George John Romanes (1848-1894), a friend and student of Darwin, wrote a book called Animal Intelligence (1882) in which he compared the mental abilities of animals from snails to humans. Romanes used what he called ejective inference : the assumption of similarity between animal minds and human minds.

What was Romanes's "ejective inference"?

Starting from what I know subjectively of the operations of my own individual mind, and the activities which in my own organism they prompt, I proceed by analogy to infer from the observable activities displayed by other organisms what are the mental operations that underlie them. (Romanes, 1883/1977, in Roitblat, 1987)

How did Romanes rationalize his reliance upon anecdotes?

Romanes's method of gathering data was to collect anecdotes (stories such as would appear in a brief newspaper article or a letter from a friend). Anecdotes are not a very scientific form of evidence, and Romanes knew this, but he felt that if he sifted through the anecdotes for the best and most revealing, it would be helpful in generating hypotheses for later scientific study.

What does it mean to "anthropo- morphize"?

This belief that animals had similar mental processes justified Romanes's "ejective inferences." Romanes did not hesitate to anthropomorphize or project human qualities upon animals. For example, Romanes would refer to a rat that had just been freed from a cage as happy and carefree. The mental life of a rat was assumed to be like that of a human in the same situation, minus only language.

Romanes' attitude is still common. Humans find it natural to project our own experiences into animal minds. Consider the following excerpt from a report in the Science section of the New York Times (Angier, July 24, 2007):

The similarities between us and Rattus extend far beyond gross anatomy. They’re surprisingly self-aware. They laugh when tickled, especially when they’re young, and they have ticklish spots; tickle the nape of a rat pup’s neck and it will squeal ultrasonically in a soundgram pattern like that of a human giggle. Rats dream as we dream, in epic narratives of navigation and thwarted efforts at escape...

Rats can learn to crave the same drugs that we do — alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamine — and they, like us, will sometimes indulge themselves to death. They’re sociable, curious and love to be touched — nicely, that is. If a rat has been trained to associate a certain sound with a mild shock to its tail, and the bell tolls but the shock doesn’t come, the rat will inhale deeply with what can only be called a sigh of relief.

Each of the reporter's anthropomorphic claims is based on a research finding. Researchers are usually reluctant to go the last mile and infer such human-like experiences. To the reporter, and most humans, ejective inference comes naturally.

Romanes's reliance upon anecdotes and his tendency to project human qualities upon animals was popular with the public, but it was not endorsed by most American psychologists. At the time, in the 1890s, they were trying hard to make psychology more scientific. They saw Romanes's approach as a step backward toward folk science and speculation.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey