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Contents

  1. What is cognitive ethology?
  2. Initial criticisms of cognitive ethology
  3. Links between philosophy and cognitive ethology
  4. Folk psychology and cognitive ethology
  5. Cognitive ethology and philosophy of mind:
    consciousness, theory of mind, and evolutionary psychology

1. What is cognitive ethology?

The simplest characterization of cognitive ethology is that it is the marriage of cognitive science [1] and ethology. [2] But simple characterizations of any marriage should never be trusted, and this one masks some fundamental tensions between the two partners.

Cognitive science is an umbrella term for convergent approaches to the study of mind in linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and, increasingly the neurosciences. Cognitive psychology emerged during the latter half of the 20th century primarily as a laboratory science. Countless thousands of undergraduate students have partially met course requirements by reporting to fluorescent-lighted, windowless rooms in the basements of campus psychology buildings, where they have been subjected to questions about everything from nonsense syllables to subliminal visual cues, all in an effort to probe the inner workings of the sophomore mind. Modern neuroscience, with the advent of fMRI is increasingly shepherding these same students into brightly-lit rooms where they can perform similar tasks while their heads are encased by large magnets.

Classical ethology has, on the other hand, typically emphasized the importance of observing animals under more-or-less natural conditions, with the objective of understanding the evolution, adaptation (function), causation, and development of the species-specific behavioral repertoire (Tinbergen 1963). The idea that one might learn anything of biological interest about an animal by isolating it in a box and bombarding it with artificial stimuli runs counter to the general spirit of the discipline.

To be sure, Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the founders of ethology for which they would share a Nobel prize in 1973, did not always go far afield to conduct their studies. But whether the topic was stickleback mating displays, or the egg-rolling behavior of the greylag goose, the behaviors under study were not stimulated by the artificial bells and whistles of animal learning theorists, nor was pressing a bar to get a food reward considered part of the species-typical ethogram.[3] Nevertheless, classical ethology was the product of the contemporary behaviorist millieu, and the founders of ethology generally had little positive to say about the possibility of understanding the inner workings of animal minds by scientific methods.

Cognitive ethology was thus something of a shotgun marriage when Donald Griffin coined the term over 20 years ago in connection with his agenda of getting scientists to face up to questions about mental states, including consciousness, in nonhuman animals. And (if I may be forgiven for riding this metaphor into the ground), like any marriage there have been naysayers who have predicted that it would never last, along with well-wishers who have tried to help the married couple along (surveyed by Bekoff & Allen 1997). Even as cognitive ethology approaches its silver anniversary, there are still those who think it is a show marriage only, having spawned little of lasting value, although there are just as many sincere well-wishers.

Griffin's distinguished scientific career at the Rockefeller University in New York was built upon analysing the physics and physiology of bat echolocation. But by the mid 1970s he felt compelled to break out from the strictures imposed by behaviorism, which inhibited discussion of the internal mental states of animals. There are two major planks to Griffin's agenda for cognitive ethology, both of which have come under attack. One plank is theoretical: it concerns the kinds of questions that scientists should be asking about animal minds. According to Griffin, scientists should no longer ignore questions about the intentionality, thoughts and conscious experiences of animals. This theoretical plank of Griffin's program has been attacked on the grounds that mentalistic, folk-psychological notions such as "thought" and "consciousness" are too imprecise or for serious scientific investigation. The other plank is methodological: it concerns the ways in which scientists should go about answering questions about animal minds. Here Griffin argues that our best chance for answering such questions comes from observing animals under natural conditions solving the kinds of problems for which their intelligence has become adapted by evolution. This methodological plank has been attacked on the grounds that such observations lack the controls required for proper hypothesis testing.

Clearly there is the possibility of accepting, rejecting, or extending each part of Griffin's program independently and to varying degrees. Thus there are those who are sympathetic to Griffin's methodological orientation while dubious of his theoretical attachment to folk psychological terms, while there are others who believe that topics such as intentionality in animals are legitimately studied, but only under tightly-controlled laboratory conditions. There is considerably more controversy about consciousness as a legitimate object of investigation than about intentionality, for instance. And while most scientists agree that both field and laboratory investigations of animal behavior are important, they disagree on the relative importance and power of each for testing hypotheses.

