that can be explained by processes lower on the evolutionary scale, without independent evidence of the use of such higher processes on other occasions. However, his Canon has often been misrepresented as a principle of parsimony like Ockham's razor, namely that the simplest process should always be invoked as the explanation for behavior, a version that was used by Behaviorists in the early part of the twentieth century to support their approach.


In more recent times, Morgan's work has been seen less as absolutely anti-anthropomorphic and anti-anecdotal and rather as promoting the use of accurate observation and recording of behavior to accompany the use of controlled experiments. At the same time, with the rise of animal cognition as an area of interest, the interpretation of his Canon has returned closer to Morgan's original intention. His ideas on "emergent evolution," initially rejected by many due to his appeal to a supplemental activity (generally interpreted as God) to natural processes of evolution, may also find their place in contemporary thought.


Conwy Lloyd Morgan was born on February 6, 1852 in London. During his childhood years he became interested in philosophy as a result of conversations with the local rector who encouraged him to read the works of Bishop George Berkeley.[1] He attended a local grammar school and then decided to attend the Royal School of Mines in London with the idea of becoming an mining engineer, at the suggestion of his father who was a lawyer with interests in several mining companies.

A chance meeting with Thomas Huxley led to an invitation to study biology with him for a year, which Morgan did after several months of travel abroad. This encouraged him to pursue an academic career and his first position was as a lecturer in Physical Science, English Literature, and Constitutional History at the Diocesan College at Rondebosch near Cape Town, South Africa.

In 1884 he joined the staff of the then University College, Bristol as Professor of Geology and Zoology, and carried out some research of local interest in those fields. However, he soon became interested in the field he called "mental evolution," the borderland between intelligence and instinct. In 1899, he became the first Fellow of the Royal Society in the field of psychology, and in 1901 became the college's first Professor of Psychology and Ethics.[2]

As well as his scientific work, Lloyd Morgan was active in academic administration. He became Principal of the University College, Bristol, in 1891 and consequently played a central role in the campaign to secure it full university status. In 1909, when, with the award of a Royal Charter, the college became the University of Bristol, he was appointed as its first Vice-Chancellor, an office he held for a year.[3]

In 1911, Morgan returned to his teaching position, which he held until his retirement in 1919 when he was made Emeritus Professor of Psychology. Following retirement, Morgan delivered a series of Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews. It was in these lectures that he developed the concept of emergent evolution, laying the foundation for his publications Emergent Evolution in 1923 and Life, Mind and Spirit in 1926.

Morgan served as president of the Aristotelian Society from 1926 to 1927. He died in Hastings on March 6, 1936 at the age of 84.


Morgan had become interested in philosophy at a young age and trained in the sciences, with a strong emphasis on biological sciences and Darwinism, in his early years. His life's work reveals both these influences, which he applied to the field that captured his interest—the growth of intelligence in the evolutionary scale. His emphasis on precise observation and experiments on animals established comparative psychology within the field of experimental psychology.

Yet his work was not typical of experimental psychologists. His interest lay in understanding the evolution of mind, and he argued that introspection is a necessary method for this pursuit. He recognized the difficulties inherent in the use of introspection, calling it "hazardous," but believed that it was possible to interpret animal behavior by reflecting on the processes of one's own mind. Morgan stated that this can be done, "or, if it cannot be done, we can learn nothing of mental development in the individual or of mental evolution in animals or in men."[1]

Trial and Error Learning

Morgan rejected excessively anthropomorphic interpretation of animal behavior, specifically the anecdotal approach of George Romanes. He was an astute observer, watching and recording the behavior of his own cats and dogs, as well as experimenting on newly hatched chicks and ducklings. He provided convincing examples of cases where behavior that apparently involved higher mental processes could in fact be explained by simple trial and error learning (a term made famous by the American psychologist Edward L. Thorndike whose proposed law of effect regarded learning as the strengthening of associations between a stimulus and an action that produced satisfying consequences). A famous example is the skillful way in which his dog opened the garden gate, easily taken by someone seeing the final behavior as an insightful act. Lloyd Morgan, however, had carefully watched and recorded the series of approximations by which the dog had gradually learned the response, and could demonstrate that no insight was required to explain it.

Morgan's Canon

Morgan is most well known for Morgan's Canon which became the mantra of psychologists, particularly the Behaviorists, in the early twentieth century. His original formulation is as follows:

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale.[4]

In other words, we should only consider behavior as, for example, rational, purposive or affectionate if there is no other explanation in terms of the behaviors of more primitive life-forms to which we do not attribute those faculties.

Morgan did not, however, mean that higher order mental processes could not exist in animals. His view was more complex than merely a statement that parsimony was always the criterion by which to judge an explanation. In the 1903 revised edition of his text, in describing his canon he not only changed the term "higher psychical faculty" to "higher psychological processes" for clarification, he also added a caveat about its application:

In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development. To this, however, it should be added, lest the range of the principle be misunderstood, that the canon by no means excludes the interpretation of a particular activity in terms of the higher processes if we already have independent evidence of the occurrences of these higher processes in the animal under observation. [5]

Emergent Evolution

The term "emergent evolution" was coined by C. Lloyd Morgan in his Gifford lectures of 1921–1922 at the University of St Andrews, published in 1923 as Emergent Evolution and later elaborated in The Emergence of Novelty in 1933. The idea had also been developed by his contemporary, the philosopher Samuel Alexander, in his Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow during 1916–1918 and published as Space, Time, and Deity,[6] both of them having based their theory in part on Henri Bergson's work published in Creative Evolution.[7]

