episode #108 creatures of cognition

Daffodil growing on the top of stone wall

Questions about the nature of cognition and the relationship between the knowing mind and external reality have been debated by philosophers since antiquity starting with Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s approach to the study of the mind suggested that people understand the world by first identifying basic principles buried deep inside themselves, then using rational thought to create knowledge. This viewpoint was later advocated by philosophers such as Rene Descartes and linguist Noam Chomsky. It is often referred to as rationalism.

Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that people acquire knowledge through their observations of the world around them. Later thinkers such as John Locke and B.F. Skinner also advocated this point of view, which is often referred to as empiricism. Aristotle focused on cognitive areas pertaining to memory, perception, and mental imagery. He placed great importance on ensuring that his studies were based on empirical evidence, that is, scientific information that is gathered through observation and conscientious experimentation.

Two millennia later, the groundwork for modern concepts of cognition was laid during the Enlightenment by thinkers such as John Locke and Dugald Stewart who sought to develop a model of the mind in which ideas were acquired, remembered and manipulated.

A formal field of study devoted solely to the study of cognition emerged as part of the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s. This field is known as cognitive psychology.

Cognitive processes are influenced by a range of factors, including genetics and experiences. 

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin avoided comparing humans with other animals, as well as foregoing any discussion of the evolution of psychological capacities. In his follow up book, The Descent of Man (1871 [second edition 1874]), Darwin turned to compare the psychological capacities across species. In introducing Chapter 3 (chapter 2 in the first edition), he wrote:

If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed. But it can be shewn {arch. of shown} that there is no fundamental difference of this kind. We must also admit that there is a much wider interval in mental power between one of the lowest fishes, as a lamprey or lancelet, and one of the higher apes, than between an ape and man; yet this interval is filled up by numberless gradations. (Darwin 1874: 65, with a couple of minor variations 1871: 34–35).

Darwin’s talk of higher and lower suggests that some animals are less intelligent than others, and that humans, with our advanced mental powers, are on top. But that interpretation is in contrast with how comparative psychologists like to think about animals, as different rather than as higher or lower. Furthermore, in The Origin Darwin insisted that evolution by natural selection is non-hierarchical—just changes in response to the environment rather than a gradual improvement from lower to higher beings.

The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests that there will be differences as well as similarities across species. Just as Darwin’s finches have different beak shapes depending on the food available on their island, psychological difference should be expected given different environmental pressures. Thus, a Darwinian approach to animal cognition will emphasise differences as well as similarities. 

While Darwin may be seen as the progenitor of modern animal cognition research, many other scientists have played a role, leading to the vibrant interdisciplinary research we see today.

Comparative cognition is the scientific study of animal cognitive capacities that recognises humans as animals and acknowledges that all animals are evolved biological organisms. It also recognises that there are species-specific capacities as well as individual differences, and that these capacities are a part of the natural world that can be studied using familiar scientific methods. 

A community radio midnight show Through the Bohemian Looking Glass is aired Sunday, Tuesday and Friday night at midnight (GMT), that means you stay late on Saturday, Monday and Thursday. A new episode is aired every Sunday midnight (the night between Saturday and Sunday) on Wirral Wave radio or AirTime. Later on SoundCloud for some time.