Sex, neurosis and animal behavior

Dissertation: Sex, Neurosis and Animal Behavior

Sex, Neurosis and Animal Behavior:

The Emergence of American Psychobiology

and the Research of W. Horsley Gantt and Frank A. Beach


Psychobiology was an emerging interdisciplinary subject on the border of psychology and biology in the United States in the early twentieth century. Its development during the interwar decades and the ways in which psychobiologists promoted the study of sexual behavior is the subject of this dissertation. Psychobiology had many adherents and took diverse forms. One of the most important advocates of psychobiology was Adolf Meyer at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who was influenced by William James and the Darwinian tradition that James himself drew upon. An overview of the evolutionary framework of modern psychological theory leads to a survey of American psychobiological programs, with particular emphasis on the work of Meyer. Two programs in American psychobiology are chosen for closer analysis: the research programs of W. Horsley Gantt and Frank A. Beach, each of whom made pioneering studies of sexual behavior and of the differences between males and females. Part of a larger psychobiological tradition that attempted to integrate the sciences of physiology, psychology and psychiatry for mutual benefit, Gantt and Beach were among those who proposed innovative methods for describing and explaining sexuality from a comparative and evolutionary perspective during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Gantt, a Pavlovian physiologist, described sexuality in terms of conditional reflexes, acquired response patterns that adapted an organism to its environment. Beach, a pioneer in the study of hormones and behavior, likewise studied sexuality in terms of acquired response patterns and evolutionary fitness. Both argued that new physiological approaches were necessary for rethinking the science of sexuality, for identifying the unique attributes of the sexes, and for determining the characteristics of sexual pathology throughout the animal kingdom. Their research provided the biological evidence that supported the controversial claims of Alfred Kinsey, America’s foremost sexologist in the mid-twentieth century.

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