Animal Cognition

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 223–238 | Cite as

How does cognition evolve? Phylogenetic comparative psychology

  • Evan L. MacLeanEmail author
  • Luke J. Matthews
  • Brian A. Hare
  • Charles L. Nunn
  • Rindy C. Anderson
  • Filippo Aureli
  • Elizabeth M. Brannon
  • Josep Call
  • Christine M. Drea
  • Nathan J. Emery
  • Daniel B. M. Haun
  • Esther Herrmann
  • Lucia F. Jacobs
  • Michael L. Platt
  • Alexandra G. Rosati
  • Aaron A. Sandel
  • Kara K. Schroepfer
  • Amanda M. Seed
  • Jingzhi Tan
  • Carel P. van Schaik
  • Victoria Wobber
Original Paper


Now more than ever animal studies have the potential to test hypotheses regarding how cognition evolves. Comparative psychologists have developed new techniques to probe the cognitive mechanisms underlying animal behavior, and they have become increasingly skillful at adapting methodologies to test multiple species. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have generated quantitative approaches to investigate the phylogenetic distribution and function of phenotypic traits, including cognition. In particular, phylogenetic methods can quantitatively (1) test whether specific cognitive abilities are correlated with life history (e.g., lifespan), morphology (e.g., brain size), or socio-ecological variables (e.g., social system), (2) measure how strongly phylogenetic relatedness predicts the distribution of cognitive skills across species, and (3) estimate the ancestral state of a given cognitive trait using measures of cognitive performance from extant species. Phylogenetic methods can also be used to guide the selection of species comparisons that offer the strongest tests of a priori predictions of cognitive evolutionary hypotheses (i.e., phylogenetic targeting). Here, we explain how an integration of comparative psychology and evolutionary biology will answer a host of questions regarding the phylogenetic distribution and history of cognitive traits, as well as the evolutionary processes that drove their evolution.


Phylogenetic comparative methods Evolution Adaptation Phylogeny Function Cognitive evolution Selective pressure 



We thank Sara Shettleworth and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this article. We thank Natalie Cooper for advice regarding phylogenetic comparative methods. This work was supported by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) through support of a working group lead by Charlie Nunn and Brian Hare. NESCent is supported by the NSF #EF-0905606. This work was also supported in part by European Research Commission Advanced Grant Agreement 233297 and National Science Foundation grants NSF-BCS-08-27552-02 and NSF-BCS-10-25172 to B.A.H. and National Science Foundation grant NSF- BCS-0923791 to C.L.N. For training in phylogenetic comparative methods, we thank the AnthroTree Workshop (supported by NSF BCS-0923791).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Evan L. MacLean
    • 1
    Email author
  • Luke J. Matthews
    • 2
  • Brian A. Hare
    • 1
    • 3
  • Charles L. Nunn
    • 2
  • Rindy C. Anderson
    • 4
  • Filippo Aureli
    • 5
  • Elizabeth M. Brannon
    • 3
    • 6
  • Josep Call
    • 7
  • Christine M. Drea
    • 1
    • 4
  • Nathan J. Emery
    • 8
  • Daniel B. M. Haun
    • 7
    • 9
    • 10
  • Esther Herrmann
    • 7
  • Lucia F. Jacobs
    • 11
  • Michael L. Platt
    • 1
    • 3
    • 12
  • Alexandra G. Rosati
    • 1
    • 3
  • Aaron A. Sandel
    • 13
  • Kara K. Schroepfer
    • 1
  • Amanda M. Seed
    • 14
  • Jingzhi Tan
    • 1
  • Carel P. van Schaik
    • 15
  • Victoria Wobber
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary AnthropologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of Human Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Biology DepartmentDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  5. 5.Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, School of Natural Sciences and PsychologyLiverpool John Moores UniversityLiverpoolUK
  6. 6.Psychology and NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  7. 7.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany
  8. 8.School of Biological and Chemical SciencesQueen Mary University of LondonLondonUK
  9. 9.Max Planck Institute for PsycholinguisticsNijmegenThe Netherlands
  10. 10.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PortsmouthPortsmouthUK
  11. 11.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  12. 12.Department of NeurobiologyDuke University Medical CenterDurhamUSA
  13. 13.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  14. 14.School of PsychologyUniversity of St AndrewsScotlandUK
  15. 15.Anthropological Institute and MuseumUniversity of ZürichZurichSwitzerland

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