Animal consciousness in cognitive ethology
670 visits since 07/02/2016
Goizane Rodriguez Barroso
Animal rights, Ethics, Consciousness
In the second half of the 20th century non human animal behavior started to be studied in
cognitive terms. Comparative psychologists and ethologists studied perception, learning,
categorization, memory, spatial cognition, numerosity, communication, language, social cognition,
theory of mind, causal reasoning, and metacognition in non human animals. Cognitive ethology
arose. I will introduce this concept, its methodology, and its areas of study, as Colin Allen and Mark
Do you want to know more?
Register to read more articles like this
Cognitive ethology is the comparative, evolutionary, and ecological study of animal
thought processes, beliefs, rationality, information processing, and consciousness. Its roots are
in biologists like Charles Darwin, an anecdotal cognitivist, and some of his contemporaries and
disciples. They had interest in evolutionary theory, mental continuity, individual and intraspecific
variation, the mental worlds of animals, natural history, and attempts to field studies, in the
conditions and environment in which natural selection has occurred or is occurring. Cognitive
ethologists, as well, prefer field studies of animal cognition.
Cognitive ethology is highly influenced by philosophy. Typically, philosophers of mind
have developed their theories anthropocentrically and have applied those theories only secondarily
to questions about animal mentality. Cognitive ethologists, however, study and compare nonhuman
mentality and human mentality, with a consideration of the evolution and biological continuity
between them. A basic assumption is that some organisms, humans included, have mental states .
Cognitive ethology is i nterdisciplinary and favors pluralism, it is influenced by ethology,
comparative and cognitive psychology, and philosophy. The questions being asked (and perhaps the
animals being studied) drive the selection of the type of description (and other methods) that should
1 Colin Allen and Mark Bekoff, Species of Mind. The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology , MIT Press
paperback edition, 1999
be used. The explanatory constructs provided by the application of cognitive science to ethology are
conceptually richer than Lorenzian constructs such as “actionspecific
energy” and “drive”.
Cognitive ethologists do not study learning and memory alone. They are concerned with the diverse
solutions that living organisms have found to common problems, and they attempt to sustain a
viable, empirical research program to concepts such as belief and consciousness. In cognitive
ethology, i ntentionality is an important concept, they make a difference between actions and other
movements. In other words, between what an animal does and what happens to it. They use detailed
descriptive information about subtle behaviour patterns and neuroethological data, they consider
behavioral evidence necessary for the interpretation of anatomical or physiological data in
assessments of cognitive abilities.
Cognitive ethologists emphasize broad taxonomic comparisons, they do not focus on a few
select representatives of a limited number of taxa. And they consider important to avoid
generalizations at the level of “nonhuman
animals” or at species level of explanation, to take
individual differences seriously. They claim that generalizations can be misleading and that they are
often based on studies of a very few individuals or on small data sets. I t is important to know
about the sensory world of the animals whose behavior one is studying. For example, which
stimulus can motivate an animal? Sensory ecology is useful here, that is, the study of the
relationships between normal ecological conditions and differences between the capabilities of
animals to acquire, process, and respond to information. Allen and Bekoff propose naturalizing the
methods of study by taking the animals' points of view, in other words, communicating with them
on their terms.
Among the topics in which cognitive ethology is interested, there is bee communication;
studies of language in primates, cetaceans, and psittacines; tool use; food caching and recovery;
teaching; imitation; and selfrecognition.
About ape language and studies in which mirrors have
been used to study selfrecognition,
Allen and Bekoff prefer waiting to future research in wild
animals instead of in captives.
Descarga el artículo completo en PDF