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VI. Life’s Cerebral Faculties Become More Complex, Smarter, Informed, Proactive, Self-Aware

4. Animal Intelligence and Sociality

Cheney, Dorothy and Robert Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. The title is from Darwin’s 1830s ‘M’ Notebook to wit that an understanding of baboon thought and culture would contribute more than dry British philosophy. The author’s lifetime of field and laboratory work elucidates the individual, gender, and social intelligence of these archetypal primates.

Conradt, Larissa and Timothy Roper. Consensus Decision Making in Animals. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 20/8, 2005. A careful synthesis of much literature across the Metazoa kingdoms from primates to birds and bees.

We conclude that consensus decision making is common in non-human animals, and that cooperation between group members in the decision-making process is likely to be the norm, even when the decision involves significant conflict of interest. (449)

Danchin, Etienne, et al. Do Invertebrates have Culture? Communicative & Integrative Biology. 3/4, 2010. European researchers answer yes, which is not surprising since “social learning” is commonly found across mammals, birds, and fish species. Once more a constant, ramifying evolutionary gestation becomes evident.

A recent paper in Current Biology (19/730, 2009) showed for the first time that female invertebrates (Drosophila melanogaster) can perform mate choice copying. Here, we discuss how female mating preferences in this species may be transmitted culturally. If culture occurs in invertebrates, it may be a relatively ancient evolutionary process that may have contributed to the evolution of many different taxa. This would considerably broaden the taxonomic range of cultural processes, and suggest the need to include cultural inheritance in all animals into the general theory of evolution. (Abstract)

De Waal, Frans. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? New York: Norton, 2016. This latest work by the renowned Emory University psychological primatologist and author continues to evoke how apes and monkeys, along with avian, reptile, aquatic, insect, and invertebrate creatures actually possess and exhibit incredible cognitive cleverness. A wide array of wildlife and experimental observations are set in a historical train back to Donald Griffin’s 1992 book (which leads this section) when he was the first investigator to propose such a sophistication. See also Towards a Bottom Up Perspective on Animal and Human Cognition by Franz and Pier Ferrari in Trends in Cognitive Science (14/5, 2010).

What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future―all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long.

De Waal, Frans and Pier Francesco Ferrari. Towards a Bottom-up Perspective on Animal and Human Cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science. Article in Press, 2010. A proposal to shift in this endeavor from studies of mental evolution via a top-down method, which has pitted animal taxons against each other, to an approach that can show how widely prevalent are cerebral abilities across the range of metazoan species.

Eisthen, Heather and Kiisa Nishikawa. Convergence: Obstacle or Opportunity? Brain, Behavior and Evolution. 59/5-6, 2002. An introduction to a double issue on the increasingly obvious proof for convergent pathways.

Although many of the best-known examples of convergence are morphological, convergence occurs at every level of biological organization. (236)

Emery, Nathan. Cognitive Ornithology: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 361/23, 2006. Most studies of animal cognition have focused on the social primates, since bird brains, as the saying goes, were considered devoid of such abilities. But corvids (ravens, crows, jays) and parrots, who similarly live in complex groupings, and have forebrains of relative size, are also found to possess a high degree of intelligence, sometimes surpassing the great apes. Even an avian “theory of mind” is noted whereby birds can perceive where another might hide a food cache. Such findings contribute to a quiet revolution in our understanding of animal intelligence, alien to the materialist model, but in much accord with a natural genesis.

Although the gross structure of avian and mammalian brains is radically different, there is evidence that there are connectional similarities in the brains of these two taxa which may explain their similar behavior and cognition. (34)

Emery, Nathan and Nicola Clayton. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science. 306/1903, 2004. A robust cognitive competence is being established throughout the Metazoan kingdoms, which was denied for most of the 20th century. This paper reports on the wily birds that frequent our backyard buffet, whose mental acumen implies a persistence convergence toward such qualities. My blue jays have me trained to put out egg shells.

…we argue that complex cognitive abilities evolved multiple times in distantly related species with vastly different brain structures in order to solve similar socioecological problems. (1903)

Engesser, Sabrina, et al. Experimental Evidence for Phonemic Contrasts in a Nonhuman Vocal System. PLoS Biology. Online June, 2015. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language that distinguish one utterance or word from another. A Swiss, British and Australian collaborative proves for the first time that animal communications exhibit the same combinatorial emergence of content out of noise as homo sapiens. By a stretch might it be imagined that cosmic evolutionary genesis is trying in some way to achieve meaningful perception out of randomness?

