The Major Transitions in the Evolution of Cognition​
TWCF Number
0539
Project Duration
November 1 / 2020
- October 31 / 2023
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Region
Oceania
Amount Awarded
$999,482

* A Grant DOI (digital object identifier) is a unique, open, global, persistent and machine-actionable identifier for a grant.

Director
Andrew Barron
Institution Macquarie University

Intelligence is all around us. Scientists are creating artificial intelligence that surpasses human expertise in games of strategy and skill. Even humble animals like bees may be far more intelligent than they appear. Intelligence may not even require a brain: non-neural systems and self-organizing swarms have joined the club of cognitive agents.

Paradoxically, this diversity makes it difficult to compare different kinds of intelligence. Any two intelligent things compare and contrast in a dazzling number of ways. The intelligence of each of Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful” is exquisitely adapted to the environment in which it lives.

That appears to permit one of two explanations. Cognition might be simple learning, influenced by the environment and limited by brain size and body type. Or it might be an assemblage of bespoke modules, reshaped and renewed across lineages as needed. Both account for complexity, but neither gives us a meaningful way to compare intelligences across distant branches of the tree of life and AI.

In this project, researchers Andrew Barron, Marta Halina, and Colin Klein argue that there is a third way: the evolution of cognition is best explained by a handful of major transitions. They present five types of cognitive systems categorized by a type of information flow within them. Each transition consisted in changes to information flow in systems, opening up new capacities while transforming the scope of existing cognitive functions.

Researchers will explore the major transitions and their consequences. The project brings together cutting-edge work in comparative neurobiology, computational neuroscience, and philosophy. Much is speculative. But like all good speculation, it is grounded in specific, testable hypotheses.

This project aims to allow us to frame the relationship of human intelligence to other minds—what we have in common and where we might be unique. Exploring the major transitions in cognitive evolution will provide the principles that make possible a true science of comparative cognition.

Project Resources
For many animals, nests are essential for reproductive success. Nesting individuals need to carry out a range of potentially challenging tasks...
The evolutionary history of animal cognition appears to involve a few major transitions: major changes that opened up new phylogenetic possibi...
Honey bee ecology demands they make both rapid and accurate assessments of which flowers are most likely to offer them nectar or pollen. To un...
A variety of animals have been found to interact with and manipulate inanimate objects ‘just for fun’, that is, to play. Most clear examples o...
Cooperative symbionts enable their hosts to exploit a diversity of environments. A low genetic diversity (high relatedness) between the symbio...
Are animals' preferences determined by absolute memories for options (e.g. reward sizes) or by their remembered ranking (better/worse)? The on...
Much of human cognition involves two different types of reasoning that operate together. Type 1 reasoning systems are intuitive and fast, wher...
The ability to vary the characteristics of one's voice is a critical feature of human communication. Understanding whether and how animals cha...
Recognising previously visited locations is an important, but unsolved, task in autonomous navigation. Current visual place recognition (VPR) ...
The potential of the gut microbiome as a driver of individual cognitive differences in natural populations of animals remains unexplored. Here...
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