Comparative cognition is a highly interdisciplinary field that arose from a synthesis of evolutionary biology and experimental psychology. In its modern form, researchers from a variety of scientific backgrounds (e.g. neuroscience, behavioral ecology, cognitive and developmental psychology) come together with the common goal of understanding the mechanisms and functions of cognition. Over the past 10 years, we have taught both undergraduate and graduate courses that covered the subject matter of comparative cognition, although frequently in a course of another name. Like many instructors, we put together course material that included scientific articles, chapters in other textbooks, and our own writings as an attempt to represent the evolving field of comparative cognition. This was not ideal as the presentation of material from different sources is uneven, and undergraduate students often have difficulty conceptualizing the fundamentals of a discipline without the framework provided by a solid textbook. We realized that our experience was not unique when we spoke to colleagues teaching similar courses at other universities.
Our textbook provides an introduction to the field of comparative cognition. It begins with an historical view of the field, emphasizing the synergy of different disciplines, both in terms of theoretical foundations and methodological tools. This lays the groundwork for later chapters in which controlled laboratory studies are presented alongside comparative studies in the natural environment. The first half of the text covers topics that reflect the influence of behavioral psychology on comparative cognition. This material, therefore, overlaps with traditional animal learning texts. The distinguishing feature of our text is an increased emphasis on the evolutionary function and underlying neural mechanisms of cognition. In addition, issues that are central to cognitive psychology (e.g. attention, episodic memory, and cognitive maps) are interwoven throughout these chapters. The second half of the book focuses on what are often described as ‘higher cognitive processes,’ describing recent research on topics such as tool use and causal reasoning, imitation, and functionally referential communication.