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Cognitive BiologyReview - Cognitive Biology
Evolutionary and Developmental Perspectives on Mind, Brain, and Behavior
by Luca Tommasi, Mary A. Peterson and Lynn Nadel (Editors)
MIT Press, 2009
Review by Angela Bird
Jan 19th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 3)

A fundamental principle of Cognitive Biology is that cognition is a natural biological phenomenon.  So, a sound way to approach cognition is to treat it in the same way we treat other biological phenomena.  A great deal of comparative biology, particularly in the field of genomics (where it has been established that an astonishing number of biological mechanisms related to information processing are highly conserved across hundreds of  organisms as diverse as bacterium and humans), supports the assumption that there is a significant degree of continuity amongst different types of organisms, and Cognitive Biology involves the examination of simple organisms to grasp the rudiments, then moving up through more complex organisms eventually reaching non-human primates and humans.  It progresses through looking at successful simple biological model systems and asking whether homologues of the cognitive functions and mechanisms we have already found in more sophisticated organisms, including humans, are present.  What is hoped is that a cognitive equivalent of the evolutionary developmental-genetic toolkit will be found for basic cognitive concepts, which in turn will be invaluable in increasing our understanding of fundamental issues in human cognition. The focus on biology is motivated by the fact that cognition has typically been previously considered a function that could be almost entirely divorced from its physical instantiation. For friends of Cognitive Biology progress in cognitive science will be well served If we adopt the assumption that cognition is a biological function.

Cognitive Biology presents a series of papers that give an overview of the main areas of current research in the field, and each of the four sections into which the book is divided deals with a key domain of cognition: spatial cognition; the interrelation between attention, perception and learning; representation of numbers and economic values; and social cognition.  Since efficacious engagement with the environment for any organism requires a set of representations and processes for dealing with space, time, number, objects, events and other organisms the hypothesis put forward is that developmental and evolutionary pressures must have contributed towards circumscribing and determining their cognitive counterparts, in much the same way that they contributed towards the structure and function of the human hand or towards the optical and neurological  adaptation of nocturnal vision in some species of bees and wasps (such as tropical nocturnal sweat bees (Megalopta genalis) ) presumably exploit night flowering plants, or avoid predators. 

 Lucia Jacobs' paper opens the first section of the book, which deals with the cognitive domain of space. Her lab research centers on studying different species solving similar problems, and comparing species that have recently diverged and also species solving identical problems with convergent mechanisms. Frequently what links these behavioral studies is that all the species have a common brain structure, the hippocampus.  In her paper Jacob considers hippocampal evolution, from the perspective of primary evolutionary pressures that were instrumental in establishing the different degrees of hippocampal specialization observed in various species of vertebrates: natural, sexual and social selection. These evolutionary forces are illustrated by considering evidence from research into behaviors in which spatial cognition is critical (such as scatter hording, mating systems and echolocation) and Jacobs identifies social selection as pivotal in explaining patterns of hippocampal diversity in size and specialization.  Viewing scatter hording, for example, as a specialized foraging behavior that evolved through  social competition from hording strategies that are less cognitively demanding (eg larder hording) , offers us a new perspective on hippocampal specialization.  The suggestion is that if the larger hippocampus seen in scatter-hording birds and mammals is related to tracking the activity of conspecifics then it is not appreciably different in function from the larger hippocampus in, for example, polygynous male rodents or female nest-parasitic cowbirds. If these groups show a common ecological function, then understanding the selective forces underlying the evolution of the specialization in each group may lead to a better understanding of the physiological and anatomical homologies of the hippocampus in vertebrates, including humans.

Alessandro Treves' contribution centers on research involving recently discovered grid cells in the rat entorhinal cortex. This is a region of the brain that processes information before it is sent to the hippocampus, so these cells are leading candidates as building blocks for more complex spatial cells that are observed in the hippocampus proper, their discovery leading to an improved understanding of the neural basis of spatial cognition. This evidence, substantiated by the analysis of cortical lamination, indicates computational advantages not only for spatial cognition but also for human language processing. 

Neil Burgess, Christian Doeller and Chris Bird assess human imaging and neuropsychological data arising from spatial tasks developed through studies of rat neurophysiology.  Using examples from research into spatial memory, they argue that knowledge of the neural underpinnings of cognitive processes can inform our understanding of these processes at an algorithmic level and, concentrating on the processing of environmental geometry they argue that examination of the neural correlates of special cognition will help resolve contentious issues in the cognitive literature that revolve around the link between brain and behavior.