Emergent evolution is the hypothesis that the course of evolution is not uniform and continuous, as Charles Darwin's work suggested. Rather, some entirely new properties, such as life and consciousness, appear at certain critical points, usually because of an unpredictable rearrangement of the already existing entities. The term "emergent" was first used in this context by English philosopher George Henry Lewes, who wrote: "The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference."[8] This concept is more easily understood as similar to "chemical emergence: the various observable properties of water cannot be predicted from the observable properties of hydrogen and oxygen."[9]

Morgan's earlier work had already laid the foundation for this theory:

Those evolutionists who accept this [continuity] assumption as value are logically bound to believe either (1) that all forms of animal life from the amoeba upwards have all the faculties of man, only reduced in degree and range ... or (2) that in the higher forms of life the introduction of the higher faculties has been effected by some means other than that of natural evolution.[10]

His developed version of the theory, however, was not well received due to his insistence on the need for a supplemental activity to the natural processes, namely a deity which he described as "an immanent Activity, the ultimate Source of those phenomena which are interpreted under evolutionary naturalism."[11] For psychologists who had been struggling to have their discipline accepted as a science, both in the UK and America, any form of theism was unacceptable.


The significance of Morgan's work has been eclipsed by the attention paid to Morgan's Canon, called "perhaps, the most quoted statement in the history of comparative psychology"[12] a sentiment echoed and expanded by Franz de Waal in The Ape and the Sushi Master as: "perhaps the most quoted statement in all of psychology."[13] It played a critical role in the growth of the prestige of Behaviorism in twentieth century academic psychology. Morgan's Canon has often been regarded as a specialized form of Occam's razor by virtue of its apparent presupposition of simplicity that lower level interpretations are more parsimonious than higher level ones. Thus, the canon appeared to support the view that an entity should be considered conscious only if there is no other explanation for its behavior.

However, this understanding is perhaps "the most misrepresented statement in the history of comparative psychology."[14] Morgan's argument was that one should attribute a lower process to account for a particular behavior unless there was separate evidence suggesting that the animal was capable of using a higher process and that this higher process better explained the behavior under observation. Thus, in fact, Morgan's Canon does not support Behaviorism in an absolute sense. Neither is it absolutely anti-anthropomorphic and anti-anecdotal, as many have claimed it to be. Rather, Morgan cautioned against the assumption that complex psychological processes are necessarily the explanation for all behavior; on many occasions simpler processes may suffice, while higher level processes may provide a more accurate explanation for other behaviors. Such an approach allows for complex processes in animal cognition while at the same time demanding rigorous proof of their existence.

When Behaviorism was gaining popularity as the way to establish psychology as an experimental science, the view of Morgan's Canon as anti-anthropomorphic and promoting parsimony provided support for this approach and thus persisted. In the latter part of the twentieth century, cognitive psychology became dominant and animal cognition was a topic of interest. This different "spirit of the times" no longer resonated with the misrepresentation of Morgan's Canon, and now "Morgan’s original intentions regarding the canon fit very well with the contemporary Zeitgeist."[15]

Major Works

  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. Adamant Media Corporation, 2000 (original 1894). ISBN 978-1421227757
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Animal Behaviour. BiblioLife, 2009 (original 1900). ISBN 978-1117406879
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. The Interpretation Of Nature. Nabu Press, 2010 (original 1906). ISBN 978-1172140787
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Eugenics and Environment. University of Michigan Library, 1919.
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Emergent Evolution. Chandra Chakravarti Press, 2008 (original 1923). ISBN 1443720674 online version Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Life, Mind and Spirit. Williams & Norgate, 1926. ASIN B000O1FUVO
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Mind at the Crossways. Maclachan Bell Press, 2007 (original 1929). ISBN 978-1406737578
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. The Animal Mind. Edward Arnold, 1930.
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. Autobiography of Lloyd Morgan Retrieved March 8, 2011. First published in History of Psychology in Autobiography, Volume II edited by Carl Murchison, 237-264. Clark University Press, 1932.
  • Morgan, C. Lloyd. The Emergence of Novelty. Henry Holt and Company, 1933.


  1. 1.0 1.1 C. Lloyd Morgan, "Autobiography of C. Lloyd Morgan" in History of Psychology in Autobiography Volume II ed. Carl Murchison, 237-264 (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1932).
  2. University of Bristol History of Experimental Psychology. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
  3. University of Bristol, First Vice-Chancellor appointed Timeline. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
  4. C. Lloyd Morgan, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1894), 53.
  5. C. Lloyd Morgan, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1903), 59.
  6. Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford lectures at Glasgow, 1916-1918 (1920, Nabu Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1177005388).
  7. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (1907, CreateSpace, 2011, ISBN 978-1460970478).
  8. George Henry Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind: First Series, Vol. 2 (1875, Scholarly Publishing Office, 2005, ISBN 978-1425555788), 412.
  9. Edwin G. Boring, "Morgan, Conwy Lloyd" International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968, Thomson Gale, 2008) Retrieved May 30, 2011.
  10. C. Lloyd Morgan, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (Adamant Media Corporation, 1894).
  11. C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (1923, Chandra Chakravarti Press, 2008).
  12. Donald A. Dewsbury, Comparative Psychology in the Twentieth Century (Stroudsburg, PA: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984), 187.
  13. Franz de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master (Basic Books, 2001, ISBN 978-0465041763).
  14. Roger K. Thomas, "Lloyd Morgan’s Canon" in Comparative Psychology: A Handbook edited by Gary Greenberg and Maury M. Haraway (Routledge, 1998, ISBN 978-0815312819), 156.
  15. Roger K. Thomas, "Lloyd Morgan’s Canon: A History of Misrepresentation." History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive (2001). Retrieved April 25, 2011.


External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2016.


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