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Cognitive ethology

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The fusion of cognitive science and classical ethology into cognitive ethology "emphasizes 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).

Relation to psychology Edit

"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," in particular, is what cognitive ethology seeks to challenge.

According to Jamieson & Bekoff (1993), "Tinbergen's four questions about the evolution, adaptation, causation and development of behavior can be applied to the cognitive and mental abilities of animals." Yoerg & Kamil relate these to human cognitive psychology. 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 Barbara Von Eckardt in her 1993 book What is Cognitive Science?, generalizing the four questions and adding a fifth:

Relation to biology Edit

  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 fifth questions "biological functions, the selective history, and current adaptiveness of a behavioral trait which must be answered within an evolutionary and comparative framework." Here the field dovetails with biosemiotics to become zoosemiotics.

Relation to mathematics Edit

The cognitive science of mathematics is an attempt to relate the philosophy of mathematics to the natural experience of beings in their environment. For instance, to explain the relationships and constants in Euler's identity by way of reference to motion and perception, e.g. pi as descriptive of the space swept out by an arm.

The notion that non-human conceptions of mathematics might be the only way to apprehend the objective meaning of mathematical constructs is not controversial, nor is teaching chimpanzees or gorillas to do basic arithmetic for rewards.

Relation to ethics Edit

Bekoff, M and Allen, C (1997) "identify three major groups of people (among some of whose members there are blurred distinctions) with different views on cognitive ethology, namely, slayers, skeptics, and proponents." The latter seemingly convergent with animal rights thinking in seeing animal experience as worthy in itself.

Ethicist Peter Singer is an example of a "proponent" in this sense, as is biologist E.O. Wilson who coined the term biophilia to describe the basis of a direct moral cognition, that 'higher' animals would use to perceive moral implication in the environment directly.

See alsoEdit

References & BibliographyEdit

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Additional materialEdit



  • Bekoff, M and Allen, C (1997) Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics, and Proponents. In R. W. Mitchell, N. Thompson, & L. Miles (Eds.), Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals: The Emperor's New Clothes? (pp. 313-334). New York, State University of New York Press. Full text
  • Bekoff, Marc (1995) Cognitive Ethology and the Explanation of Nonhuman Animal Behavior. In J.A. Meyer & H. L. Roitblat (Eds.), Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Science (pp. 119-150). Cambridge: MIT Press. Full text
  • Ristau, C. (2001). Cognitive Ethology. In R.A. Wilson & F. Keil (Eds.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (pp. 131-134). Cambridge:MIT Press. Full text

External linksEdit

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