How does cognition evolve? Phylogenetic comparative psychology

Evan L. MacLean, Charles L. Nunn, Rindy C. Anderson, Filippo Aureli, Elizabeth M. Brannon, Josep Call, Daniel B.M. Haun, Esther Herrmann, Lucia F. Jacobs, Michael L. Platt, Aaron A. Sandel, Kara K. Schroepfer, Amanda M. Seed, Jingzhi Tan, Carel P. van Schaik, Victoria Wobber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Now more than ever animal studies have the potential to test hypotheses regarding how cognition evolves. Comparative psychologists have developed new techniques to probe the cognitive mechanisms underlying animal behavior, and they have become increasingly skillful at adapting methodologies to test multiple species. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have generated quantitative approaches to investigate the phylogenetic distribution and function of phenotypic traits, including cognition. In particular, phylogenetic methods can quantitatively (1) test whether specific cognitive abilities are correlated with life history (e. g., lifespan), morphology (e. g., brain size), or socio-ecological variables (e. g., social system), (2) measure how strongly phylogenetic relatedness predicts the distribution of cognitive skills across species, and (3) estimate the ancestral state of a given cognitive trait using measures of cognitive performance from extant species. Phylogenetic methods can also be used to guide the selection of species comparisons that offer the strongest tests of a priori predictions of cognitive evolutionary hypotheses (i. e., phylogenetic targeting). Here, we explain how an integration of comparative psychology and evolutionary biology will answer a host of questions regarding the phylogenetic distribution and history of cognitive traits, as well as the evolutionary processes that drove their evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-238
Number of pages16
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number2
Early online date17 Sept 2011
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2012


  • Adaptation
  • Cognitive evolution
  • Evolution
  • Function
  • Phylogenetic comparative methods
  • Phylogeny
  • Selective pressure

Cite this