In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolution of Cognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Comparative Methods
  • Adaptive Payoffs
  • Experimental Evolution
  • Epigenetics, Social Learning, and Cultural Evolution
  • Evolutionary Consequences

Evolutionary Biology Evolution of Cognition
Simon M. Reader
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0028


Work on the evolution of cognition has a long history and involves numerous fields, most notably ethology, psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroanatomy, and behavioral neuroscience. Thus, research is published in a variety of journals, and advances in one field, such as methodological developments in evolutionary biology or new findings in behavioral neuroscience, have ramifications across fields. A major focus has been the evolution of, and factors favoring, particular cognitive abilities or enhanced intelligence. For example, a number of research programs have investigated whether human cognitive abilities exist in nonhuman animals. Such investigations have resulted in lively and sometimes heated debate over the nature of intelligence, how to determine cognitive complexity, and how to fairly compare different species on cognitive tests. One such debate concerns whether intelligence is a single unitary entity (“general intelligence,” g) or whether there are multiple “intelligences” (“cognitive modularity”). While adaptive specialization in behavior is well accepted, there is considerable disagreement over whether such adaptive specializations reflect differentiation in input systems, such as perceptual capacities, with central cognitive processes following general rules, or whether central cognitive processes themselves vary across taxonomic groups. Much research has addressed the evolution of the brain or components thereof, either on the assumption that cognitive differences will be reflected in brain structure or as a way of testing this assumption. A variety of techniques are available to investigate cognitive evolution, including theoretical modeling, comparative studies of behavior, paleoneurology, comparative neuroscience, and experimental evolution. Comparative analysis involves the comparison of species, populations, or other taxonomic groups to determine the evolutionary history of traits and the factors favoring their evolution. Comparative behavioral studies are the focus of this article, being the most closely associated with the field.

General Overviews

Definitions of cognition vary, as discussed in Shettleworth 2010, but a typical definition views cognitive processes as involving the formation or use of mental representations, such as a cognitive map, that are only indirectly manifest in behavior. Broader definitions of cognition encompass all processes underlying the acquisition, retention, and use of information from the environment and thus would include perceptual processes. A number of overlapping subfields address cognitive evolution: comparative psychology, neuroecology, comparative cognition, cognitive ecology, and evolutionary anthropology, and, depending on the preferred definition, sensory ecology and much of behavioral ecology would also be relevant. Although a more restrictive definition has much to recommend it, here a fairly broad view of cognition is taken, following current practice. Sherry 2006 provides an overview of neuroecology, while Shettleworth 2010 is a comprehensive overview of animal cognition from an evolutionary standpoint, as well as a review of the history of the field. Dukas 1998, Dukas and Ratcliffe 2009, and Heyes and Huber 2000 are edited volumes that give an idea of the breadth of the subject, while Wynne 2004 is an insightful book that is accessible to the nonspecialist. Deary 2001 concisely covers human intelligence, a useful backdrop to considerations of animal cognition.

  • Deary, I. J. 2001. Intelligence: A very short introduction. Very Short Introductions 39. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A short volume on human intelligence that, unusually, actually defines the slippery concept of intelligence. Covers issues such as the evidence for general intelligence in humans, and the links between brain size and intelligence.

  • Dukas, R., ed. 1998. Cognitive ecology: The evolutionary ecology of information processing and decision making. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A very useful edited, multiauthor volume that helped establish the field of cognitive ecology, bringing together a variety of research programs on the study of the fitness consequences of cognition.

  • Dukas, R., and J. M. Ratcliffe, eds. 2009. Cognitive ecology II. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226169378.001.0001

    Follow-up volume with a new set of contributions, demonstrating the maturation and expansion of the field since the 1998 edition.

  • Heyes, C., and L. Huber, eds. 2000. The evolution of cognition. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    A multiauthored edited volume with contributions from many of the leaders in the field, bringing together several points of view to provide an integrative overview and covering genetic evolution and cultural evolution, as well as developmental influences on cognition.

  • Sherry, D. F. 2006. Neuroecology. Annual Review of Psychology 57:167–197.

    DOI: 10.1146/Annurev.Psych.56.091103.070324

    Neuroecology, the study of how evolution shapes cognition and the brain, links behavioral and evolutionary ecology to cognitive neuroscience. Sherry reviews the field, comparative methods, controversies, and several research foci, including birdsong, sex differences in brood parasites, and avian food storing. Comprehensive overview in a single paper. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shettleworth, S. J. 2010. Cognition, evolution, and behaviour. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides excellent and broad coverage of the field, with an emphasis on bringing together work from psychology and biology: special attention is given to explaining the specialized terminology of these fields. First edition was published in 1998.

  • Wynne, C. D. L. 2004. Do animals think? Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Written for nonspecialists, Wynne takes selected research programs as case studies to examine the nature and variety of animal minds, and to discuss how this should influence how we think about animals. Wynne has also written a useful 2001 undergraduate textbook on animal cognition, titled Animal Cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals (New York: Palgrave).

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