Books and Arts

Nature 464, 835 (8 April 2010) | doi:10.1038/464835a; Published online 7 April 2010

Once more into the animal mind

Nicky Clayton1

BOOK REVIEWEDCognition, Evolution, and Behavior

by Sara J. Shettleworth

Oxford University Press: 2010 (2nd edn). 720 pp. $59.95, £ 40
First edition published 1998

Once more into the animal mind


Social skills: Hawaiian cleaner fish (right) have learned to cooperate.

The study of the mental lives of animals — comparative cognition — is relatively new. Although Charles Darwin suggested in the nineteenth century that mental, as well as morphological, characteristics are subject to natural selection, the study of animal cognition did not take off until the 1970s, the offspring of a partnership between the fields of comparative psychology and animal behaviour. In the latest edition of Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior, experimental psychologist Sara Shettleworth provides a scholarly synthesis of current thinking in this fast-moving field.

The book is much more than a revision, reflecting the developments that have transformed the field in the decade since the first edition. Whereas topics such as spatial cognition — exploring how animals navigate and what they remember about their spatial environment — have seen incremental advances, others have exploded. The chapters on numerical and social cognition, covering how animals assess quantities and what they know about their social world, now extend beyond primates to species as diverse as dogs, goats, ravens, jays and cleaner fish. Shettleworth also discusses newly founded areas of study, including episodic-like memory, future planning and an animal's self-knowledge of what it knows (metacognition).

By taking a broad overview, Shettleworth resolves two critical conundrums within comparative cognition. The first is a tension between behaviouristic and mentalistic explanations of complex behaviour — namely whether the presence of a stimulus simply triggers a behavioural response or whether it engages a set of cognitive inferences. By adopting the critical stance of the behaviourist and acknowledging the theoretical concepts of the mentalist, Shettleworth integrates both perspectives in an informed way.

A second tension is whether comparative cognition should be viewed as a suite of adaptive specializations — from spatial skills to social smarts — or whether general-purpose processes, such as associative learning, have greater explanatory power. Here, too, she argues that both processes play a part in explaining how cognitive abilities arise. Shettleworth's analysis will catalyse the development of an overarching, integrated theory of comparative cognition.

Shettleworth's second edition provides considerable synthesis and a greater theoretical amalgamation with other disciplines, such as child development, cognitive science and neuroscience. The result is a detailed, nuanced and biologically informed view of how and why the cognitive capacities of various species can be the same yet different.

  1. Nicky Clayton is professor of comparative cognition in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, UK.


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