Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 853–871 | Cite as

Morgan’s Canon, meet Hume’s Dictum: avoiding anthropofabulation in cross-species comparisons

  • Cameron Buckner


How should we determine the distribution of psychological traits—such as Theory of Mind, episodic memory, and metacognition—throughout the Animal kingdom? Researchers have long worried about the distorting effects of anthropomorphic bias on this comparative project. A purported corrective against this bias was offered as a cornerstone of comparative psychology by C. Lloyd Morgan in his famous “Canon”. Also dangerous, however, is a distinct bias that loads the deck against animal mentality: our tendency to tie the competence criteria for cognitive capacities to an exaggerated sense of typical human performance. I dub this error “anthropofabulation”, since it combines anthropocentrism with confabulation about our own prowess. Anthropofabulation has long distorted the debate about animal minds, but it is a bias that has been little discussed and against which the Canon provides no protection. Luckily, there is a venerable corrective against anthropofabulation: a principle offered long ago by David Hume, which I call “Hume’s Dictum”. In this paper, I argue that Hume’s Dictum deserves a privileged place next to Morgan’s Canon in the methodology of comparative psychology, illustrating my point through a discussion of the debate over Theory of Mind in nonhuman animals.


Anthropocentrism Anthropomorphism Comparative psychology Morgan’s Canon Bias 



I am grateful to Colin Allen, Louise Barrett, Melinda Fagan, Anika Fiebich, Daniel Povinelli, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and discussion. The essay also benefitted from discussions on an early version presented at the 2011 Winter Conference on Animal Learning & Behavior. Finally, I thank the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung for the postdoctoral fellowship that partially supported this research.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of HoustonHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Ruhr-University BochumBochumGermany

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