Craig, Wallace

views updated


(b. Toronto, Canada, 20 July 1876;

d. Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 25 April 1954), ethology, animal psychology.

Craig’s comparative studies of the behavior of pigeons provided special insights into the nature of instincts and their role in the social life of birds. His ideas had an important influence in the 1930s, via Konrad Lorenz’s instinct theory, on the conceptual foundations of the young science of ethology.

Early Development . Craig was born to a Scottish father and an English mother. He attended high school in Chicago and from there went on to study at the University of Illinois, where he majored in zoology and wrote a bachelor’s thesis titled “On the Early Stages of the Development of the Urogenital System of the Pig.” Such morphological research had no lasting appeal for him, however. More to his liking were the kinds of research promoted by his zoology professor, the pioneer ecologist Stephen Alfred Forbes, who stressed the importance of studying living nature instead of laboratory specimens.

After receiving his BS degree in 1898, Craig was appointed resident naturalist at the biological field station that Forbes had established at Havana, Illinois. His job was to make systematic collections of plankton and fish at various locations on the Illinois River and adjacent waters. He found, however, that the techniques at his disposal failed to reveal much about the lives of the fish. Deciding that animal psychology was the subject that interested him most and that the best place to pursue it would be at the University of Chicago under Charles Otis Whitman, he enrolled as a graduate student at Chicago in 1901, after receiving his MS degree at Illinois earlier the same year for a thesis titled “On the Fishes of the Illinois River System at Havana, Ill.”

Whitman, Craig’s chosen mentor, was a biologist of great distinction and a pioneer in the study of animal behavior. At the time Craig came to study with him, Whitman was engaged in reconstructing the history of the pigeon family through an analysis of the heredity, variation, and development of the structural and behavioral characteristics of different pigeon species and their hybrids. Craig took Whitman as the model for his own scientific practices and thinking. He conducted his doctoral research on pigeons in Whitman’s personal aviary.

Craig chose as his dissertation topic the vocal expressions of pigeons, as exemplified in the blond ring dove (Turtur risorius). He provided a detailed description of the sounds and body movements of the bird in all stages of its life and over the course of its annual and breeding cycles. Craig envisioned this work as preliminary to a larger comparative study of the sounds and gestures of different pigeon species. He expected this research would illuminate problems of animal psychology and sociology as well questions of heredity, development, and evolution.

Pigeon Instinct and Behavior . Craig’s mentor, Whitman, was best known to later students of animal behavior for his recognition that instinctive behavior patterns could be used just like structures and organs to reconstruct the evolutionary history of a group of related organisms. Craig’s own most significant work dealt less with reconstructing phylogenies than with analyzing pigeon social behavior and the nature of instinctive behavior generally. In 1908, the year that he finished his dissertation, Craig published in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Voices of Pigeons Regarded as a Means of Social Control.” His goal was to explain how social influences, acting upon the instinctive machinery and limited learning abilities of individual pigeons, permit the organization of pigeon society to be remarkably flexible and adaptable. It was not sufficient, he maintained, to regard the individual animal as a being endowed with a set of social instincts. One had also to understand the way that the instincts of many individuals are brought into harmony in the animal society as a whole. With an emphasis on the role that bird song played in directing the behavior of other birds, but with mention of how colors, bodily structures, specific behavior patterns, and various expressions of emotion also served in this capacity, he explained how avian social behavior is structured.

Craig argued that the mating cycle of ringdoves is a mutual process in which the actions of each bird have to be finely tuned to those of the other. In pigeons, he allowed, there is always a ceremony prior to pairing. Through this, both the female and the male are made ready for the mating process, a complicated cycle of behavior patterns that involves copulation, egg-laying by the female, sitting on the eggs by both parents, and then feeding of the young. For all this to happen, Craig said, the birds have to go through the whole sequence of activities in the proper order and at the same time.

In the course of his paper on avian sociology, Craig also called attention to some of the features of the phenomenon that the Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz would later make famous under the name “imprinting.” Young doves, Craig reported, do not recognize instinctively their own kind. Under normal circumstances, they learn the form, colors, gestures, and call notes distinctive of their species through contact at an early age with their parents. However, when eggs of wild species are hatched by the domestic ringdove, the young raised by the ring-doves thereafter associate with ringdoves and seek to mate with them instead of with members of their own species. Whitman had exploited this phenomenon as a means of hybridizing different species. Craig cited it as an example of how social influences interact with instincts in creating a harmonious bird society.

