Paper published in American Foundations and Large Scale  Research: Construction and Transfer of Knowkledge, G. Gemelli (Ed.), Eds CLUEB, Bologna, 2001, collection 'Heuresis Storia della Scienza', pp. 131-157.


The Pigeon and the Predictor

Miscarriage of a Cyborg in spite of foundations supports


 New interdisciplinary research arose from general studies concerning behavior. If behaviorism was from the 1920s onwards one of those general studies, it was not the only one. Profoundly marked by the context of its birth, the World War II scientific effort, cybernetics can also be considered as such, emphasizing the fact that it laid between social and natural sciences. There has been some misunderstandings on the relationships between behaviorism and cybernetics, mostly on the philosophical level and we have chosen to concentrate on the 1940s to throw light on this specific point.

 A special attention is also paid to the role of philanthropic foundation in this period. Actually, american private foundations often saw in behaviorism and cybernetics a way to promote interdisciplinary research. New groups of scientists were formed during World War II and the ‘cybernetics group’, as described by Steve Heims, can be considered as an archetype. It is this new scientific communities already devoted to interdisciplinary projects which received after the war the support of the Macy Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and many others. We chose to focus on the war years to show how such support has been made possible.

 A comparative study between cybernetics and behaviorism, which already existed before the war, aims not only to assess the importance of these two disciplines in the shaping of natural and social sciences in the decade following the war, but also to hint at the specific role played by foundations in the development of interdisciplinarity.

I - Behavioral studies, behavioral sciences and behaviorism

 In his classical paper entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It", published in 1913, John B. Watson (1878-1958) laid the foundations of what was to be labeled as ‘behaviorism’. There is no point in commenting on this well-known history. It would suffice for the purpose of this paper to recall that Watson wanted to finally anchor psychology in the realm of natural science, stating that "its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior". ‘Introspection’, ‘consciousness’, ‘imagery’, ‘emotion’ or even ‘mental state’ and ‘purpose’ were supposed to be banished from psychology. Watson defined behaviorism in opposition to functional psychology or structural psychology, insisting on the "uniformity in experimental procedure and in the method of stating results in both human and animal work" to prove that there was "no dividing line between man and brute".

At this time, the experiments made by the Soviet physiologist Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov (1849-1936) in the 1920s on conditioned reflexes had been largely received and commented on in the United States. A reflex was then described by an unconditioned stimulus (US, for example food) and an unconditioned response (UR, saliva). Pavlov had shown that it is possible to train the subject to respond in the same way with a ‘conditioned stimulus’ (CS, ton). In this case the unconditioned stimulus was called ‘reinforcement’. Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) had already tried to introduce objective experimental method in the study of maze solving by cats and dogs, formalizing the "trial and error learning".

These works were pursued in the 1930s by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990). He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, working at the Laboratory of General Physiology. By studying Jacques Loeb’s work, he developed the idea of engineering in biology and showed that the achievement of a goal can be learned, which meant that it is not only the contraction of a specific muscle but an ensemble of actions leading to the same single effect which characterizes a behavior.

In the second part of the 1930s, Skinner worked with rats and developed the theory of ‘operant reinforcement’, noted ‘S-R-S’ to signify that the response also depends on a stimulus which follows it, a reward being the archetype. The methods of taming already used such ideas but not under this theoretical level. Skinner often used the same setting, a rat or a bird submitted to various stimuli which could press a bar in order to get food or water, in this case the reinforced stimuli. In this setting, the results was recorded on a paper roll to analyze the time evolution. This standard experience was so reliable that it was called "skinner box" when a bird was used to action a lever.

After the publication of Skinner’s first book, The Behavior of Organisms : an Experimental Analysis (1938), it became clear that all these behavioral studies were going to exclude mental phenomena for awhile. There were, however, other studies dealing with behavior which were not behavioristic, like the work of the gestalt psychologist W. Köhler on the intelligent behaviors of monkeys. Skinner himself recalls in a kind of primer on behaviorism that he only promoted the "experimental analysis of behavior" which is a "special discipline" among behavioral sciences. In the same way, the use of structure in theoretical framework does not necessarily mean it has to do with structuralism. Even in Skinner’s work, behaviorism does not always have the same meaning. He specified in 1974 in the beginning of his book entitled About Behaviorism: "Behaviorism is not the science of human behavior; it is the philosophy of that science." It is precisely this definition of behaviorism which motivated him to participate in the war effort led by scientists, so that his behavioral studies could apply to both social and natural sciences.