The ability to generate new meaning by rearranging combinations of meaningless sounds is a fundamental component of language. Although animal vocalizations often comprise combinations of meaningless acoustic elements, evidence that rearranging such combinations generates functionally distinct meaning is lacking. Here, we provide evidence for this basic ability in calls of the chestnut-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps), a highly cooperative bird of the Australian arid zone. Our results indicate that the capacity to rearrange meaningless sounds in order to create new signals occurs outside of humans. We suggest that phonemic contrasts represent a rudimentary form of phoneme structure and a potential early step towards the generative phonemic system of human language. (Abstract)

A major question in language evolution is how its generative power emerged. This power, which allows the communication of limitless thoughts and ideas, is a result of the combinatorial nature of human language: meaningless phonemes can be combined to form meaningful words (phonology), and words can be combined to form higher-order, meaningful structures (syntax). While previous work has indicated the potential for animals to form syntax-like constructions, there exists little convincing evidence for a basic phonemic capacity in animals. Here, we demonstrate, using analyses combined with natural observations and playback experiments, that the cooperatively breeding chestnut-crowned babbler reuses two meaningless acoustic elements to create two functionally distinct vocalizations. This result suggests the basic ability for phoneme structuring occurs outside of humans and provides insights into potential early evolutionary steps preceding the generative phonemic system of human language. (Author Summary)

Enquist, Magnus and Stefano Ghirlanda. Neural Networks and Animal Behavior. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. An exercise at applying this cognitive approach to animal evolution and learning capabilities.

Gagliano, Monica. The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable. Communicative & Integrative Biology. 10/2, 2017. We use this entry to gather and report recent contributions about these floral capacities. The University of Western Australia natural biologist is a leading advocate of a growing movement to extend animal cognitive abilities to this leafy realm. The title paper is a follow up to Learning by Association in Plants by MG, et al in Nature Scientific Reports (6/38427, 2016), see second quote. A prime reference is the work of Eva Jablonka and colleagues (search EJ, Simona Ginsburg) about life’s evolutionary preference for an associative knowledge gaining method. See also Plants Learn and Remember by MG in Oecologia (186/1, 2018), Ecological Justice for Nature in Critical Systems Thinking by Anne Stephens et al in Systems Research and Behavioral Science (I36/1, 2018, third quote), and Do Plants Have Something to Say? by Ellie Shechet in the New York Times (August 26, 2019) about Monica’s mission.

Across all species, individuals thrive in complex ecological systems, of which they rarely have complete knowledge. To cope with this uncertainty and make good choices while avoiding errors, organisms are able to exploit key features within their environment. While it is well known that humans and other animals are quick to learn specific cues within locales and circumstances; the idea that plants are also capable of learning by association has not been proven until now. Here I comment on the recent paper (2016) that experimentally demonstrated associative learning in plants, thus qualifying them as proper subjects of cognitive research. (Abstract excerpt)

The emergence of associative learning has been proposed as one of the key biological innovations that powered the Cambrian explosion by driving the evolution of new sensory modalities and altering the life and adaptive possibilities of animals. Our results now show that associative learning is also an essential component of plant behaviour. We propose that the ability to construct, remember and recall new relationships established via associative learning constitutes a universal adaptive mechanism shared by all organisms. The ubiquity of associative learning across taxa, including non-animal groups suggests that the role this learning process plays in nature is thus far underexplored and underappreciated. (MG, et al, 2016, 5)

The authors of this paper provide a brief overview of the rights‐based literature that has been used to produce mechanisms to acknowledge non‐human agency in critical systems thinking (CST). With consideration of recent studies of plant cognition, we propose that by recasting CST's underlying commitments, we may produce new ontologies and new ways of working with the embedded stakeholders of socioecological systems. While the discursive shifts are simple, to recast ‘social awareness’ as ‘socioecological awareness’ and ‘human emancipation’ to ‘emancipation’, these changes open up the boundaries, scope and relevance of practice. (Stephens Abstract)

Griffin, Donald. Animal Minds: From Cognition to Consciousness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. An update of Griffin’s 1992 breakthrough book based on a lifetime of the study of perceptual and reflective states in animals who are in fact able to think, remember, plan, and deceive akin to humans.

In view of the likelihood that all or at least a wide range of animals experience some form of subjective conscious awareness, it is both more parsimonious and more plausible to assume that the difference between human and other brains and minds is the content of conscious experience…..Rather that an absolute all-or-nothing dichotomy between human brains uniquely capable of producing conscious experience, on one hand, and all other brains that can never do so, on the other, this hypothesis is consistent with our general belief in evolutionary continuity. (18)

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