Yerkes was a college student during the 1890s, the same decade in which comparative psychology first emerged as a separate discipline. In 1894, German philosopher-psychologist Wilhelm Wundt published his Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, which helped establish animal research as a respectable field of study. That same year, British psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan published An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, which helped to set the agenda for animal studies to come. Among other topics, Morgan discussed habit formation and instinctive behavior.
In the late 1890s, at Clark University, Linus Kline and William S. Small began work that led to the first psychological studies of rats navigating mazes. Around the same time, at Harvard University, Edward L. Thorndike produced his classic thesis, "Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals." Most of Thorndike's thesis dealt with learning in dogs, cats, and chicks. During this decade, then, the groundwork was laid for the kind of research on animal learning that would become so important in future decades.
By 1899, courses in comparative psychology were being taught at the University of Chicago and Clark University. Both Clark and Harvard University also had laboratories devoted to the field. The stage had been set for a period of rapid growth and progress, and Yerkes was poised to help lead the charge into the twentieth century.
The first years of the new century were a golden age in comparative psychology. In an article in American Psychologist, Dewsbury outlined three core issues that were explored during this period: the evolution of instinctive behaviors, the relationship between behavior and development, and the nature of intelligence and other higher mental processes. These issues are still at the heart of comparative psychology today. In fact, according to Dewsbury, "one might argue that all of 20th-century comparative psychology is but a footnote to this period and a series of attempts to resolve issues that were brought into focus at this time."
By the early 1900s, a whole generation of comparative psychologists was being trained at universities around the country. Early on, comparative psychology appeared to be headed for a central role in the still-young science of psychology. The leading psychologists of the day were eager to show that psychology was every bit as scientific as chemistry or physics. Comparative psychology, with its close ties to biology, seemed to be custom-made for this purpose. Soon, however, the tide began to turn. Psychologists started to focus on proving their usefulness by finding practical applications for their work. As Yerkes himself found during his tenure at Harvard, applied psychology became the surest path to job advancement. Comparative psychology suddenly seemed much less appealing to ambitious young psychologists.
Comparative psychology survived the crisis. For several decades, it served as a training ground for psychologists who went on to work in other fields. By the 1930s, comparative psychology had re-established itself as a separate discipline, although it never recovered the brief prominence it had enjoyed at the turn of the century. Today, it remains a relatively small specialty; it does overlap considerably with other fields, however, such as experimental psychology, physiological psychology, neuroscience, and ethology.
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