II - The pigeon and the predictor

A complete reorganization of scientific research

The beginning of the war in Europe played a tremendous role on the organization of scientific research. In June 1940, Roosevelt created a federal structure, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to gather all civilian research which could be relevant to the Army or the Navy (research linked to aeronautics remained apart from the NDRC). Vannevar Bush, who had participated in the war effort during the World War I, was placed at its head. He was already president of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In May 1941, an administrative change took place : the NDRC merged together with the Committee on Medical Research into the Office of Scientifical Research and Development, a structure also headed by Bush and directly referring to Roosevelt.

This aspect of institution history explains the birth of a new kind of goal-oriented interdisciplinarity. In the preface of the famous books concerning this history, Bush declares that the OSRD enabled "an effective professional partnership of scientists, engineers, industrialists, and military men, such as was never seen before, which exemplified the spirit of America in action at its strongest and best." In another book entitled Scientists face the world of 1942 V. Bush wrote as an example of this interdisciplinarity a whole chapter on "The Case of Biological Engineering".

The main assets of the NDRC was the clear-cut division of its activity, with large autonomies, and the idea to have each division headed by the president of an important university or research center.
Division  Name  President University or Research center
Weapons and artillery  R.C. Tolman  Californian Technology University
Bombs, explosives and chemistry  J.B. Conant  Harvard University
Telecommunications and transport  F.B. Jewett  Bell Labs and National Academy of Science 
Detection, control and instruments  K.T. Compton  Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Patents and inventions  C.P. Coe  US-Commission of Patents

The military forces directly funded these institutions, most of the contracts being with MIT, CalTech and Harvard. Theses contracts represented also an opportunity to establish further contacts with private foundations. Compton, at the head of the Division D, was for instance to become a trustee of the Ford Foundation, which played an important role in the fifties for the development of behavior sciences. In the Division A, directly concerning the production of weapons, a main research area was the defense against the German bombers. Compared to World War I, the planes flew twice as fast and twice as high and were becoming almost invulnerable. The bombs over Warsaw in 1939 followed by the bombing of London from September 1940 to July 1941 was for this reason so devastating. Manual methods used for Anti-aircraft artillery were nearly useless and the shell could rarely meet the plane. Scientist concluded that in order to be effective it had to explode ‘by itself’ in the proximity of the plane. As a result, the project "proximity fuze" was the response to this problem since, as Baxter recalled "the stakes of the game were high indeed".

In the United States, research on guided missiles really became a top priority, second only to the atomic bomb project. Among the scientists engaged in this research, one finds a psychologist, B.F. Skinner.

The Pigeon

As early as 1940, during a train trip, Skinner had the idea to "bomb the bombers". James H. Capshew who wrote an article on this part of Skinner’s work, quotes this extract of one of Skinner’s autobiography :

"I saw a flock of birds lifting and wheeling in formation as they flew alongside the train. Suddenly I saw them as a devices with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability. Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting in my backyard?" Before World War II, Skinner mostly worked on animals, somewhat reluctant to an application of behaviorism in the real of human affairs. The outbreak of the war in Europe gave him the opportunity to change his mind and adventure himself out of laboratories to apply his theory. He started in the spring of 1941 to explore the feasibility of this idea and bought pigeons in order to train them to peck when they saw a target through a bull’s-eye. They were harnessed to a movable hoist and the movement of their head was operated electric motors that steered the hoist to the target. The pecking movements provide signals to the control of the missile.

Skinner demonstrated his installation to a physicist from Minnesota, John T. Tate. Highy impressed with a report on Skinner’s experiments, Tate passed it to Richard C. Tolman who was in charge of the Division Weapons and Artillery in the NDRC. Pessimistic about the outlook of the project, Tolman gave a negative answer to Skinner but the latter went on improving his experiments. After Pearl Harbor, Skinner tried a second time to approach the NDRC officials. For this purpose, he shot a film demonstrating the capacity of his pigeons. In the correspondence with Tolman, he even used the entertainment effect of the film to promote his project, proving it "would at least (…) prove to be an entertaining ‘short’.". This time, a reorganization of the NDRC would prove to be a benefit to Skinner. In March 1942, the five divisions previously listed were broken up into eighteen new ones plus an "Applied Mathematics Panel", headed by Warren Weaver specifically devoted to the mathematical problems arising in new interdisciplinary projects. At the same time, Weaver was director of Rockefeller Foundation’s Division of Natural Sciences. This foundation was very significant in terms of capital and tradition since 1909. This constituted another connection between war research and private foundations.

Besides a division for "balistic researh" (L.H. Adams) and another one devoted to "fire control" (H.L. Hazen), the division 5 "guided missile" was directly related to Skinner’s project. Nevertheless, they refused his proposition again. This time, Tolman explicitly asked Skinner to inform him on his work. The Japanese kamikaze attacks gave him new incentive to promote his work, defining his pigeons as kamikaze ‘substitutes’. One can even think that Skinner regretted that the US Air Force did not enroll kamikaze pilots when he wrote to Tate "perhaps we can get American morale that high, but if not, I can provide competent substitute".