A considerable amount of contemporary research has been directed towards an understanding of the evolutionary, cognitive and neurobiological building blocks of natural geometrical cognition. Giorgio Vallortigara's paper focuses on some particular aspects of an animals' ability to deal with natural geometry, in particular he focuses on spatial reorientation mechanisms.  His research is particularly illuminating with respect to the theory that language, unique to humans,  may serve the function of integrating knowledge from different core-system modules. Since the ability to combine knowledge from several different sources is not unique to humans we need to look for cognitive precursors of language, shared by nonhuman animals, that probably served as the foundation on which the uniquely human computational capacities have been built. Vallortigara suggests that the relevant computations are mostly instantiated into the frontal cortex (or its anatomical equivalent in nonhuman animals) and have been co-opted and used as precursors of the human language faculty in our species.

The paper that closes this section of the book is authored by Nora S. Newcombe, Kristin Ratliff, Wendy Shallcross and Alexandra Twyman. Focusing on the issue of modularity and experience in acquiring and stabilizing geometric representation throughout the extended proportion of the juvenile period of human life that involves cognitive development, one might assume that an evolutionary approach to cognitive development would favour plasticity and learning. By making direct comparisons with data from research in other animal species the authors question persistent nativist assumptions.  The data reviewed suggests support for an encapsulated geometric module that guides reorientation, however it also seems to suggest that this module would be unable to accept functionally relevant information. How does the nativist account for the developmental change between the age of five and six when non- geometric information is used to reorient? Here language was proffered as the solution, but the authors point out that there are difficulties with this hypothesis (an issue raised in the Vallortigara paper). The authors propose an adaptive-combination approach, and review several recent findings to support it.  Essentially, the suggestion is that spatial behavior typically depends on combining information from a variety of sources, rather than exclusively by a geometric module for coping with reorientation.

The three chapters that comprise the second section of the book discuss recent research into the effect of learning and attention on perceptual awareness and categorization of objects and their properties. Daniel Osorio examines this through researching color perception in chicks and adopting this as a paradigm for other aspects of object cognition.  He points out that chicks have the capacity to make extremely accurate discriminations between colors that differ by the equivalent of 0.5 nm on the monochromatic locus, displaying a remarkable reliability in natural viewing conditions. The issue that Osorio is really interested in is whether this capacity for discrimination affects their ability to treat different colors as comparable, a basic requirement if they are to exercise the ability to generalize and therefore form categories. Osorio's paper, once again, introduces the question of the relationship between language and cognitive behavior.

Reuven Dukas examines the evolutionary biology of limited attention (broadly speaking, cognitive resources are constrained since the rate at which the brain is able to process information is finite) through the analysis of data from research with birds and non-human primates and humans.   His paper discusses why evolution has not responded to limited-attention deficits by evolving higher attentional capacities, and argues that attentional capacity itself has a cost, along with its obvious benefits, in the increased energy expenditure that is required to support a larger brain. An optimal strategy is to develop alternatives, such as brain lateralization, perceptual learning and the development of expertise Dukas closes his paper by pointing out that we know little about the evolution of attentional capacities and whether behavioral and ecological differences amongst species are correlated with differences in attentional abilities, and suggests some approaches for further research.

Recent research indicates that perceptions both influence and are influenced by the concepts we acquire.  The psychological mechanisms through which concepts and perceptions mutually influence one another, and constructing  computational models of these mechanisms, has been the focus of the work of Goldstone, Gerganov, Landy and Roberts. In their paper the authors argue that our perceptual systems can flexibly respond to environmental challenges through the construction of new perceptual feature detectors. The authors give an overview of research that support the view that task requirements impose restraints on the features used for categorization, features can be differentiated should the task require special attention to particular features and the combination of features utilized where this leads to increased efficacy. 

The fourth section of the book, "Numbers and Probability" covers the cognitive biology of quantities and values. The first paper, from Elizabeth Brannon and Jessica Cantlon, focuses on research into whether there is a non-verbal cognitive system for representing number as mental magnitudes that is shared by non-human animals, and human infants and adults.  Surveying a wealth of data from cognitive, developmental and comparative psychology the authors argue that from recent studies the picture that emerges suggests that at both the cognitive and neurological level there is indeed a shared primitive system for basic numerical reasoning. The authors conclude that this is testament to the value of numerical cognition as an ideal case study of human evolution and development.  

