​The Cradle of Mammalian Intelligence

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    December 28, 2017 - December 31, 2019

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:


  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Mathias Osvath

Institution: Lund University

This project is an exciting line of inquiry that has never been pursued empirically. It aims to identify the basal cognitive condition in mammals. In doing so, it seeks to understand the evolutionary processes that led to mammalian intelligence as it manifests in great apes (including humans) and a few other species.

Intelligence here is defined as complex and flexible cognition. It is “complex” in that it comprises several interacting cognitive mechanisms leading to elaborate behaviors, and “flexible” in that it goes beyond innate predispositions and narrow adaptations to apply to an array of circumstances. This project will investigate several so-called fundamental cognitive mechanisms (which underlie complex cognition) in “ancestral” mammals, the monotremes, and in the somewhat more diverged marsupials. It will then compare the results with select species of the placental mammals (the latest diverged lineage), which share similar socio-ecologies with the tested monotremes and marsupials. The project will also tease apart the roles of ecology (selective pressures) and pre-existing cognitive substrates in the cognition of the different lineages. This in turn will give insights into a vital question: Is the intelligence seen in a few mammalian species a result of a continuous evolutionary process governed mainly by selective pressures? Or is it some “lucky evolutionary accidents” in the placental lineage that allowed more degrees of freedom for cognitive evolution?

The methodology is based on the fact that all tested species are contemporary (i.e., they are, today, equally evolved) but differ in when their lineage arose and diverged. Importantly, the applicant has secured a sister project investigating the “ancestral” birds through identical methods, allowing for further, valuable comparisons between these two distinct classes. This project, together with its comparison to the bird project, is first of its kind, breaking new ground in our understanding of the evolution and origins of intelligence.


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