In the summer 1942, Skinner found financial support by the General Mills Company, in Minneapolis and was granted $ 5, 000. He trained his pigeons to recognize an intersection in an aerial photograph of Stalingrad (one could be tempted to see this choice as a prefiguration of the Cold War situation). During that summer, Skinner proved that the pigeons could astonishingly remain reliable, even under stress conditions, acceleration, pressure and temperature difference, and noise. In 1940, a ‘Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory’ devoted to this kind of research on human beings was created at Harvard University. Joseph C.R. Licklider and Goerges A. Miller were among the psychologists working on humans while Skinner worked with pigeons. For instance Miller wrote an important report concerning the Transmission and Reception of Sounds under Combat Conditions. It seems nevertheless that Skinner did not meet them at this time.

With the means of a second film, Skinner reported his latest improvements and finally, after an electrical engineer was sent in Minneapolis to evaluate Skinner’s work, he obtained an invitation to Washington to present his project now labeled Bird’s-eye-Bomb. The division 5 of the NDRC decided this time to finance Skinner’s work, with up to $ 25,000. In the following months after many meetings with the NDRC officials, Skinner’s work was still far from being operative and a new wish for expertise appeared among NDRC staff members. Skinner was asked to produce quantitative data that could be analyze by Albert Hall, a specialist at the Servomechanisms Lab at MIT who served as a consultant for the decision. The division 5 headquarters were also at MIT and Skinner had to overtake their language in terms of feedback, control and communication. As Capshew reports, Skinner deplored : "The only question which arose were the inevitable consequence of our lack of information about the signal required to steer the missile".

Biological behavior had to be compared to mechanical behavior and after a series of vote and expertise, the Project pigeon was discontinued. However, Skinner’s work inaugurated a new era in behaviorism, "engineering behavior". Skinner had proven the validity of reinforcement techniques and operant conditioning, even if his project did not became operative. At this time, another attempt to participate actively to the war effort was also doomed to fail, the construction of the Anti-Aircraft Predictor (AA-Predictor), a machine which was supposed to anticipate the trajectory of a plane.

The Predictor

This machine was designed by engineer, Julian Bigelow (born in 1913), and famous mathematician, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). The latter had first tried to participate in the war effort by using the differential analyzer, an analogical computer built at MIT which could be used in many fields such as ballistics. He also considered developing incendiary bombs or new cryptology devices, but he finally got involved in anti-aircraft artillery, in a project which was funded by the NDRC and parallel to another project lead at the Bell Laboratories. His idea was to use electrical networks. As early as November 1940 he wrote to an OSRD official at MIT, Samuel H. Caldwell to explain the properties of the conceived machine in terms of extrapolation :

"This is done by a linear network into which information is put by the entire past motion of the airplane and which generates a correction term indicating the amount that the airplane is going to be away from its present position when a shell arrives at its neighborhood…" The word "information" was at the brink of becoming a scientific concept. Its meaning went beyond the common sense; it was also a mathematical entity defined in the study of time series as a statistical property. At the same time, Wiener had started to simulate the behavior of his machine for four different kinds of trajectories which in fact corresponded to four kinds of maneuvers that the pilot of the plane could try. This idea to use a machine (the differential analyzer) to simulate the behavior of another one was not part of the behaviorism agenda. Wiener wrote on this subject to his friend John B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) : "Behaviorism as we all know is an established method of biological and psychological study but I have nowhere seen an adequate attempt to analyze the intrinsic possibilities of types of behavior. This has become necessary to me in connection with the design of apparatus to accomplish specific purposes in the way of repetition and modification of time patterns." It is worth noticing that behaviorism served as a reference, but that it was not reduced to psychology. In fact, the behavioral studies Wiener wanted to deepen did not come under behaviorism. He went on in his letter to write that "no behaviorist had ever really understand behavior". The behavior of the AA predictor was indeed new for a behaviorist. They were due to both the gear’s notch of the crank and to the maneuvers of the pilot trying to escape the fire. In order to extrapolate the time series he obtained, Wiener had to filter the data. This is how he got interested in prediction theory, a field which was funded at this time by a government project headed by Julian Bigelow, an IBM engineer trained at MIT and amateur pilot. Bigelow had worked with Wiener since January 1941 and when they analyzed the behavior of their apparatus together, they concluded with this sentence "The pilot behaves like a servomechanism." They were also able to use well-known engineering sciences and restrain their work to a model of the real case made of light spot with different colors. Commenting on this analogy between two behaviors, that of the pilot and that of the servomechanism which was linked to the idea of purpose, Wiener started to generate a more general theory : "This suggests the use of such apparatus in the diagnosis of individual differences in reflex behaviors, and of pathological conditions affecting the reflex arc. Many extensions of these ideas will suggest themselves to the physiologist, the neuropathologist, and the expert in aptitude test." The AA-Predictor was quickly abandoned, in 1943, and the NDRC concentrated on the successful project of Blackman, Bode and Shannon at the Bell Labs, developed under the name M9. About a hundred of M9 were sent to Great-Britain and the model became famous when, coupled with the SCR-584 radar, it destroyed three quarters of three V1 sent by Germans during the second Battle of London.

