The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Morgan's canon, Garner's phonograph, and the evolutionary origins of language and reason fn1

a1 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH, UK


‘Morgan's canon’ is a rule for making inferences from animal behaviour about animal minds, proposed in 1892 by the Bristol geologist and zoologist C. Lloyd Morgan, and celebrated for promoting scepticism about the reasoning powers of animals. Here I offer a new account of the origins and early career of the canon. Built into the canon, I argue, is the doctrine of the Oxford philologist F. Max Müller that animals, lacking language, necessarily lack reason. Restoring the Müllerian origins of the canon in turn illuminates a number of changes in Morgan's position between 1892 and 1894. I explain these changes as responses to the work of the American naturalist R. L. Garner. Where Morgan had a rule for interpreting experiments with animals, Garner had an instrument for doing them: the Edison cylinder phonograph. Using the phonograph, Garner claimed to provide experimental proof that animals indeed spoke and reasoned.

fn1 This paper was awarded the Society's Singer Prize for 1998.

fn2 I am grateful to Simon Schaffer, Robert Richards, M. J. S. Hodge and several anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts, and to the organizers and participants at the ISHPSSB conference, Oaxaca, July 1999, where a version of this paper was presented.