These foundational issues will be pursued further in the following sections. But it should be clear from the discussion so far that the boundary between cognitive ethology and other approaches to the scientific study of animal cognition is likely to be fuzzy. Among philosophers who have minimal acquaintance with the science, the label "cognitive ethology" is sometimes used quite loosely to connote any scientific investigation of animal learning or cognition, regardless of the methodological biases of the investigators, or their interest (or lack of interest) in notions like consciousness, or the level of attention to evolutionary questions. Thus, for example, comparative psychologists working exclusively with chimpanzees born and raised in captivity are sometimes considered by philosophers to be doing cognitive ethology, when really the practitioners of these studies have little sympathy for either the methods or the objectives of cognitive ethology. Among scientists, the label "cognitive ethologist" is most frequently reserved for those who adopt both planks of Griffin's program, and especially for those who embrace his willingness to entertain questions about animal consciousness. Many scientists who regard the topic of consciousness as a philosophical quagmire, and there is considerable reluctance to be associated with cognitive ethology even among those who are sympathetic to other aspects of Griffin's program such as its emphasis on observing animal behavior under ecologically significant conditions. Thus, in his introductory chapter to the book Animal Cognition in Nature: The Convergence of Psychology and Biology in Laboratory and Field, co-editor Alan Kamil claims to be uncomfortable using the label "cognitive ethology" to describe the naturalistic studies of animal cognition represented in that volume, even though he admits that it would otherwise be an appropriate description of that work.

While there is almost certainly nothing to be gained from a turf war about who is legitimately called "cognitive ethologist", it is important for philosophers interested in animal minds to understand the methodological and theoretical differences among the various scientists studying animal behavior.

In an attempt to anchor cognitive ethology firmly on its classical ethology base, Jamieson & Bekoff (1993) show how Tinbergen's four questions about the evolution, adaptation, causation and development of behavior can be applied to the cognitive and mental abilities of animals. On the other side of the equation, Yoerg & Kamil attempt to show the affinities between cognitive ethology and cognitive psychology. Likewise, Allen & Bekoff (1997, chapter 5) attempt to show how cognitive ethology can take on the central questions of cognitive science, taking as their starting point the four questions described by by Barbara Von Eckardt in her 1993 book What is Cognitive Science? Generalizing the four questions and adding a fifth, Allen & Bekoff come up with the following list:

  1. For a normal, typical member of the species, what precisely is the capacity to _____?
  2. In virtue of what does a normal, typical member of the species have the capacity to _____ such that the capacity is (a) intentional, (b) pragmatically evaluable, (c) coherent, (d) reliable, and (e) productive?
  3. How does a normal, typical member of the species typically (exercise his or her capacity to) _____?
  4. How does the capacity to _____ of the normal, typical member of the species interact with the rest of his or her cognitive capacities?
  5. Why do members of the species typically have the capacity to _____?

The addition of the fifth question to this list introduces questions about biological functions, the selective history, and current adaptiveness of a behavioral trait which must be answered within an evolutionary and comparative framework. Such questions are not often considered by cognitive scientists. In this way, cognitive ethology has the capacity to make a distinctive contribution to cognitive science.

2. Initial criticisms of cognitive ethology
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(Some of the material in this section is drawn from the more extensive discussion of the reception of Griffin's work to be found in Allen & Bekoff 1997.)

Strong initial criticism of Griffin's work is to be found in published reviews of his books. The mood is captured by this quote from Helena Cronin:

A Griffin bat is a miniature physics lab. So imagine the consternation among behavioristic ethologists when Mr. Griffin came out a decade ago, with "The Question of Animal Awareness," as a sentimental softy. . . . For Mr. Griffin, all this [cleverness] suggests consciousness. He's wrong. If such cleverness were enough to demonstrate consciousness, scientists could do the job over coffee and philosophers could have packed up their scholarly apparatus years ago.

