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Animal consciousness in cognitive ethology
592 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 Bekoff explain1.


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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 [Escribir texto] 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.

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