de Waal and Ferrari on cognition in humans and animals

Humans do many things that most animals can’t. That much no one would dispute. The more interesting and controversial question is just how many things we can do that most animals can’t, and just how many animal species can or can’t do the things we do. That question is at the center of a nice opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Frans de Waal and Pier Francisco Ferrari.

De Waal and Ferrari argue for what they term a bottom-up approach to human and animal cognition. The fundamental idea–which isn’t new, and in fact owes much to decades of de Waal’s own work with primates–is that most of our cognitive abilities, including many that are often characterized as uniquely human, are in fact largely continuous with abilities found in other species. De Waal and Ferrari highlight a number of putatively “special” functions like imitation and empathy that turn out to have relatively frequent primate (and in some cases non-primate) analogs. They push for a bottom-up scientific approach that seeks to characterize the basic mechanisms that complex functionality might have arisen out of, rather than (what they see as) “the overwhelming tendency outside of biology to give human cognition special treatment.”

Although I agree pretty strongly with the thesis of the paper, its scope is also, in some ways, quite limited: De Waal and Ferrari clearly believe that many complex functions depend on homologous mechanisms in both humans and non-human primates, but they don’t actually say very much about what these mechanisms might be, save for some brief allusions to relatively broad neural circuits (e.g., the oft-criticized mirror neuron system, which Ferrari played a central role in identifying and characterizing). To some extent that’s understandable given the brevity of TICS articles, but given how much de Waal has written about primate cognition, it would have been nice to see a more detailed example of the types of cognitive representations de Waal thinks underlie, say, the homologous abilities of humans and capuchin monkeys empathize with conspecifics.

Also, despite its categorization as an “Opinion” piece (these are supposed to stir up debate), I don’t think many people (at least, the kind of people who read TICS articles) are going to take issue with the basic continuity hypothesis advanced by de Waal and Ferrari. I suspect many more people would agree than disagree with the notion that most complex cognitive abilities displayed by humans share a closely intertwined evolutionary history with seemingly less sophisticated capacities displayed by primates and other mammalian species. So in that sense, de Waal and Ferrari might be accused of constructing something of a straw man. But it’s important to recognize that de Waal’s own work is a very large part of the reason why the continuity hypothesis is so widely accepted these days. So in that sense, even if you already agree with its premise, the TICS paper is worth reading simply as an elegant summary of a long-standing and important line of research.