So, in a sense, Wiener’s project was like that of Skinner’s, not of any practical use for the conduct of World War II. It is astonishing to see that Wiener finally proposed to work on reflex behaviors, a subject close to Skinner’s work. However, Wiener had introduced the idea of purpose in his behavior theory after having established the analogy with a servomechanism. The encounter with physiologists was to be decisive for the definition of this theory under the label "cybernetics".

III - "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" in the war years

The 1943 paper and its ‘making of’

One of the problems Wiener and Bigelow had to face when they worked on their simulator was the ‘hunting’ aberration: excessive feedback causes the mechanisms to overshoot its mark and to fluctuate wildly. The two scientist wondered if such a disease occurred in human behavior and met for this reason with Arturo Rosenblueth (1900-1970). Rosenblueth has been a colleague of Walter Cannon (1871-1945), the father of the homeostasis concept, at the Harvard Medical School. Wiener had met Rosenblueth as early as 1933, at ‘Harvard Supper Club’, an association Rosenblueth organized in order to devote to the study the philosophy of science. They were both interested in the unity of science and its promotion with interdisciplinary research.

To question whether there were "any physical conditions in which the patient man in trying to perform some voluntary action like picking up a pencil, overshoots the mark, and goes into a uncontrollable oscillation", Rosenblueth answered to Wiener and Bigelow by mentioning the case of purpose tremor. This became the start of an important piece of work, facilitated by the Josiah Macy Foundation which organized a conference on "Cerebral Inhibition in the nervous system" in New York. Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow presented a joint paper which was to be published the following year under the title "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology".

The paper and its first readings

"This essay has two goals. The first is to define the behavioristic study of natural events and to classify behavior. The second is to stress the importance of the concept of purpose." In these first sentences of the paper, they insist on the fact that they are proceeding to ‘behavioristic’ study, their approach is different than that of Skinnerian behaviorism.

First, instead of the reference to the elementary association between stimulus and response, they prefer the black-boxing process limited to the study of outputs and inputs. With this engineering approach, they define behavior as a result of interactions between the object and its surroundings. Rosneblueth and his associates then introduce a first distinction among behaviors, whether they are purposeful or not. If the three scientists claim that the purpose of voluntary acts is "a physiological fact", it is more a kind of legitimization. They nevertheless insist on imposing engineering vocabulary. Not only do they chose a target-seeking missile as example, but they also state that "the term servomechanisms has been coined precisely to designate machines with intrinsic purposeful behavior."

Secondly, they bring up again an engineering reference, the feed-back, to introduce teleology in their behavior classification. As they explain, feed-back has two meanings. In a broad sense, it only means that output energy is returned as input, whereas as in the restricted sense it described an object controled by the margin of error with reference to a specific goal. After commenting on a couple of examples, they conclude "Teleological behavior thus becomes synonymous with behavior controlled by negative feedback, and gains therefore in precision by a sufficiently restricted connotation" (p.24). This was quite a shock for pure behaviorists. The notion of ‘purpose’, usually attributed to human, was already among the banished words in psychology but ‘teleology’ was even graver: it had something to do with metaphysics. Miller, Galanter and Pribram recall in the late 1950s :

"In 1943 Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow shocked many psychologists by putting their very tough-minded reputations behind the assertion that machines with negative feed-back were teleological mechanisms. At that time psychologists generally regarded ‘teleological’ and ‘unscientific’ as synonymous, and it was therefore surprising to realize that machine could strive towards goal, could collect information about the difference between their intentions and their performance and then work to reduce that difference." Wiener and his colleagues had tried to prevent this shock, announcing that their classification "emphasizes the concepts of purpose and of teleology, concepts which, although rather discredited at the moment, are shown to be important." This emphasis clearly appears in the schema of the classification :

Thirdly and lastly, it appears that the three authors do not deny structural behaviorism as they seemed to do at the beginning of their paper. The classification they provide enables them to handle complex behaviors and at the end, they imagine the construction of robots "not only with a behavior, but also with a structure similar to that of a mammal." A means to this end is the use of mathematics to analyze feedback. Whereas orthodox behaviorism relied on experimental studies, Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow implicitly introduce mathematical analysis. Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow provide a kind of behaviorism which is "applicable to both machines and living organisms, regardless of the complexity of the behavior". It is also under this assumption an extension of the realm of behaviorism.