Many of the earliest attacks on Griffin's program by his scientific colleagues gravitated towards two issues: a perceived anthropomorphism in the application of folk psychological notions to animals, and worries about the ill-defined nature and ultimate unobservability of folk-psychological notions.

In his review of Griffin's first book, Nick Humphrey plays the anthropomorphism card:

Away with critical standards, tight measurements and definitions. If an anthropomorphic explanation feels right, try it and see; if it doesn't feel right, try it anyway.

Humphrey, like several other critics, writes as if the only choice is between unconstrained, fuzzy-minded use of anthropomorphism on the one hand, and the total elimination of anthropomorphism on the other. In fact, however, anthropomorphism can be a useful heuristic serving to focus attention on questions about animal behavior that might otherwise be ignored (Asquith 1984) and can be used in a rigorous way to assist theory construction and to motivate empirical research projects (see Burghardt 1991 for a discussion of what he calls "critical anthropomorphism"). John Fisher provides a sophisticated analysis and discussion of what he calls "the myth of anthropomorphism" which is sufficient to rebut most of the more simple-minded charges of anthropomorphism raised against Griffin's attempts to revive scientific interest in animal minds. From many of Griffin's critics, the charge of "anthropomorphism" is question-begging, for the attribution of human-like mental qualities to nonhumans is incorrect only if they genuinely lack those qualities. The question of whether animals lack the mental properties is precisely what is at issue, so it can't simply be assumed that it is unreasonably anthropomorphic to consider the question of animal minds.

Other attempts to dismiss Griffin's program in a summary fashion are often based on contentious philosophical claims about the nature of mental events and our access to them. For instance, referring to the second edition of Griffin's first book, the renowned evolutionary biologist, George C. Williams writes:

Vitalism today can be recognized in the psycho-physical dualism of some neural and behavioral biologists (e.g. Griffin 1981), who claim that explanations must make use of explicitly mental factors in addition to the merely physical. Griffin's concession (1981, p. 301) that the mental depends on the physical is difficult for me to interpret. If he means total dependence there is no longer any reason to make use of mentalism in biological explanation ... "

and:

I am inclined merely to delete it [the mental realm] from biological explanation, because it is an entirely private phenomenon, and biology must deal with the publicly demonstrable.

Such criticisms reveal a lack of familiarity with developments in contemporary philosophy of mind. The idea that dependence of the mind on physical facts entails its eliminability is of course untenable given the availability of token-identity theories of mind. For the same reason, dualism does not follow from the ineliminability of mentalistic explanations. Arguments against cognitive ethology that depend on the philosophically contentious notion of the privacy of mental phenomena are an similarly shaky grounds.

Although modern "neo"-behaviorists are comfortable attributing some relatively simple internal states to animals, a lingering effect of behaviorism among many of them is the belief that that such states should either be operationally defined in terms of behavioral observations, or, if that is not possible, eliminated altogether from the science. Since there is not general agreement on how to define mentalistic notions, they are often disqualified on this basis. There is also a residual suspicion that acceptance of concepts such as mind, belief, consciousness, and so on, automatically commits one to dualism - a view, of course, that philosophers rejected long ago. Philosophers, especially those used to dealing with philosophically-sophisticated cognitive psychologists, are sometimes surprised that such attitudes prevail in other corners of psychology departments, as well as being widespread among behavioral biologists. Probably we philosophers have only ourselves to blame for not having made the lessons arising from the demise of positivism widely accessible. It is now generally accepted among philosophers of science that theories are not strictly logical constructions from pure observations, because there is a complex interplay between theory and observation with each playing important roles in the scientific process. Accordingly, theories that make reference to unobservable theoretical entities may be justified by inference to the best explanation, and there is no particular reason to treat mental states differently from the "unobservables" of any other science.

Some of the most virulent attacks on cognitive ethology can thus be seen to be based on discredited views about the relationship between mind and body, and about the relationship between theory and evidence. But, to balance the equation, some philosophers have shown themselves to be equally uneducated about animal behavior. More sophisticated treatments of cognitive ethology have depended upon close collaboration between philosophers and ethologists.

