Transitions Updated v2c
Aug 21, 2023

The 5 Portals of Cognitive Evolution with Andrew Barron, recorded live at Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute 2023 (podcast)

A cutting-edge research paper suggests the evolution of cognition may be best explained as a result of major transitions, not a gradual increase in cognitive complexity.

By Templeton Staff

A new meaningful way to compare intelligences across distant branches of the tree of life — and beyond with robotics and artificial intelligence —  is put forth in a groundbreaking paper by our grantees. In this paper, the neuroethologist, Andrew Barron, known for his work focused on honey bees, along with philosophers, Marta Halina and Colin Klein make the case that the evolution of cognition may be best explained by a handful of major transitions rather than a gradual increase in cognitive complexity. These transitions are like "portals" that mark big changes in information flow, making it possible for organisms to develop new abilities. Recorded live at the 2023 Diverse Intelligences Summit, this episode of ManyMinds podcast highlights key aspects of their Major Transitions in the Evolution of Cognition project.

"The motivation for this paper was to think about how this might help us comprehend the diversity of animal intelligences on Earth and how we might better comprehend our place within that diversity of animal intelligences on Earth. That’s what I hope it might inspire – that kind of thinking, those kinds of conversations," says Barron during the live discussion.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"Andy and his colleagues just released an ambitious paper titled ‘Transitions in Cognitive Evolution.’ In it, they take a wide-angle view of mind; they zoom out to try to tell an overarching story of how brains and cognition evolved across the tree of life. The story, as they tell it, is not about a smoothly gradual evolution of cognitive sophistication. Rather, it’s a story built around five major transitions — fundamental changes, that is, to how organisms process information. 

In this conversation, Andy and I discuss their framework and how it takes inspiration from other transitional accounts of life and mind. We lay out each of the five stages—or portals, as we refer to them—and talk about the organisms that we find on either side of these portals. We discuss what propels organisms to make these radical changes, especially considering that evolution is not prospective. It doesn’t look ahead—it can’t see what abilities might be possible down the road. We talk about how this framework got its start, particularly in some of Andy’s thinking about insect brains and how they differ from vertebrate brains. And, as a bit of a bonus, we left in some of the live Q & A with the audience. In it we touch on octopuses, eusocial insects, oysters, and a bunch else."

Learn more about the TWCF funded research project related to this episode.

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.