In the 1930s behaviorism had found many contradictors, mostly in Europe, who saw a science which could only be concerned with elementary activities such as reflexes. As Woodward recalls "Already in 1936, Karl Mannheim referred to Watsonian behaviorism as ‘a technique of thought by means of which all that was only meaningfully intelligible was excluded’." In a sense, Wiener, Rosenblueth and Bigelow showed it was possible to introduce these "meaningfully intelligible" objects like purpose.

The special support brought by the Macy Foundation

How does it come that this paper, published in Philosophy of Science, became so important in the history of behavioral sciences ? It is the Macy Foundation which plays here a crucial role.

As it has seen described above, American sciences were radically reorganized with the outbreak of World War II. Interdisciplinary research teams were created to achieve war objectives but there remained a large amount of scientific activity which was not linked to the war effort. Most of the scientific Journals went on during the war. In contrast to Europe the United States was the only large country which was never touched by the war on its soil. The university had to cut down their research expand and in this context, private foundations became a precious help to promote research which was not directly war relevant. Moreover, foundations were often too proud to promote disciplines which were thought not yet mature enough to receive a public support.

The Macy foundation has already been mentioned for the organization of the 1942 conference which led to the 1943 paper by Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow. It is also at this conference that Wiener met for the first time McCulloch, a philosopher and psychiatrist versed into biophysics who was working with a young mathematician to use algebra in order to represent neural nets. Among the participants, one finds anthropologists like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, as well as psychologists such as Lawrence Frank. They convinced Frank Fremont-Smith, director of the medical sciences department of the foundation to set up a series of interdisciplinary conferences on ‘inhibition’.

Established in 1930, the Macy Foundation restrained its activities to medicine, biology and social sciences. In the late 1930s, also long before the Committee on Medical Research was created, a conference on psychosomatic diseases proved to be useful to cure war injuries. There is also no principle contradiction between the kind of work promoted by the foundation and that sponsored by the NDRC or its equivalents. In the 1940s the Macy Foundation organized 132 conferences, gathering altogether 800 people. The specificity of the organization of these conferences was the idea to gather only a few scientists but many times. Interested by the ideas of the physicist L. Kast, they paid special attention to the interconnections between social and natural sciences. Heims recalls that along this approach, they had already noticed in 1937 that a feedback theory could play this role. It is only in 1946 that the series of conferences announced by Fremont-Smith four years earlier took place, under the general title "Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems". The Macy conferences were always with brief communications and long discussions, with the possibility to invite four or five new participants for each meeting. In 1949, Fremont-Smith mentioned that there was seven other groups of conferences, all of them linked to medical questions, in order to "break down the walls between the disciplines and get interdisciplinary communication." He emphasized the importance of the studies on man, whereas behaviorist preferred experiences on animals, stating that "Thus in the study of man we may find eventual unification of all the sciences".

A the same time, the Guggenheim Foundation also gave its support to this new kind of interdisciplinary research based on the study of behaviors. It provided a financial backing to the ‘teleological society’. This was the denomination proposed by Wiener in the spirit of the 1943 paper to describe an informal group constituted in January 1945 by Wiener, Aiken and von Neumann "to discuss questions of common interest and make plans for the future development of this field of effort, which as yet is not even named." The meeting did not lead to any published results but it was the opportunity to enlarge the network of scientist interested in both "communications engineering, the engineering of computing machines, the engineering of control devices, the mathematics of time series in statistics, and the communication and control aspects of the nervous system". The Guggenheim Foundation also supported Skinner in these years, granting him with a fellowship for the academic year 1944/1945 so that he could start working on a monograph dealing with verbal behavior. It was also for him an occasion to assess the importance of the aborted project Pigeon, "that piece of science fiction was a declaration of confidence in a technology of behavior" as he recalls later.