In the fall of 1908, Craig went to the University of Maine to teach philosophy and psychology. In his first years there he continued to publish the results of his graduate research. In 1911, one of his papers described the social behavior of the passenger pigeon, a bird that was virtually extinct. In another paper the same year, he discussed the influence of the male bird in stimulating oviposition in the female. He found this influence to be more psychological than physiological. In ringdoves, he had reported in 1909, the female’s egg-laying does not depend upon actual copulation with the male. The male’s mere presence—or, alternatively, stroking of the female by the experimenter—can induce the female to lay eggs.

The most important publication of Craig’s career was his 1918 paper, “Appetites and Aversions as Constituents of Instincts.” There he made a critical distinction between the appetitive behavior that initiates an instinctive behavior cycle and the “consummatory action” by which the cycle is concluded. He defined an “appetite” as “a state of agitation which continues so long as a certain stimulus, which may be called the appeted stimulus, is absent” (p.91). As he explained, once the animal receives the stimulus for which it has been searching, the stimulus elicits a consummatory action or reaction, causing the appetitive behavior to cease and leaving the animal in a state of relative rest.

At the time that Craig wrote, instincts were commonly viewed as chains of innate reflexes. He readily acknowledged that innate reflex actions are a part of instinctive behavior patterns, but he insisted there was more to the story. By his account, appetites, not reflex actions, were what set instinctive behavior cycles going in the first place. Furthermore, the reactions at the beginning or in the middle of the cycle were often not innate but instead had to be learned at least in part through experience. The only part of the cycle that was always innate was the consummatory action, the end of the sequence.

Fighting Behavior . Among Craig’s other publications was a 1921 paper, “Why Do Animals Fight?” He wrote this paper to refute various writers who cited biological facts and arguments to justify human warfare. He was not the only author to object to such claims. A number of biologists before him had argued that Darwinian evolutionary theory did not sanction militarism. But Craig’s approach was different. Instead of couching his argument in terms of evolutionary theory (which he regarded as too speculative), he turned to empirical evidence concerning animal fighting. He acknowledged that animals fight their own kind. The question at issue, he said, was why they do so. His approach to the subject, consistent with all that he had learned from Whitman, was to consider fighting as a form of behavior that needed to be analyzed in the context of the entire life history of a particular species and then addressed further through comparison with closely related species. Not surprisingly, Craig’s choice for his discussion was the pigeon family, the long-term focus of his scientific attention.

The primary conclusion Craig drew from his pigeon studies was that pigeons have no special appetite for fighting. A pigeon does not seek the fighting situation, he reported, nor does it seek to prolong the situation while engaged in it. Fighting is a negative reaction or aversion— a way of getting rid of a bothersome stimulus. The bird has appetence for such other things as water, food, mates, and nest, and it shows distress when it is unable to secure them, but it never shows an appetence for enemies or for battle.

Disappointments . Craig’s discussion of instincts attracted the favorable notice of two influential psychologists: William McDougall (in his An Outline of Psychology [1923 and subsequent editions]) and Edward C. Tolman (in his Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men [1932]). Likewise, Craig’s analysis of the social function of bird calls was featured by the linguist Grace Andrus de Laguna in her book, Speech: Its Function and Development (1927). Craig’s own career, however, did not benefit from this attention. Soon after arriving at Maine he had found that financing a pigeon-centered research program required more monetary resources than he could muster. The university was unable to provide him money for his research, and he had no other resources upon which to draw. By 1920, he was actively trying to find a new post. Seeking the freedom and support to complete a monograph, “Social Behavior and Emotional Expression in the Blond Ring Dove and Other Pigeons,” he tried unsuccessfully to get a one-year research position at Charles B. Davenport’s Station of Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

Craig left Maine in 1922, not because he had found a new position but because he was losing his hearing and felt that his effectiveness as a classroom teacher had suffered because of it. He taught animal psychology as a visiting lecturer at Harvard in the spring of 1923. He hoped to find a research position in zoology. What he found instead was work as a librarian at Harvard University. He spent four years in the Department of Biophysics of the Cancer Commission of Harvard Medical School and two more years at Harvard College Library. Thereafter he seems to have had no steady employment. He and his wife lived for two years in Scotland before moving in June 1937 to Albany, New York, where Craigs longtime friend, Charles C. Adams, then director of the New York State Museum, promised to help him publish a monograph on the song of the wood pewee. The monograph appeared in 1943.

