To understand how complex, or ‘advanced’ various forms of cognition are, and to compare them between species for evolutionary studies, we need to understand the diversity of neural–computational mechanisms that may be involved, and to identify the genetic changes that are necessary to mediate changes in cognitive functions. The same overt cognitive capacity might be mediated by entirely different neural circuitries in different species, with a many-to-one mapping between behavioural routines, computations and their neural implementations. Comparative behavioural research needs to be complemented with a bottom-up approach in which neurobiological and molecular-genetic analyses allow pinpointing of underlying neural and genetic bases that constrain cognitive variation. Often, only very minor differences in circuitry might be needed to generate major shifts in cognitive functions and the possibility that cognitive traits arise by convergence or parallel evolution needs to be taken seriously. Hereditary variation in cognitive traits between individuals of a species might be extensive, and selection experiments on cognitive traits might be a useful avenue to explore how rapidly changes in cognitive abilities occur in the face of pertinent selection pressures.
One contribution of 14 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Animal minds: from computation to evolution’.
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