PJAS 14 Spring-1

Justyna Włodarczyk
Beyond Bizarre: Nature, Culture and the Spectacular Failure of B.F. Skinner’s Pigeon-Guided Missiles
Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 14 (Spring 2020), pp. 7-20

Abstract: The article uses posthumanism and animal studies as a framework for making sense of B.F. Skinner’s wartime project of training pigeons to guide missiles, with emphasis on explaining the negative response of the donors and the public. The article first considers the hypothesis that the donors’ incredulity was evoked by the species of the animal. During World War II the United States began a massive program for the training of dogs for the military, and the campaign received unanimously positive publicity in the media. Possibly, thus, dogs were perceived as capable of bravery and sacrifice while pigeons were not. However, messenger pigeons had been traditionally incorporated into the war machine and were perceived as heroic. Thus, the analysis moves on to suggest that the perception of the project as ridiculous was related to the type of behavior performed by the animals: a behavior perceived as trained (artificially acquired) and not instinctive. The analysis then shifts into how the distinction between what is perceived as instinctive (natural) and learned (artificial) behavior influences the reception of different performances involving animals. Performances built around “natural” behaviors generate much stronger positive responses, even if the naturalness of these behaviors is a carefully crafted effect.

Keywords: animal studies, behaviorism, behavioral science, positive reinforcement, B.F. Skinner, pigeons, animal training, instinctive behavior, World War II, military animals, bioweapons

DOI: 10.7311/PJAS.14/1/2020.01

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