Creating an Online Tool for Large-Scale Comparative Cognition Collaborations
What is the evolutionary origin of intelligence?
In this project, we will search for cognitive flexibility by investigating which species need flexibility necessary for survival. This technique is the most powerful way to uncover and explain the existence of diverse intelligences. The cognitive approach sees intelligence expressed in spontaneous solutions to novel problems that often require inferential reasoning or a type of mental trial-and-error. This approach also suggests that different domains of cognition exist across species and individuals.
Evolution provides a powerful model against which the cognitive approach can generate testable predictions about the domain(s) in which a species will show flexibility. If cognition functions to promote survival and reproduction, then the problems a species must solve to find food and mates will predict which types of cognitive flexibility they demonstrate. The best method we have of identifying the evolutionary origin of cognition and discovering new forms of intelligence is conducting large-scale phylogenetic comparisons. Our group pioneered this approach by comparing the inhibitory abilities of over 36 species of mammals and birds; we were able to test how brain size and ecological function relate to cognition using a rigorous phylogenetic method. We also demonstrated the power of large-scale collaborations, which have the potential to accomplish far more than any individual scientist.
While our initial study provides a proof of concept, it represents only a first step. We still need to develop the ability to simultaneously compare a wide range of species with cognitive tasks measuring different domains of cognition such as theory of mind, memory, communication, and empathy. To do this, we will design, build, and beta-test a website that will provide the infrastructure for all future large-scale comparative studies. This new tool will be open access and will last well beyond the life of the grant; it will be the main instrument used in mapping diverse forms of intelligence.