Comparative Cognition: What Measures of Capacities Can Apply to Diverse Species?

  • Theodore Holmes Bullock


Comparative cognition is badly in need of an expanded information base on the capacities of a variety of taxa, both for its intrinsic intellectual significance and because of urgent social pressures. As a comparative neurologist and neuroethologist, I feel keenly the need of summary statements on the special qualities and on the degree of advancement of the highest achievements of the brains of various species, classes and phyla, in order to attempt correlations with the differences in their brains.

The argument is here supported that the mental life, thought processes, consciousness, and intelligence of nonhuman species are not all-or-none but graded over a wide dynamic range, in evolution as in ontogeny. Instead of discussing which species have consciousness or awareness, we should design experiments to estimate the degree of each of a large number of cognitive attributes in as nearlyas possible a comparable way for different species. The position is supported that these major domains of cognition are made up of a number of partly independent constituents. Although many constituents of general cognitive complexes like intelligence are qualitatively different among species, thereby presenting some serious difficulties, it is argued that some significant comparisons of achievements are possible.

With emphasis on the multiplicity of measures and on quantitation of each, some suggestions are offered as a target for constructive criticism, towards an agenda for research on comparative cognition. A list of some thirty items in five categories is formulated, representing potentially quantifiable aspects of these constituents, confined to overt behavioral endpoints. The list is a “tall order” and its difficulties should not be minimized. Yet it may give hope that we can achieve some significant statements, by gradual approximation and active methodological debate, at least for taxa sufficiently far apart in mental development.

This long-range agenda derives many items from the most distinctively human characteristics, since a major part of the comparative challenge is to assess the degree of similarity or difference with respect to the human species. It is claimed that even the more subtle and high level features can, with ingenuity, be estimated in a semiquantitative way. It is also asserted that subjective judgments on more difficult features, by ethologists who have qualified themselves for the given species are not without value and should be debated and refined by the game rules of scientific literature. The importance is emphasized (i) of quantitation of each trait (ii) of graded estimators of widely different level and (iii) of multiple measures.


Cognitive Capacity Mental Life High Level Feature Game Rule Nonhuman Species 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theodore Holmes Bullock
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Neurosciences 0201University of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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