3. Interdisciplinary links between philosophy and cognitive ethology
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Cognitive ethology is somewhat unusual in that it has seen significant interdisciplinary collaboration between ethologists and philosophers. In fact the connection between cognitive ethology and philosophy predates Griffin's first book. Interactions between Griffin and his Rockefeller University colleague Thomas Nagel directly stimulated Griffin to write his 1976 book about animal awareness. Given Griffin's expertise in bats, it can hardly be counted a coincidence that Nagel's seminal paper, published in 1974 in the Journal of Philosophy, is titled "What is it like to be a bat?"

Because Nagel's paper predates Griffin's work, it is not surprising that it has nothing to say about cognitive ethology per se, but the paper does make a general claim about the inability of objective science to deal with the essentially subjective nature of conscious experience. If Nagel's argument is sound, then of course it applies as much to human psychology or neuroscience as to cognitive ethology. A full discussion of this dispute lies outside the scope of this article, but Allen suggests some reasons for doubt about the scope of Nagel's arguments with respect to cognitive ethology. More on the relevance of Nagel's arguments to cognitive ethology is in section 5 below.

The first time a philosopher's attention was directed specifically towards cognitive ethology can perhaps be traced to Daniel Dennett's presence at workshop in Dahlem, West Germany, in 1980 that was convened by Donald Griffin. Also present at the workshop were the ethologists Dorothy Cheney & Robert Seyfarth whose fieldwork on the communicative abilities of vervet monkeys formed the core of their 1990 book How Monkeys See the World and Carolyn Ristau, who was working on the injury-feigning display of piping plovers. Dennett subsequently wrote about cognitive ethology in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in an article that featured plovers and vervets. He also visited the Cheney/Seyfarth research site in Kenya and wrote about the difficulties of implementing his methodological suggestions in his 1987 book.

Marc Hauser and Colin Allen met when we were both graduate students in Los Angeles. Hauser's doctoral advisors were Cheney and Seyfarth, and he was conducting research on communication between vervet monkeys at their Kenyan research site. A mutual interest the problem of specifying the semantic content of animal signals led to papers on the attribution of concepts (Allen & Hauser 1991) and the role of the notion of information in cognitive ethology (Allen & Hauser 1993). Concurrently, in Boulder, Colorado, ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Dale Jamieson had formed a working relationship leading to publication of a two-volume collection of papers on the interpretation and explanation of animal behavior (Bekoff & Jamieson 1990). Jamieson was responsible for putting Bekoff and Allen in touch with each other in 1990 and organizing a symposium on cognitive ethology at the Philosophy of Science Association meetings in 1992 which brought these authors together along with Carolyn Ristau. Subsequent collaboration between Bekoff and Allen led to a number of papers and the 1997 book Species of Mind.

The issues confronted have been substantially shaped by trends in the philosophy of mind over the last two decades of the twentieth century. The next two sections reflect these trends.

4. Folk psychology and cognitive ethology
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During the 1980s, there was a high degree of philosophical interest in the relationship of folk psychology to scientific psychology. Philosophers of mind have tended to identify intentionality (in the technical sense introduced by 19th C. German psychologist Franz Brentano - see Allen 1995) as the core feature of the mental states featured in folk-psychological explanations of behavior. It is not surprising, then, that much of the earliest philosophical work on the philosophy of cognitive ethology focused on the appropriateness of intentional notions for cognitive ethology.

It is equally unsurprising that in his 1983 paper, Dennett urged his instrumentalist "intentional stance" upon cognitive ethologists. He recommends the use of intentionalistic terms as an "interim" a way for ethologists to mark places where behavioristic explanations of animal behavior are unsatisfactory, but neurological explanations are still lacking. Allen (1992b) argues, however, that intentional state attributions cannot be regarded so dispensable for they provide a level of description that is essential to the ethologists' project of giving functional explanations for animal behavior, whereas the merely neurological theories envisaged by Dennett - or the merely syntactic theories of mind à la Stephen Stich - are bound to miss important generalizations about function.

