cognitive adaptations -- the perspective of T&C (10/24/02)

cognitive adaptations -- the perspective of T&C
There are two criteria for distinguishing these from "species-specific behavioral adaptations" -- cognition or intelligence due to the workings of evolution (phylogeny) and not the individual organism (ontogeny). p.9

cognitive processes are flexible
the organism makes decisions among possible courses of action based on current situation and current goal.

a mental representation is involved
in making decisions, the individual relies on information from a source other than direct perception.

"thinking" defined!
"When representation is combined with behavioral flexibiity in a dynamic form of mental assessment, we get the prototype of cognitive processes called "thinking." p.10

mental trial and error
Piaget's "prevision" and Kohler's "insight" allow for safe and rapid trial and error analyses.

automatizing the representative processes
"Experts who learned much about certain types of problems by thinking them through soon come to perceive similar problems from the outset in ways that differ the perception of novices..they show insight from othe outset."

(this is a problem in much of T&C's assessment of primate behavior; they have no way of assessing species-specific behavioral adaptations from individual "experts." This point was made in the Animal Intelligence video as well.JL)

Denial of general intelligence or learning ability
"the ecological approach is fundamentally opposed to all thoeretical perspectives in which cogniton is veiwed as a single, unidimensional charactersitic, called "intelligence" or "learning" of which particular species may have greater or lesser quantities. p. 12 (This is really a silly statement. At this point we don't know much about any of these issues. Take each topic one at a time. How, for example, can one explain the very clever orang behaviors many have observed in human contexts? It doesn't seem there is any ecological validity or utility to washing clothes, yet something very general about learning, maybe imitating is happening.)

the problem with T&C's perspective: What IS flexibility?
T&C quite rightly stressed early on in PC the importance of flexibility in assessing cognitive adaptations. Yet by focussing primarily on the "ecological" approach, they never really stress the importance of determining just how flexible a given individual might be. This was just the point of many of the learning-intelligence experimental comparisons they denounce or ignore -- for example the early trial and error studies of Thorndike (1901) or later, Harlow and his "learning sets." (Harlow and Mears, 1979).
Similarly, the process of "automatization" may make a highly practiced learned adaptation appear as an innate species adaptation unless carefully investigated exerimentally.

Knowledge of the physical world
Piaget's theory of genetic epistemology (TGE)
Despite the flaws in Piaget's theory, it does provide a useful yardstick for comparison of the various primates on their interactions with the physical world
the stages of development
concrete operational
(formal operational)
the sensorimotor stage and its divisions
(see 3.1 p.63 & Table 6.3 in T&C, p.173; p.163 in Chevalieir-Skolnikoff (1979)
Piaget describes a sequence of development from reflexes through combinations of reflexes, to trial and error manipulation of objects, culminating in object permanence and mental combination of movements causally directed toward objects ("means-ends relationships")
S-M stages summary Table based on S-C (1979)

S-M stage

Age (m)


Major points


1) Reflex




Roots -sucks

2)Primary circular reaction


Repeats action to reinstate event

Acquired adaptations, recognition of objects

Conditioned reflexes

3) Secondary circular reactions


Repeated attempts to reproduce environmental events initially discovered by chance

Object-action relationships, semi-intentional attempts to change environment

Swings objects and attends to swinging or sounds resulting

4) Coordination of secondary behaviors


Independent acts coordinated

Intentional, goals, coordination of actions toward... beginnings of imitation

Moves object to get to another behind it



Repeats behaviors with variation, exploring potentials through trial error experimentation

Invents new behavior patterns, interest in novelty, repetitive trial & error, coordination of objects, events, persons

Determines one object can be used to get another

6) Invention of new means through mental combination (thought)


Mental solutions (internal trial & error?)

Symbolic representation of objects not present

Mentally figures out how one object can be used to get another

From this table we can see the beginnings of virtually all intellectual abilities outside of language and other symbolic mind tools: reflexes, conditioned responses, object permanence and causality, trial and error -- physical and mental, and imitation.

Limber's overall perspective (see Fig.xx)

space and objects yes in mammals
tools and causality variable in birds and mammals, lots in nonhuman primates
object manipulation? Yes in nonhumans
symbolic play? Doubtful in nonhumans
causal understanding? Yes in some apes - crows and other species perhaps???
"However the apes are far from perfect , require many trials, and in many aspects... behave just like monkeys." P. 95
Human infants by far and away most interested in objects and their relations even outside of functional contexts..p.98 (JL- i.e. "play")
features and categories
theories of primate physical cognition
Knowledge of the social world
social knowledge and interaction
social strategies and communication
social learning and culture
theory of mind
theories of primate social cognition