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Robert Yerkes
Born May 26, 1876 (1876-05-26)
Died February 3, 1956 (1956-02-04)
Nationality American
Fields psychology
Known for intelligence testing

Robert Mearns Yerkes (May 26, 1876 – February 3, 1956) was an American psychologist, ethologist, and primatologist best known for his work in intelligence testing and in the field of comparative psychology.

Yerkes was a pioneer in the study both of human and primate intelligence and of the social behavior of gorillas and chimpanzees. Along with John D. Dodson, Yerkes developed the Yerkes-Dodson law relating arousal to performance.


Education and early career

Robert Yerkes was born in Breadysville, Pennsylvania (near Ivyland, Pennsylvania). Growing up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Robert Yerkes wanted to leave the hard life of the rural farmer and become a physician. With the financial help of an uncle, Yerkes attended Ursinus College from 1892 to 1897. Upon graduating he received an offer from Harvard University to do graduate work in Biology. Faced with a choice of Harvard or medical training in Philadelphia, he chose to go to Harvard.

At Harvard, Yerkes became interested in animal behavior, so much so that he put off further medical training to study comparative psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in the Psychology Department in 1902.

His early career was strongly influenced by the debts Yerkes incurred paying for school. Upon his graduation from Harvard, he took up a position with the school as an instructor and Assistant Professor in Comparative Psychology. He had to supplement his income during the summer for several years by teaching general psychology at Radcliffe College. Another part-time job he took on was being the director of psychological research at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1907, Yerkes published his first book, The Dancing Mouse. Among his friends during this time was future behaviorist John Watson, with whom he exchanged ideas and collaborated. He was also a member of the Wicht Club (1903 - 1911).

Intelligence testing and Eugenics

In 1917, Yerkes served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Under his urging, the APA began several programs devoted to the war effort in World War I. As chairman of the Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, he developed the Army's Alpha and Beta Intelligence Tests, the first nonverbal group tests, which were given to over 1 million United States soldiers during the war.

The test ultimately concluded that recent immigrants (especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe) scored considerably lower than older waves of immigration (from Northern Europe), and was used as one of the eugenic motivations for harsh immigration restriction. The results would later be criticized as very clearly only measuring acculturation, as the test scores correlated nearly exactly with the number of years spent living in the US.

In his introduction to Carl C. Brigham's A Study of American Intelligence (which helped popularize eugenics in the U.S.), Yerkes warned that "no citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration." The study was based on the findings of Yerkes and Brigham regarding the alarming results of the Army intelligence tests: nearly half of the white draft (47.3%) was feebleminded (Brigham 1923, 80-86; Yerkes 1921, 785), with blacks and the newer immigrant groups achieving the lowest scores.

Although Yerkes claimed that the tests measured native intelligence, and not education or training, this claim is difficult to sustain in the face of the questions themselves: Question 18 of Alpha Test 8 reads: "Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of ... (tooth powder)(dry goods)(tobacco)(soap)." The tests themselves read like a kind of early 1900s Trivial Pursuit. (Source: Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present, 1995; pages 65–67, 109, Figure 4.4 on page 66 is Alpha Test 8, Forms 8 and 9. For more on this problem, see the link below to Stephen Jay Gould, A Nation of Morons)

Along with Edward L. Thorndike, Yerkes was a member and Chairman of the Committee on Inheritance of Mental Traits, part of the Eugenics Record Office, which was founded by Charles Benedict Davenport, a former teacher of Yerkes at Harvard. (Source: TESTING FOR ORDER AND CONTROL IN THE CORPORATE LIBERAL STATE, Clarence J. Karier, pages 108-137, Roots of Crisis: American Education in the Twentieth Century, ed. C. J. Karier, P. Violas, J. Spring. Page 112 here. See also below, Autobiography of Robert Mearns Yerkes, 1930.)

National Research Council

Immediately after World War I, Yerkes worked as a paid officer for the United States National Research Council (NRC) and took the helm of the NRC Committee for Research in Problems of Sex. The Committee for Research in Problems of Sex helped Yerkes establish close relationships with officers from Rockefeller philanthropic foundations. These relationships later helped him to solicit substantial funds for his chimpanzee projects.

Primatology pioneer

Yerkes had a long and storied fascination with the study of chimpanzees. He had spent time observing chimpanzees in Cuba at Madame Abreu's colony in the early 1920s, and had returned from the trip determined to raise and observe chimps on his own. He began by purchasing two chimpanzees, Chim and Panzee, from a zoo. He brought the two chimps home, where they lived in a bedroom and ate with a fork at a miniature table. Chim was a particular delight for Yerkes, and the summer that chimp and psychologist spent together is memorialized in Almost Human (1924).[1]

In 1924, Yerkes was hired as a professor of psychobiology, a field he pioneered, at Yale University. He founded the Yale University Laboratories of Primate Biology in New Haven, followed by his Anthropoid Breeding and Experiment Station in Orange Park, Florida with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation. After his death, the lab was moved to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and is now called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The primate language Yerkish was developed there.

Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest it was YER-keez.[2]


  • 1907, The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior
  • 1911, Introduction to Psychology
  • 1911, Methods of Studying Vision in Animals (with John B. Watson)
  • 1914, Outline of a Study of the Self
  • 1915, A Point Scale for Measuring Mental Ability (with co-authors)

See also

External links


  1. ^ Almost Human, 1924.
  2. ^ Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.
  • Yerkes, R M, "Creating a chimpanzee community. 1963.", The Yale journal of biology and medicine 73 (1-6): 221–34, PMID 11765942 
  • Stark, B P (1985), "The Robert Mearns Yerkes papers.", The Yale University library gazette. Yale University. Library 59 (3-4): 162–7, PMID 11618320 
  • Haraway, D, "The biological enterprise: sex, mind, and profit from human engineering to sociobiology.", Radical history review Spec: 206–37, PMID 11615095 
  • Burnham, J C (1972), "Thorndike's puzzle boxes.", Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences 8: 159–67, 1972 Apr, doi:10.1002/1520-6696(197204)8:2<159::AID-JHBS2300080202>3.0.CO;2-P, PMID 11609710 
  • Hilgard, E R (1965), "Robert Mearns Yerkes, May 26, 1876--February 3, 1956.", Biographical memoirs. National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) 38: 385–425, PMID 11615455 
  • CARMICHAEL, L (1957), "R. M. Yerkes, psychobiologist.", Science 126 (3272): 498, 1957 Sep 13, doi:10.1126/science.126.3272.498, PMID 13467232 
  • CARMICHAEL, L (1957), "Robert Mearns Yerkes, 1876-1956.", Psychological review 64 (1): 1–7, 1957 Jan, doi:10.1037/h0049362, PMID 13408389 
  • ELLIOTT, R M (1956), "Robert Mearns Yerkes: 1876-1956.", The American journal of psychology 69 (3): 487–94, 1956 Sep, PMID 13354820 


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