Now more than ever animal studies have the potential to test hypotheses regarding how cognition evolves. Comparative psychologists have developed new techniques to probe the cognitive mechanisms underlying animal behavior, and they have become increasingly skillful at adapting methodologies to test multiple species. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have generated quantitative approaches to investigate the phylogenetic distribution and function of phenotypic traits, including cognition. In particular, phylogenetic methods can quantitatively (1) test whether specific cognitive abilities are correlated with life history (e.g., lifespan), morphology (e.g., brain size), or socio-ecological variables (e.g., social system), (2) measure how strongly phylogenetic relatedness predicts the distribution of cognitive skills across species, and (3) estimate the ancestral state of a given cognitive trait using measures of cognitive performance from extant species. Phylogenetic methods can also be used to guide the selection of species comparisons that offer the strongest tests of a priori predictions of cognitive evolutionary hypotheses (i.e., phylogenetic targeting). Here, we explain how an integration of comparative psychology and evolutionary biology will answer a host of questions regarding the phylogenetic distribution and history of cognitive traits, as well as the evolutionary processes that drove their evolution.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
The evolution of cognition
It is now commonly recognized that high-level cognitive function is not limited to primate lineages and like many other traits, is shaped by selection imposed by ecological and environmental demands. MacClean et al. (PDF here) propose that a merger of the fields of comparative psychology and phylogenetics would greatly improve our ability to understand the forces that drive cognitive evolution: