Cognition, an awareness of self, and emotion, internally generated feelings, are difficult to define and quantify. Because of this, cognition and emotion are usually not considered in the study of animal behavior and remain fringe topics among scientists working on behavior. Human cognitive processes and emotions are presaged, however, in other species in our evolutionary line, and the study of animal cognition and emotion should not be discounted as unscientific.

The evolutionary roots of emotion and cognition

For many years peer pressure among scientists made it unacceptable to attribute "human" feelings, such as fear, pain, and love to animals. This barrier developed in part due to human desires to separate humanity from nature, and to exempt humanity from natural principles, such as natural selection, which govern the world's biota. Theological considerations also supported, for some, such a boundary. In the early to mid 20th century attributes such as tool use, symbolic language, and culture were viewed as marking a line between humanity and animals. Later, cognition (simply put, a sense of self) was added to the list. Studies of animal behavior now make it clear that these barriers are artificial and that at least some animals display tool use, symbolic language, culture and cognition. Humans are part of the continuum of animal species, and any attributes possessed by humans evolved from similar attributes in our ancestral species.

For other lines of evolution, such as birds and insects, it is very difficult to know whether emotion and cognition play any roles in their lives. In these cases anecdote based on empathy and shared communicatory modes, the main tools used to make arguments about cognition in mammals, are less reliable.

Most animal behaviorists will continue, appropriately, to avoid imbuing their experimental subjects with emotion and cognition. However, studies of social behavior, particularly in mammals, are probably better informed if these factors are considered. Personality is a key issue in animal behavior, and an important component in understanding emotionality of animals.

A sense of self is an important part of the definition of cognitive processes. The ability to separate self from others, and to have some level of self-conciousness, allows a level of insight and social awareness that, until recently, was thought to be unique to humans. Related to the ability to recognize one's self as an entity is the recognition of others as entities. In this regard, the study of cognition overlaps with studies of learning, particularly of observational learning, which requires an ability to recognize the actions of others as models which might be adopted.

Other evidence for cognition comes from data on rule learning, number concepts, and deception.

McLean AN 2001 Cognitive abilities - the result of selective pressures on food acquisition? APPLIED ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR SCIENCE 71 (3): 241-258.

"Knowing" in animals

There are many ways of looking at the issue of cognition in animals. One way of asking the question is attempt to determine if animals have values, in the sense of modifying their behavior based on the reactions or "feelings" of others in their social group. We can ask: do animals have a sense of ethics in their social interactions?

One area in which we find evidence for such modification of behavior is in conflict resolution in primate social groups. Of course, our shared evolutionary history with other primates makes it easier for humans to interpret social communication in primates than other animals (or at least we would like to think this is true), but conciliation following disputes seems to be a shared feature among many primate species.

Another, very different, approach to the issue of cognition hypothesizes cognitive processes in mental functioning. The three major areas of research in cognitive processes in animals are problem solving, language usage, and navigation using "cognitive maps".

Griffin, Donald R. 1992. Animal minds. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

"Emotion" in animals

Emotion and emotionality in animals are difficult and interesting questions.The extent to which we can assert that animals have the same subjective feelings as humans is the subject of intense debate among scientists and in the public arena. Animal behaviorists, and scientists in general, have been trained to carefully avoid anthropomorphism. This has helped scientists to remain objective, but at the same time has probably closed the eyes of scientists to a set of reasonable hypotheses.

Do animals have emotions?

Here are some anecdotal accounts of emotion in animals; read these and make up your own mind...

The story of Charley

Can coyotes be frustrated or perplexed?

For more accounts along these lines, see:

Bekoff, M. (Editor) 2000. The Smile of a Dolphin : Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. Discovery Channel Inc


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copyright ©2001 Michael D. Breed, all rights reserved