A Smart Merger

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Science  14 Oct 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6053, pp. 158
DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6053.158-a

The identification of factors that have driven the evolution of cognition not just between humans and nonhumans, but across taxa, is of interest to comparative psychologists. This interest has arisen because of the recognition that high-level cognitive function is not limited to primate lineages and that cognition, like many other traits, is probably shaped by selection imposed by ecological and environmental demands. MacClean et al. now propose that the merger of the fields of comparative psychology and phylogenetics will greatly improve our ability to understand the forces that drive cognitive evolution. By using examples of comparative data on inhibitory function, a measure of cognitive ability, they highlight how the comparative phylogenetic method will expand our understanding by testing for correlations between cognition and specific life history, morphological, or social ecological traits; measuring how well phylogenetic relatedness predicts similarity in cognitive function; and estimating ancestral levels of cognitive function based on measured levels in extant related taxa. This approach will also allow for an improved ability to select appropriate pairs of species for comparison. The new level of analysis afforded by the merger of these two fields will enable a move away from simple “cognitive model” species and will provide insight into how cognitive abilities evolved and operate in a wide array of species, perhaps even our own.

Anim. Cogn. 14, 10.1007/s10071-011-0448-8 (2011).

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