Nick Haslam reviews 'Ivan Pavlov: A Russian life in science' by Daniel P. Todes

Conventional wisdom has it that Ivan Pavlov made dogs salivate to the sound of a bell, discovered the conditioned reflex, and laid the foundations for behaviourism, an austere creed that ruled the mind to be off limits for science. Almost all of this is false. Pavlov’s bell was in fact a sophisticated adjustable buzzer. The ‘conditioned reflex’ is a mistranslation: reflexes are instead ‘conditional’, occurring only under certain conditions. Pavlov, no behaviourist, saw his scientific work as a pathway to understanding ‘our consciousness and its torments’. His goal was not to reduce mind to mechanism but to use the tools of digestive physiology to comprehend the complexity of psychological functions and individuality. As the distinguished medical historian Daniel Todes writes in this superb biography, the salivary glands were to Pavlov a window into the psyche.

The only correct feature of the popular image of Pavlov is the iconic dogs. He dabbled in other creatures during his long career, including a disastrous involvement with mice and a more positive experience with a pair of chimpanzees. At one point he resisted a recommendation from Alfred Nobel to study giraffes. But Pavlov always returned to his faithful dogs, which he regarded with unrestrained anthropomorphism. As Todes astutely notes, Pavlov had ‘a long-standing practice of interpreting dogs as people and people as dogs’. A keen student of canine temperament, he observed that dogs came in many distinct ‘nervous types’, but they were all members of a species that was uniquely suited to his mode of experimentation.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Published in December 2016, no. 387

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.