Cognitive ethology is not, of course, immune to the general objections that philosophers of mind have mounted against using intentional notions for scientific purposes. But part of Dennett's skepticism about the longevity of intentionalistic psychology stems from his views about the indeterminacy of content attributions, particularly when it comes to specifying the contents of animal beliefs. Well before anyone had heard of cognitive ethology, in his 1969 book, Dennett argued that we cannot say precisely what an animal may be thinking because we can only use our concepts to specify the content, but animals lack those concepts. Thus, for instance, we can't say that Fido wants a bone because he doesn't have our concept of bone. A similar argument is made by Stich. Allen analyzes these arguments and criticizes them for not providing a principled reason for thinking that precise specification of animal concepts is impossible. Dennett's strategy, for instance, is to consider a few particular sentences to see whether they express the content of the animal's state. After several sentences have been tried and rejected, it is then claimed that no sentence will suffice.

Alexander Rosenberg relies on very similar arguments to those of Dennett and Stich in his critique of attempts to bring the study of social play into evolutionary biology. In particular, Rosenberg claims that intentionally and functionally defined categories are inappropriate candidates for evolutionary explanation. Allen & Bekoff argue that this flies in the face of much of the actual practice of evolutionary biologists, as well relying too heavily on the questionable arguments mentioned in the previous paragraph.

From the work of Dennett, Stich, and Rosenberg, Allen & Bekoff (1997) extract a core argument against the feasibility of a folk-psychology based cognitive ethology as follows:

  1. An aim of cognitive ethology is the prediction and explanation of nonhuman animal behavior.
  2. Folk-psychological notions are unsuitable for the prediction and explanation of nonhuman animal behavior because:
    • animal behavior can be predicted and explained with scientific precision using folk-psychological notions only if mental content can be determinately specified for nonhuman subjects; but,
    • mental content cannot be determinately specified for nonhuman animal subjects.
  3. So, Cognitive ethology should abandon folk psychology for the purposes of predicting and explaining nonhuman animal behavior.

Allen & Bekoff provide reasons to doubt both premises of this argument. Other sciences, including other cognitive sciences, do not have as their goal the complete prediction of individual behavior. This is because for very many complex systems, science often is capable of explaining but not predicting their behavior. So, there is no reason why cognitive ethology should be held to the standard of predicting individual behavior. But even if such a goal were to be maintained, there are reasons for thinking that philosophers have been unnecessarily pessimistic about the possibility of describing the precise contents of animal mental states. The philosophical arguments have typically been based on imagined cases of belief attribution that are poorly grounded in the real abilities of animals. For instance Stich claims that we can't attribute the concept of squirrel to a dog because the dog couldn't discriminate squirrels from artificial replicas of squirrels which he calls "furrels". Greater familiarity with the actual capacities of animals as provided by the empirical findings of cognitive ethologists might help prevent philosophers from basing arguments on such limited views of animal capacities.

Cecilia Heyes has mounted a different kind of attack on the use of intentional notions in cognitive ethology by focusing on methodological concerns (Heyes 1987; Heyes & Dickinson 1990). Heyes argues that the naturalistic observations favored by cognitive ethologists are unable to support the attribution of intentional states to animals because such observations lack necessary experimental controls. Heyes & Dickinson go one step further to argue that laboratory experiments show that even such basic behavior as approaching food is not intentional by Dennett's standards because animals appear incapable of learning not to approach their food. For instance, chicks continue to approach a food source in a situation where a feeding apparatus has been rigged to retreat as they approach, but to become accessible if they retreat from it. Allen & Bekoff (1995) analyze the argument and attempt to show that the assumptions underlying their deflationary interpretation of the experiments are not justified. In particular, they question the assumption that all the relevant learning takes place inside the experimental situation alone, when in fact, animals have the opportunity to learn much that is relevant to explaining their behavior outside that situation.

