Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021

A close-up

I think a lot of these points come together in Chapter 6, which is called “Animal Intelligence.” The title gives a pretty good sense of what’s in there: scientists trying to figure out how all kinds of non-human animals learn to solve problems and navigate their environments.

Aside from the fascinating stories, the chapter will give readers a window onto how far afield these debates about method really got. Because it shouldn’t be obvious that someone studying a rat in a maze is also, at the same time, thinking carefully about the foundations of science. But that’s the story, that’s what they were doing.

Working within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the founders of what was called “comparative psychology” at the time were convinced that you could explain even the highest levels of cognition by appealing to an evolutionary process. And if you believe that, then there’s a story to tell connecting the rat in the maze to the scientist studying that rat. Both of them are, in some sense, engaging in an experimental procedure based in trial and error.

Of course, there’s a difference between what rats do when they hunt for cheese and what scientists do when they write on their clipboards. A big difference. But the fact that it’s a difference of degree, rather than kind, really mattered to these psychologists.

Seeing the roots of your own method “out there” in other animals started to naturalize that method. Comparative psychologists could appeal to this natural history of method as a way to say “See—I’m solving problems in my field the way they’re meant to be solved!”

Like I said, there are problems with this approach. Taken too far, it implies that a rat or a kid or a politically motivated skeptic has as much authority as a trained scientist.

But we don’t have to take it that far. In the next chapter, on the application of these ideas in schools, we see how this inclusive approach to scientific thinking got translated into a successful curriculum that’s still being used in science education today.

However, this approach got shorn of its context. Once it started moving around without the natural history that buttressed it, that’s when we start to see this idea of “the scientific method” emerge as science’s brand, as a way to separate it from society.