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4 - The Evolution of Cognition in Primates, Including Humans

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2022

Bennett L. Schwartz
Florida International University
Michael J. Beran
Georgia State University
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Cognition is the use of information to solve problems, and the evolution of cognition is the natural history of the application of problem-solving capacities to adaptive problems. The ecological contexts in which primates apply their cognitive capacities vary substantially, and therefore the specific problems pertaining to fitness – finding mates, finding food, predator avoidance, and so forth – elicit systematic patterns of comportment through these different environments. A central debate in comparative cognition concerns the degree to which cognitive abilities are shaped by natural selection: this is the question of whether any given problem-solving skill reflects the application of domain-general or domain-specific cognitive capacities. The debate over whether the demands of foraging or the complexity of the social environment exerts the greater force on brain evolution and behavior exemplifies that the kinds of questions that can be asked about cognitive evolution significantly depend on one’s prior commitment to the domain-specificity of adaptive behavior. It remains a relatively open question whether there are cognitive specializations for navigating the physical world that are qualitatively distinct from specializations for navigating the social world. There is a panoply of investigative methods for eliciting problem-solving behavior in captive populations of primates, but there is also an emerging tension between proponents of ecological and internal validity, respectively. Here, I will argue that artificial, captive environments are, nevertheless, ecologically comprised and that the study of captive animals follows a long tradition of perturbation studies in ethology. I will finish with a number of case studies of primate cognition from both wild and captive environments.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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