Whatever the long term prospects for intentional notions in all branches of psychology and cognitive science, it is clear that a number of authors believe cognitive ethology faces special difficulties in their application. Whether such special difficulties make the scientific employment of intentional, folk-psychological notions in cognitive ethology merely more difficult than in the other cognitive sciences or actually impossible remains controversial.

5. Cognitive ethology and philosophy of mind: consciousness, theory of mind, and evolutionary psychology.
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Aside from the questions about its scientific status and methodology, cognitive ethology is also of interest to philosophers because of its obvious relevance to more general issues in the philosophy of mind. Among these, the nature of consciousness has become perhaps the hottest topic in philosophy of mind in the last decade. The topic of animal consciousness is often raised by philosophers as a proving ground for the various theories of consciousness that are on offer, and it also of interest to philosophers concerned with the ethical treatment of animals.

However, despite Griffin's positioning of consciousness as a central issue for cognitive ethology, there is very little actual empirical research directly on this topic. This is particularly true with respect to the qualitative, subjective, or phenomenological aspects of consciousness that have been of most concern to philosophers. Cheney & Seyfarth title their first chapter "What is it like to be a monkey?" and they write that Nagel had "been too pessimistic and declared impossible what is merely difficult and fascinating." But as becomes clear from their discussion, insofar as their work bears on consciousness at all it has more to do with various forms of what philosophers have recently labeled "transitive creature consciousness" - monkeys' capacities to perceive and represent events in their environment - than with the subjective feel or "what-is-it-likeness" of the experiences themselves (also known as "intransitive state consciousness").

It is noteworthy that Nagel simply assumes that there is something it is like to be a bat and focuses his skepticism on the impossibility of our knowing what it is like. Allen & Bekoff argue, however, that cognitive ethologists may have the somewhat different objective of understanding the distribution and the biological functions of consciousness, and that these topics can be pursued while remaining neutral about Nagel's pessimistic conclusion so long as it is possible to discover that an experience is conscious even if one does not know what it is like to have that experience.

Might cognitive ethology be able to do more, however, to meet Nagel's challenge regarding the character of bat experience? Allen & Bekoff note that it is no more sensible to try to imagine an answer to the question "What it is like to be a bat?" knowing only that they echolocate than it is sensible to answer the question "What is it like to be a primate?" knowing only that that humans and ringtailed lemurs both have forward-facing eyes (and presumably, therefore, stereoscopic vision). Approximately 100 species of bats do not echolocate at all, and among the species of bats that do use echolocation (about 30 species from the genus Rousettus in the suborder Megachiroptera, and all of the approximately 660 species in the suborder Microchiroptera) there are at least three kinds of echolocation (constant frequency, frequency sweep, and short burst), and they differ with respect to whether outgoing ultrasound is produced orally or nasally. Each of these differences has consequences for the sensory ecology of the animals, affecting the kinds of discriminations that can be made, the kinds of obstacles that can be avoided, and the kinds of prey that can be hunted. Presumably there is no one thing it is "like to be a bat," any more than there is one thing it is "like to be a primate". Of course, philosophical opinion varies greatly on the question of whether such details can help, but at least we ought to avoid appeals to our intuitions about how hard it is to imagine what it might be like to be a member of another species when such appeals rely on our profound ignorance of the relevant biology.

Another area of philosophical interest to which cognitive ethology might be expected to contribute is the topic of "theory of mind". Much of the most recent work on whether nonhuman animals attribute mental states to each other is being conducted on chimpanzees by researchers who would not consider themselves to be cognitive ethologists and whose methods certainly fall outside the normal range of cognitive ethology.

Whatever one thinks of the instrumentalism implied by Dennett's "intentional stance", his 1983 introduction of a Gricean hierarchy of intentional states to cognitive ethologists has had a significant impact on they way ethologists (and comparative psychologists) approach questions about theory of mind in animals (see Cheney and Seyfarth 1990). In the Gricean hierarchy, zero-order systems lack intentional states. First-order systems represent only non-intentional states of affairs. Second-order systems are capable of representing first-order intentional states, and so on. Ascension of this hierarchy has come to be widely regarded as a significant evolutionary event. Because Dennett thinks the intentional stance requires the assumption of full rationality, any failure to show a general capacity for representation at a given order is taken as evidence that members of the species lack the capacity and have therefore failed to achieve that stage of evolutionary development.

