Cognitive ethology: Slayers, skeptics and proponents
Marc Bekoff and Colin Allen. 1997. In: Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals: The Emporers New Clothes? RW Mitchessl, N. Thompson and L. Miles, editors. State University Press of New York State, NY. 313-334
The interdisciplinary science of cognitive ethology is concerned with claims about the evolution of cognitive processes. Since behavioral abilities have evolved in response to natural selection pressures, ethologists favor observations and experiments on animals in conditions that are as close as possible to the natural environment where the selection occurred. No longer constrained by psychological behaviorism, cognitive ethologists are interested in comparing thought processes, consciousness, beliefs, and rationality in nonhuman animals (hereafter animals). In addition to situating the study of animal cognition in a comparative and evolutionary framework, cognitive ethologists also maintain that field studies of animals that include careful observation and experimentation can inform studies of animal cognition, and that cognitive ethology will not have to be brought into the laboratory to make it respectable. Furthermore, because cognitive ethology is a comparative science, cognitive ethological studies emphasize broad taxonomic comparisons and do not focus on a few select representatives of limited taxa. Cognitive psychologists, in contrast to cognitive ethologists, typically work on related topics in laboratory settings, and do not emphasize comparative or evolutionary aspects of animal cognition. When cognitive psychologists do make cross-species comparisons, they are typically interested in explaining different behavior patterns in terms of common underlying mechanisms; ethologists, in common with other biologists, are often more concerned with the diversity of solutions that living organisms have found for common problems.
Many different types of research fall under the term "cognitive ethology," and it currently is pointless to try to delimit the boundaries of cognitive ethology; because of the enormous amount of interdisciplinary interest in the area, any stipulative definition of cognitive ethology is likely to become rapidly obsolete. Currently, cognitive ethology faces challenges to its scientific status. Criticism is based on both the subject matter and the methods of cognitive ethology.
In this paper we 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. Our analyses are based on our reading of some published reviews of Donald Griffin's works in cognitive ethology (1976, 1981, 1978, 1984, 1992) and other clearly stated opinions concerning animal cognition, in the sense of attribution of mental states and properties such as beliefs, awareness, and consciousness. Two points need to be made clear at the outset. First, while Griffin's handling of issues such as anthropomorphism and the use of anecdote are often rather superficial (Griffin, 1977; Mitchell, 1986), and some even question whether or not his early works (at least) had much to do with ethology (Hailman, 1978; see Jamieson & Bekoff, 1993 for discussion), we are of the opinion that Griffin's (1976) rekindling of interest in the field that has come to be called cognitive ethology is responsible for the recent surge of interest in the comparative and evolutionary study of animal cognition. Thus our concentration on his work. Second, we ignore, but do not wish to downplay, the important experimental research on cognitive aspects of animal learning (see Galef, 1990; Kamil & Clements, 1990; Pepperberg, 1990; Timberlake, 1990; and Roitblat & von Fersen, 1992 and references therein), although those who do these types of studies may not call themselves cognitive ethologists; space does not allow us to discuss all views on cognitive ethology.
Categorizing views on cognitive ethology in the way we do it here helps us to identify common themes, which in turn helps us to see to what extent genuine dialogue between critics and defenders is possible; analysis of both criticisms and confusions arising from this dialogue will help improve the science. We were surprised by the number and the strength of some of the attacks on cognitive ethology by ethologists, behavioral scientists, and evolutionary biologists (see also Bekoff & Jamieson, 1991). Our purpose is to bring attention to those attacks and to try to understand the sort of argument that underlies them. These arguments include the views that anthropomorphism is unscientific, anecdotes do not constitute legitmate data, attributing beliefs to nonhumans is impossible, and cognitive ethology is a soft science. We are concentrating on the critics because we are sympathetic to cognitive ethology, and categorizing their various views will allow those who are sympathetic to cognitive ethology to recognize common themes and provide appropriate responses. We do not agree with Epstein's (1987, p. 21) claim "that our understanding of the behavior of organisms might advance ever so much faster if we spent more time studying it and less time philosophizing about it." We do, however, believe that the most effective philosophizing about cognitive ethology will occur only if careful attention is paid to the actual empirical work conducted by cognitive ethologists.
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