The ten meetings organized between March 1946 and April 1953 by the Macy Foundation with McCulloch as chairman were the most important. In the summer 1947 Wiener introduced the neologism "Cybernetics" which would be used to shorten dramatically the title of the conferences from 1948 onwards. From the second conference to the last, one find two behaviorist psychologist who rapidly gave their approval to the Cybernetics agenda (Donald G. Marquis and T.C. Schneirla). A decisive attack against behaviorism was to be made at the same time, at the ‘Hixon symposium’

"Cerebral Mechanism in Behavior"

The symposium on "Cerebral Mechanism in Behavior" was held at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in September, 1948. The Hixon Fund was established ten years earlier by a grant to the CalTech from the estate of frank P. Hixon. As the organizer of the congress, Lloyd A. Jeffress explains,

"Its purpose has been to support scientific endeavor which offers promise of increased understanding of human behavior. Among the projects supported by the Hixon Fund have been the following:

A Period of collaboration between Dr. Lorente de Nó of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and Dr. Leverett Davis of the Physics Department of the California Institute of Technology upon the distribution of electrical potential in nerves.

A cooperative study by members of the institute staff under the leadership of Dr. Wiersma and Dr. van Harreveld, and representatives of the California Department of Institutions, dealing with electroconvulsive therapy and wit electronarcosis as a therapeutic agent in mental disorders.

A study by Dr. David B. Tyler of treatment for cases of battle fatigue and of motion sickness.

A study by Dr. Marjory Douglis of social behavior in chickens."

This foundation was clearly engaged in the promotion of behavioral studies, but the variety of the projects shows how it was independent from mainstream behaviorism. At the 1948 Hixon symposium where a variety of people (John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, Wolfgang Köhler, Lorente de Nó and Linus Pauling) attended, Karl S. Lashley made a crucial communication in which he explained why behaviorism should be abandoned.

In a new reductionist approach, he showed that behaviorism could only supply a static view of the phenomena of behavior and of mind although there is a "background of excitation". As he states at the beginning of his paper "the input is never into a quiescent or static system, but always into a system which is already actively and organized."

This talk also introduced the basis of verbal behavior studies. It constitutes for Gardner a "crucial moment in the history of science" because of the influences it had on the network of scientist interested in interdisciplinary behavioral studies.

IV - Behavior as a label for the research promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation was chiefly interested in biology, medical and social sciences. It already supported Rosenblueth in Mexico at the National Institute of Cardiology, from 1946 onwards, but also the numerous visits Wiener made there. The foundation granted mostly foreign researchers or institutions and a large program was set up to rescue European scholars, among them in France, Léon Brillouin and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The director of the Natural Sciences division, Warren Weaver (1894-1978) was also as we noticed the chief of the Applied Mathematical Panel at the NDRC. He knew personally the main protagonists of the Cybernetics group. Like all officers of the foundation he wrote diaries which contain all of his activities, day after day. These diaries kept at the Rockefeller Archive Center constitute a valuable source to understand both the constitution of the scientists network, and the evolution of intern scientific policies.

On Monday, May 6, 1946, one can find the following report :

"John D. Rockefeller, 3rd (lunch)

Discussion of various general points concerning RF [Rockefeller Foundation] program and policy. Is there a any central purpose which unifies the various activities of the RF?"

WW [Warren Weaver] recounts the history of the discussion (since 1932) of human behavior as a central target of curiosity and investigation. R. [Rockefeller] understands howa good deal of work in NS [Natural Sciences], MS [Medical Sciences], SS [Social Sciences], and H [Humanities] is in fact directed toward an attempt to understand human behavior." (underline in the original text)

Three weeks later (May 27), the two men met again and discussed the same topic. Weaver writes to recapitulate the last meetings "These meetings are concerned chiefly with discussing an interest in human behavior as a central unifying theme of Rockefeller Foundation activities; the relationship between short-range, ‘practical,’ activities and long-range projects; and the notion of a three-way program (health, agriculture and nutrition, education) for backward countries." At this time, two months after the first Macy conference took place, behavior was not only used by Weaver for the development of analogies, it also served to define the general policy of the foundation. In this context, it can be easily understood that most of the projects related to the outburst of cybernetics received financial backing.

A young psychologist, Alex Bavelas, who just completed in 1948 his Ph.D. at MIT on Some mathematical properties of psychological space came to see Weaver in January 1950. He had been invited at the fifth Macy conference to ensure a good communication between social scientist and mathematicians. He explained to Weaver the main lines of his work on group behavior and in his two pages report, Weaver seems very enthusiastic: he speaks in terms of "absolutely fascinating experiments" and finishes stating the "this seems [to WW] extraordinarily interesting and fruitful research."

The ‘fascinating’ character of both cybernetics and behaviorism relied mainly in this ability to develop interdisciplinary projects. Both fields deserve however a careful study to understand the main differences of their development.

V- Cybernetics as a better label for interdisciplinary research?

How to compare Cybernetics and Behaviorism?

The studies related to behaviors constitute indeed one of the most fascinating domains among the large interdisciplinary projects of the 20th century. World War II is not only the context of their development, it also shaped their evolution. Behaviorism and Cybernetics both come under the general label of ‘behavioral studies’ and they are both intertwined.