Allen & Bekoff (1997) argue against this all-or-nothing approach to higher-order intentionality. Relying on Millikan's alternative account of intentional explanation which does not assume total rationality, they argue that an animal may have very specific cognitive abilities with respect to particular intentional states of other organisms without having the general ability to attribute intentional states to those organisms. Thus, for instance, dogs may have the very specific ability to attribute desires to one another, such as wanting to play, without being generally capable of thinking about each other's mental states. Such an approach would seem to hold the potential for a much more fine-grained analysis of the evolution of the human capacity for attributing mental states to other organisms, for it does not require the second-order capacity to spring full blown from a system that has only first-order capacities.

The discussion of social play in dogs and other canids raises another important point for philosophers interested in cognitive ethology. Allen & Bekoff argue that interesting cognitive work does not have to be "chimpocentric". Interesting studies are possible even outside the primates. Social play is a very important aspect of the lives of dogs, and canids have evolved symbols that function to communicate the intention to play. Many of the behaviors seen in play could easily be misinterpreted as dominance or fighting behaviors. Consequently it is important to understanding the real intentions behind a snarl or a baring of teeth, and it is not far-fetched to consider whether a domain-specific competence for communicating intentions and reading the intentions of others has evolved. Dogs are good at play; consequently it is more reasonable to look for signs of their cognitive abilities in this domain than to let the question of whether they possess any elements of a theory of mind ride on whether or not, for example, they can recognize themselves in mirrors -- the standard that has been widely applied to primates. (Indeed, this standard is probably not even suitable for the primates, either.) While mirror-self recognition studies in chimpanzees are certainly exciting, philosophical understanding of other species of mind is severely distorted by the bias towards tests that humans and chimpanzees might pass. Cognitive ethologists believe that species-fair tests of cognitive abilities must tap into the sensory and motor worlds of organisms belonging to different taxa, to uncover cognitive abilities that have evolved to solve different problems in their various ecological niches.

Finally, because of its concern with evolutionary functions and relationships, cognitive ethology is also relevant to evolutionary psychology, although it must be said that most evolutionary psychologists seem to think that all the interesting facts about the evolution of human psychology have taken place since the hominids diverged from the other apes. Cognitive ethology may, however, have some ability to counteract this tendency. Thus, for instance, Denise Cummins (1998) considers what social organization among vervet monkeys can tell us about human reasoning, Allen & Saidel (1998) consider what the predator-alarm calls of vervets and chickens might tell us about the evolution of human language, and Hauser & Carey (1998) lay out a strong program for the comparative study of various cognitive competencies in nonhuman animals.

The best philosophy of mind is empirically-informed philosophy of mind. If we are fully to understand our own minds, which are surely as much a product of evolution as the rest of our biological endowment, we need the broadest possible perspective on the effects of natural selection on cognition, in as wide a range of species as possible. This is why the development of cognitive ethology should be considered important by all philosophers of mind.


Notes
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1. For the purposes of this entry cognitive science can be taken to be a collection of approaches to psychological explanation that share a commitment to explanation of behavior in information-processing terms and mentalistic notions such as "concepts" and "knowledge".

2. Ethology is a subdiscipline of behavioral biology founded on the premise that behavioral variation among species is no less amenable to the comparative method of evolutionary biology than is anatomical, morphological or physiological variation; in other words, ethologists believe that behavioral variation among species can be used to reconstruct phylogenetic relationships between them.

3. An ethogram is a catalog of behaviors constructed for a given species by ethologists to enable uniform record keeping of observed behaviors. The goals of a good ethogram include a high degree of intersubjective agreement among trained observers and a sufficiently fine-grained catalog so as to allow detection of subtle differences in behavior under various conditions.

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