Influence . Although Craig was without scientific employment in the 1930s, his ideas on instinct were put to significant use in that decade by the young Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz. Craig and Lorenz, put in contact with each other by the American ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice, were corresponding by early 1935. Lorenz depended heavily on his ongoing exchanges with Craig in constructing his important, programmatic paper of 1937, “The Establishment of the Instinct Concept.” Craig’s analysis of appetitive behavior helped Lorenz realize that the active organism is not simply responding to external stimuli in a chain-reflex fashion but is instead seeking the stimuli that release its instinctive behavior patterns. Lorenz’s use of Craig’s ideas proved to be selective, however. For example, he failed to pick up on Craig’s denial that animals have an appetite for fighting. In later writings, most specifically in his popular book, On Aggression, first published in German in 1963, the Austrian ethologist represented aggression as an instinct that builds up in the organism and needs to be discharged.

Delivering a lecture in 1951 at Harvard on animal behavior, the British ethologist William H. Thorpe expressed appreciation of the important early contributions to the field made by the American biologists Charles O. Whitman, William Morton Wheeler, and Wallace Craig. Although the audience was a large one, only one or two people in the room seemed to know who Craig was. Thorpe, who supposed that Craig was dead, was astonished to find that Craig was not only alive but actually in attendance at the lecture.

Craig had come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Albany in 1944. There, with the support of a grant from the American Philosophical Society, he lived an impoverished existence while working on a manuscript titled “The Space System of the Perceiving Self.” He never completed the work, however, and as of 2007 it was not known whether any copies of it still exist. He and his wife moved to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1953. He died there the following year from pancreatic cancer.

Craig’s career illustrates some of the problems of attempting to pursue a career as a student of animal behavior in the first third of the twentieth century. His work was of high quality, but he lacked the confidence and resources needed to be a discipline builder at a time when the disciplinary status of animal behavior studies remained uncertain. Nonetheless, his theory of instinct played an important role in Lorenz’s classic formulation of the 1930s regarding how instincts work. Craig’s work stands as an early milestone in the study of instincts and of the interplay between instincts and social influences in animal life.


The Library of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has a copy of Craig’s unpublished BS thesis, “On the Early Stages of the Development of the Urogenital System of the Pig” (1898). The Forbes Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey at Havana, Illinois, has a copy of Craig7rsquos unpublished MS thesis, “On the Fishes of the Illinois River System at Havana, Ill.” (1901). For Craig’s scattered manuscript correspondence, see the archives listed in Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior, p. 490. A nearly complete list of Craig’s published writings is to be found in Kalikow and Mills, below.


“The Voices of Pigeons Regarded as a Means of Social Control.” American Journal of Sociology 14 (1908): 86–100.

“The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons. I. The Blond Ring Dove (Turtur risorius).” Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 19 (1909): 29–80.

“The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons. II. The Mourning Dove (Zenaidura macroura Linn.).” Auk 28 (1911): 398–407.

“The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons. III. The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius Linn.).” Auk 28 (1911): 408–427.

“Oviposition Induced by the Male in Pigeons.” Journal of Morphology 22 (1911): 299–305.

“Appetites and Aversions as Constituents of Instincts.” Biological Bulletin of the Marine Biological Laboratory34 (1918): 91–107.

“Why Do Animals Fight?” International Journal of Ethics 31(1921): 264–278.

“A Note on Darwins Work on the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology 16 (1921–1922): 356–366.

“The Song of the Wood Pewee Myiochanes virens Linnaeus: A Study of Bird Music.” New York State Museum Bulletin no. 334 (1943): 1–186.


Burkhardt, Richard W., Jr. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Devotes a chapter to the work of Whitman and Craig and its relation to subsequent developments in ethology.

De Laguna, Grace Andrus. Speech: Its Function and Development. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1927.

Kalikow, Theodora J., and John A. Mills. “Wallace Craig (1876–1954), Ethologist and Animal Psychologist.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 103 (1989): 282–288.

McDougall, William. An Outline of Psychology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.

Tolman, Edward C. Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Century Company, 1932.

Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.

About this article

Craig, Wallace

Updated About content Print Article