Both behaviorism and cybernetics also relied on strong personalities, Wiener and Skinner, even if the former always insisted on the fact that his 1948 book was a collective work. An interesting difference is the way both scientists conceived analogies. Whereas analogy was at the basis of Wiener’s thought, Skinner seems to have always refuse to use analogies in science. Another difference concerns the institutionalization. Behaviorism was already established within psychology whereas cybernetics only existed from 1948 onwards. Nevertheless there are some common points which are worth being noticed. After World War II, the studies of behavior were not only represented in human sciences but also in engineering sciences or even mathematics, biology and physics. A common language had be defined. The integration of engineering sciences and more precisely servomechanisms theory was easier for cyberneticians who had a larger network among different disciplines. The Macy conferences always gathered two mathematicians, two neurophysiologists, two neuroanatomists, two psychologists, two engineers and two neuropsychiatrists plus various guests. The obstacle that Skinner encountered in his ‘Project Pigeon’ relied as described above on the difficulty to adopt such a common language. During the brisk development of cybernetics, roughly from 1948 to the mid 1950s, one could say that behaviorism tried to keep up with cybernetics. In Science and Human Behavior, published in 1953, Skinner also promote a "unified approach to behavioral science and engineering".

Even the project pigeon found in this general frame a kind of "peaceful continuation at the Naval research Laboratory", as Skinner recalled in 1960. The project was called ‘ORCON’, from the words ‘organic’ and ‘control’. Behaviorism benefited somehow from the institutional level of the introduction of cybernetics in the scientific landscape. In 1957, a Journal indirectly devoted to cybernetics was created with the title Information and Control. After the constitution of the International Association for Cybernetics in 1956, in Namur, Belgium, the journal Cybernetica was founded (in the first copy, in 1958, one finds a large overview written by Wiener). The same year was marked with the creation of the first journal devoted to behaviorism, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior which was to be followed ten years later by the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. About the same time, in 1959, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute was created.

The common language which characterizes these studies on behavior appeared in the 1940s and constitutes a new period of the unity of science movement. As early as 1941, Neurath published an interesting article to show how the "so-called Unity-of-Science" based on logical empiricism relied on "the analysis of our language tools for a comprehensive scientific attitude and for assembling a ‘unified science’". He noticed at this time :

"There is a trend to build up a Lingua Franca (…) which would enable us to pass from the theory of behaviour (‘behavioristic’) to geology, biology and mechanics without alteration of the type of our expressions: moreover to pass from every-day language to scientific language." This announced lingua franca is that of information theory, which plays a totally different role in cybernetics and behaviorism.

The importance of the scientific notion of information

Next to the Wiener-Bigelow project of an anti-aircraft predictor, there was (as above mentioned) the MIT project led by Bode and Blackman, as well as Shannon who was trained both as a mathematician and an engineer, also engaged during World War II in cryptology. He wrote in 1945 a confidential report entitled "A mathematical theory of cryptography" in which he gave the first general probabilistic definition of information as a scientific notion. This definition was to be applied and developed in the domain of telecommunications in an article he published in the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948, "A mathematical theory of communication" where he introduced new entities like channel capacities and redundancy immediately incorporated in linguistics. This paper was so important that Weaver was asked at the Rockefeller foundation to write a general introduction and both texts were published in a book in 1949, a famous best-seller.

Shannon and Wiener both insisted on the importance of this new definition of information and one finds in both 1948 publications cross-references. In cybernetics, information is for example used to describe the different feed-back mechanisms. More generally, information became the notion adapted to describe a black-box in a probabilistic ways, since Shannon’s definition relied on the use of Markov chains which enables an evaluation of the transition probabilities between different states.

With his project Pigeon, Skinner was tinkering in a way which did not necessitate the use the scientific concept of information. In his correspondence with NDRC officials he tried to downplay the biological nature of the bird and achieve a kind of engineering of the bird: "we have use pigeons, not because the pigeon is an intelligent bird, but because it is a practical one and can be made into a machine, from all practical points of view", as he wrote in 1944. Later in the same year, one reads

"we again wish to emphasize our belief that the pigeon – an organism essentially an extremely reliable instrument, rugged in construction, simple and economical to obtain, and easily conditioned to be entirely predictable in behavior" His prediction had unfortunately nothing to do with the mathematical theory of prediction, the designed expert declared that "his mathematical calculations of the signal characteristics were inconsistent with the empirical data". In 1960, after the declassification of his project, Skinner bitterly recalls in the description of the good tests he had with his pigeons "It was a perfect performance, but it had just the wrong effect. One can talk about phase lag in pursuit behavior and discuss mathematical predictions of hunting without reflecting too closely upon what is inside the black box." After the establishment of information theory, Skinner adopted the new lingua franca. Describing again his project in 1974, he wrote "A missile reaches its target when its course is appropriately controlled, in part by information coming from the target during its flight."