Edward Hubbard, Manuela Piazza, Philippe Pinel and Stanislas Dehaene open their contribution with a diverse set of empirical data accumulated from studies of infant and adult humans, including cross-cultural studies.   They review recent behavioral, patient and transcranial magnetic stimulation data, showing that certain aspects of numerical understanding depend on spatial representations. They then turn to neuroimaging data in humans that suggests how the profound relationship between numbers and space may be mediated by circuitry in the parietal lobe. This, they suggest, leads to several testable predictions for future research. 

Adopting a broader approach, Rachael Gelman's paper takes the idea of natural number cognition as a starting point for consideration of basic issues such as how does learning enter a cognitive domain, and indeed what is the nature of a cognitive domain?  She seeks to establish principles or rules upon which core and non-core domains can be distinguished, largely based on structure, relevance, universality and explicitness, and applies these to natural and rational numbers, thereby seeking to make progress in our understanding of how knowledge is acquired and organized.  Her conclusion is that domains are bodies of knowledge organised by a set of principles or rules, not information processing operations.  Non core domains differ from core domains in that their acquisition requires establishing new mental structures, as well as the body of evidence that the structures organise.

The chapter that closes this section of the book is a contribution from Paul Glimcher, a leading figure in the emerging discipline of neuroeconomics. This recent trend in the study of decision making offers the prospect of reconciling tensions in the increasingly divergent fields of psychological and economic approaches to decision making by focusing on the physical processes by which decision making occurs in the human brain, through which it is hoped to shed light on the actual mathematical computations performed by the brain during economic behavior.    Attention is therefore turned to the biological bases of choice behavior, investigating correlated brain regions in human and nonhuman primates activated during decision making.  He argues that ultimately economics and psychology are biological sciences. They are the study of how humans behave, which is inescapably a biological process.

The fifth and final section of the book looks at the cognitive biology of social entities (other conspecifics in an organism's environment). In their paper Stephen Shepherd and Michael Plan investigate how the direction of gaze of other conspecifics guides visual orientating behavior in both human and nonhuman primates in natural and laboratory settings. The authors found that often the focus of attention (gauged using gaze-tracking devices) was social entities, and conspecific gaze direction was a significant determinate of gaze.  Other research considered include a psychophysical choice task and empirical evidence (to which they make their own contribution) that demonstrates looking behavior can form the basis of preferences and affiliation with conspecifics.

Mark Johnson's research interests include the development of the social brain.  Through studying face perception, eye-gaze perception and eye-gaze cued action, and the perception of human action using imaging and behavioral testing methods the aim is to increase understanding of the typical and atypical development of the human brain network (he has recently focused on atypical eye contact in autism). His contribution to this collection.  In his contribution to this collection "The Human Social Brain : An Evo-Dev" Perspective, he opens with a critique of the protomap and protocortex hypotheses. Although the protocortex and protomap hypotheses of cortical development have often been cited as alternative and mutually exclusive.  Johnson follows a midway position, interactive specialization. On this account during development the interaction between one activated region and all those connected to it in the exercise of specific behavior and cognitive faculties results in giving organisms the opportunity for establishing specializations in many cortical regions.

Sylvain Sirois and Annette Karmiloff-Smith close the final section of the book. They argue that preformationist ideas continue to pervade the study of typical and atypical cognitive development with genetic etiology.  Attacking the nativist position, they argue suggestions that a specific cognitive function such as spatial cognition or language are genetically encoded are logically flawed. They then review the canonical view of genetic developmental disorders and the problems it encounters at the biological, cognitive and behavioral levels. The authors conclude that the canonical view is untenable and argue, as Johnson does in the preceding paper, that neural interactions, experience and behavior biases play a significant part in typical and atypical development. In concluding their contribution, they suggest that what is needed is a proper theoretical framework about cognitive change which would transform research from a taxonomic exercise into a powerful explanatory framework.

The central thought behind all of the contributions to this collection is that cognition ought not to be divorced from its physical instantiation and by focusing on biology those who work in the field of Cognitive Biology are able to adopt a thoroughly natural science approach. The papers in this collection offer a valuable overview of the current state of research by leading figures in the discipline, and can be viewed alongside work done within congenial approaches such as Interactivism which emphasizes a strict naturalism and process metaphysics and Autonomy Theorists, who approach cognition as an emergent property of complex, dynamical adaptive systems.  

 

© 2010 Angela Bird

  

Angela Bird, Sheffield University Philosophy Department


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