Cognitive ethology is the study of higher mental functions in animals. Until about 1980, the possibility of cognitive powers in animals was largely denied. This aversion to thinking about the animal mind was rooted in the deeply embarrassing “Clever Hans” incident.
In the early 1900s, a horse known as “Clever Hans” was apparently taught language, mathematics, and music by a retired German schoolmaster. Hans answered questions by pointing or by tapping his hoof. Thorough tests showed that no trickery was involved. Only after months of experimentation did Oskar Pfungst find the actual source of Hans’s cleverness: The horse had discovered that as the tapping or pointing neared the correct answers, members of the audience would tense in anticipation. After the correct number of taps or when the nose had swept to the appropriate object, the observers relaxed.
In an unsurprising wave of overreaction, researchers concluded that animals in general, and horses in particular, had no cognitive powers. Behaviorists, who came to dominate American psychology from 1915 until about 1970, went so far as to deny thinking even in humans; instead, all behavior grew out of conditioning. The other major school studying animal behavior, ethology, accounted for essentially all of behavior on the basis of instinct and innately directed learning; they had little interest in humans. Neither group, then, worried much about thinking.
Telling exceptions to this dominant dismissal of higher mental processes in animals continued to turn up. In 1917, Wolfgang Köhler found evidence of planning in chimpanzees, as did Paul Schiller when he repeated this work 25 years later. In the 1930s and 1940s, Edward Tolman documented several cases of apparent planning in rats, coining the term “cognitive map” to describe the mental manipulations necessary to formulate a novel course of action. Around 1960, D. S. Olton demonstrated that rats have a maplike maze memory. In the wild, ethologists were finding more and more behavior that seemed to require at least a partial understanding of the problems animals were facing.
Cognitive ethology got its start in 1976, when ethologist Donald Griffin wrote The Question of Animal Awareness. His argument was that because evolution predicts continuity between species, and humans have cognitive abilities like planning, thinking, and awareness, then if these mental operations are adaptive, why should we assume that no nonhuman animals can think? The major possible objection to this line of thinking is that some unique human adaptation—most likely language—makes cognition possible. Griffin attempted to show that human mental experience does not inevitably require language and that numerous examples from animals seem to involve analogous—presumably qualitatively similar—cognitive operations. At the same time, work on human language uncovered a widespread set of innate, species-specific circuits that help make it possible.
The ensuing debate sparked research that leaves no doubt that much of the behavior we take as cognitive is routine among animals. Planning novel routes, for instance, is seen in nearly any species with a need, including honeybees and hunting spiders. Mirror-image recognition is evident in chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins. Problem solving by thinking rather than trial and error is found in at least chimpanzees and ravens. Honeybees, parrots, and pigeons are among the species that can form concepts. The list goes on and on. Most researchers now agree that the human mind and animal minds have more in common that had been formerly assumed.
- Gould, J. L., & Gould, C. G. (1999). The animal mind (2nd ed.). New York: Freeman.
- Griffin, D. R. (1976). The question of animal awareness. New York: Rockefeller University Press.
- Pfungst, O. (1911). Clever Hans. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.