Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me
Cognitive Ethology

The term “cognitive ethology” was coined and used by Donald Griffin in the late 1970s- early 1980s to describe a field that he was among the first to champion—the study of versatile thinking by nonhumans and, importantly, how the data obtained could be used to examine the evolution and origins of human cognition. His further emphasis on the study of animal consciousness, however, caused many of his colleagues to shun all his ideas, proverbially “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Griffin’s term, “cognitive ethology,” nevertheless deserves a closer look and a renaissance in influence. The case is strengthened by an historical examination of the subject.

In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers studying nonhuman abilities were slowly moving away from the two ideologies that had dominated psychology and much of behavioral biology for decades—respectively, behaviorism and fixed-action patterns—but progress was slow. Proponents of behaviorism may have argued that little difference existed between the responses of humans and nonhumans to external stimuli, but attempted to explain all responses to such stimuli in terms of their shaping by reward and punishment, avoiding any discussion of mental representations, manipulation of information, intentionality or the like. Students of biology were taught that animals were basically creatures of instinct that, when exposed to particular stimuli or contexts, engaged in species-specific invariant sequences of actions that would, once initiated, run to completion even if environmental changes occurred; these patterns were thought to be controlled by hard-wired neural mechanisms and, interestingly, also avoided inclusion of reference to any sort of information processing, mental representation, etc.

Then came two major paradigm shifts, one in psychology and one in biology, but not much understanding by scientists of their common underlying themes. One shift, the so-called “cognitive revolution” in psychology, with its emphasis on all the issues ignored by the behaviorists, was initially conceived as relevant only for the study of human behavior. Nevertheless, far-sighted researchers such as Hulse, Fowler, and Honig saw how the human experiments could be adapted to study similar processes in nonhumans. The other shift, the advent of long-term observational studies of groups of nonhumans in nature by researchers (the most familiar being Jane Goodall) who were collecting extensive examples of versatile behavior, showed that nonhumans reacted to unpredictable circumstances in their environment in ways often suggesting human-like intelligence. Cognitive ethology was meant to be a synthesis of what were at the time seen as innovative psychological and biological approaches.

As noted above, disaffection with Griffin’s arguments about animal consciousness unfortunately prevented the term—and the field—of cognitive ethology from taking hold; as a consequence, the likelihood of interdisciplinary research has not been as great as its promise. Psychologists often remain in the lab and prefer to describe their research as “comparative.” The term suggests an openness toward looking at a variety of species and testing for similarities and differences in behavior on numerous tasks, which require, at the least, advanced levels of learning. Unfortunately, such studies usually occur under conditions far removed from natural circumstances. Furthermore, relatively few of their studies actually examine the cognitive processes underlying the exhibited behavior patterns. Similarly, cognitive biologists (a term more common in Europe than in the United States) tend to be reductionist, more likely comparing the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of various species and, even when comparing behavior patterns in the field, often simply argue for either homology or analogy when similarities are found or merely highlight any observed differences. The connection is not always made between neuro similarities and differences and how these are expressed in specific types of behavior. Studies from these areas come close to the goals of cognitive ethology, but generally (although not exclusively) still involve less emphasis on examining cognitive processes with respect to the whole animal than does “cognitive ethology.”

For example: Psychologists may test whether a songbird in a laboratory can distinguish between the vocalizations of a bird in a neighboring territory versus that of a stranger and determine what bits of song are relevant for that discrimination. Lab biologists may determine which bits of brain are responsible for these discriminations. Field biologists may collect information testing whether the size of the repertoire of a bird of a given species correlates with the quality of its territory or its reproductive success.

A cognitive ethologist, however, will not only be interested in these data (generally obtained via some kind of collaboration), but will also examine how and why a bird chooses to learn a particular song or set of songs, why it chooses to sing a particular song from its entire repertoire to defend its territory against a neighbor versus a stranger, how that choice varies with the environmental context (e.g., the distance from the intruder, the type of foliage separating them, the song being sung by the intruder), how other males respond to the interaction, and how the females in the area may make their choice of mate based on the outcome of such male-male interactions. It is this type of inclusive research that provides real knowledge of the use of the song system. 

I thus argue that the time has come to focus on the advantages of looking at nonhumans through the lens of cognitive ethology. Cognitive ethology should again be considered a means of bringing new views and methodologies to bear on the study of animal behavior and of encouraging collaborative projects. Whether the topic is communication, numerical competence, inferential or probabilistic reasoning, or any of a number of other possibilities, studies using an approach based on cognitive ethology will provide both a deeper and broader understanding of the data. Furthermore, a renewed interest in nonhuman cognition and intelligence, and how such intelligence is used in the daily life of nonhumans, will provide exciting evolutionary insights, as Griffin had proposed: By examining and comparing mental capacities of large numbers of species, we can surmise much about the origins of human abilities.