Commenting on the other project by Wiener and Bigelow, McCulloch stated about the work accomplished by Julian Bigelow :

"What Julian did contribute more surely was this, that it was not some particular physical thing such a energy or length or voltage, but only information (conveyed by any means) as to the outcome of one’s previous act that, for example, a pilot needed to fly to its destination. This I take to be the crucial and the central notion of cybernetics." Skinner never really realized this point. Other psychologists who were closer to the cybernetics group, as Heims call it, managed to bridge the gap between the two traditions of research. A collective book by Miller, Galanter and Pribram, published in 1960 is completely devoted to "the understanding of man viewed as a system for processing information."

Skinnerian behaviorism was even sharply attacked by young information theory adepts like Noam Chomsky who published his "Three Models for the description of a Language" in the Institute of Radio Engineers Transactions on Information Theory.

In 1960, in their chapter "The unit of analysis", Miller and his two colleagues conceded that they had to abandon tutelary figures like Pavlov and Sherrington, since, they could not go on with reflex as a unit of analysis. They explain with the comment to this figure :

"The interpretation toward which the argument moves is one that has been called the ‘Cybernetics hypothesis’, namely, that the fundamental building block of the nervous system is the feedback loop [footnote reference to Wiener 1948 & Wisdom 1951] the development of a mathematical theory for servomechanisms, wedded to the physiological accounts of homeostatic mechanisms, has simulated widespread discussion and speculation about devices closely akin to figure 1. The argument, therefore, moves to popular ground." The fully mechanical predictor which led to the birth of cybernetics and participated in the conceptualization of the notion of information had finally beaten the behaviorists’ pigeon.


Why should this defeat constitute the "miscarriage of a cyborg", as stated in the title of this paper? A ‘cyborg’ is according to D. Haraway a "cybernetics organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." In the realm of science-fiction (where the term ‘cyberspace’ was introduced, in 1984), everything is of course allowed. The fact that a machine is physically coupled to a human being or an animal does definitely not represent an conceptual breakthrough in the history of science. As defined by Haraway, a ‘cyborg’ could also simply be a man driving a car.

Skinner’s project with pigeons was pursued under the name ‘ORCON’, from the words ‘organic’ and ‘control’, and contrary to ‘cybernetics’, scientist never used the term ‘cyborg’. As M. Price has shown, the term ‘cyborg’ was only used in 1960 in aeronautics by Air Force contractors to promote "speculative research". It is clearly at the discursive level that ‘cyborg’ really matters. Haraway used it to legitimate her gender studies and deconstruct "Oedipal narratives of personal and collective histories", as Galison put it. The ‘cyborg’ discourse was largely used in the late 1980s and 1990s to promote postmodern theories. It intervenes in fact as variant of the Golem, the clay figure which according to the legend escaped its creator and devastated the streets of Prague, a legend which appears in the title of Wiener’s last book. This discourse aims to devastate all big narratives, whether they are issued from Marxism or Freudism or other "-isms", to advocate for an end of History. In this sense, the ‘cyborg’ discourse is nothing more than the emanation of Lyotard’s discourse on the representation crisis engendered by sciences and technologies, in which the author also used the reference to cybernetics.

Cybernetics created another discourse, much more anchored in the 1940s. Writing on the Cybernetics strategies between 1943 and 1970, Geof Bowker recently defined cybernetics as a

"a cutting-edge science, which was simultaneously proving itself in all spheres (physical, social, chemical, political, microbiological…) and proving the analytic conflation of those spheres. Cyberneticians, like other interdisciplinarians, directly appropriated both religious and political discourse, and argued that their science produced the most faithful possible description of society. Whereas traditional sciences operated behind the walls of the laboratory, cybernetics was everywhere you went." Cybernetics was as the author states a "distributed passage point", in reference to the latourian ‘obligatory passage point’. It seems at the end of our study that both cybernetics and behaviorism have been used by the philanthropic foundations not only to promote interdisciplinarity but also to find a label which could federate the different research. Cybernetics and behaviorism are now both parts of our scientific culture, even if the former is somewhat out of fashion, only subsisting with the use of the prefix cyber-. Works like that of Björn Brembs from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg rely on both disciplines and make use of the cyberspace where they are webpublished. Far from becoming a cyborg, Skinner’s pigeon flew off into cyberspace.


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Jérôme SEGAL

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