Alaska Dog Works

Influential People in the Development of Learning Theory Part I

By Robert Forto

Huxley and Darwin

It is unclear when formalized studies of learning actually began, however, Professor Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) birthed the theory of association in the early 1870’s.  Professor Huxley stated that “It may be laid down as a rule, that, if any two mental states be called up together, or in succession, with due frequency and vividness, the subsequent production of one of them [mental states] will suffice to call up the other, and that whether we desire it or not.” This observation may very well have laid the groundwork for later studies in respondent and operant conditioning.  Huxley was an outspoken advocate of the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  The professor was so passionate in his defense of Darwin’s theories that he was often referred to as “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

In Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Professor Huxley’s influence was evident in Darwin’s observations of the emotions of man and animals.  When studying animal expression Darwin was vividly aware of the challenges associated with those observations.  He writes, “The study of expression is difficult, owing to the movements being often extremely slight, and of a fleeting nature.”Nevertheless, Darwin’s careful observations were of immeasurable value to later researchers.  Darwin continued where Huxley left off by recognizing that movements, no matter how complex, can be performed with little or no forethought and minimal efforts when they have been performed with enough frequency.  This premise was the foundation for Darwin’s Principle of Antithesis, which reasons, that states of mind lead to the performance of “habitual actions”, when a “directly opposite” state of mind occurs, there is a “strong and involuntary” tendency to perform movements and actions of a “directly opposite nature”.  This principle is of special interest to observers of canine communication techniques, and can help the astute observer decipher the signal being sent and received by a canine, whether it is intra- or interspecies communication.  Darwin states further  “that gestures and expressions are to a certain extent mutually intelligible.”

Darwin speaks of his own dog’s “hot-house” face and reasoned that the opposite expression displayed by his dog was innate and not a deliberate attempt at communicating his desire to not go to the “hot-house.” He further states, “hence for the development of the movements which came under the present head, some other principle, distinct from the will and consciousness, must have intervened.”

While the vast majority of canine communication is accomplished via body language, there is some evidence that canines posses at least a limited verbal vocabulary.  While most canines in the wild do not bark, but howl, this is not the case for the domesticated canine.  According to Darwin “…some animals after being domesticated have acquired the habit of uttering sounds which were not natural to them.  Thus domesticated dogs, and even tamed jackals have learnt [sic] to bark, which is a noise not proper to any species of the genus with the exception of the Canis latrans of North America, which is said to bark.”  In regard to the Principle of Antithesis “the bark of anger, and that of joy are sounds which by no means stand in opposition to one another;…”  This lack of observable difference between barks is likely the reason that canines rely on body language so extensively.  Canine body language has been studied extensively and is well documented.  These postures or lack of them have been discussed in-depth in chapter three.

This is will be a multi-week series on the influential people in learning theory and the dawn of modern dog training.

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