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date: 22 February 2020

Postscript: An Essay on the Study of Cognition in Animals

Abstract and Keywords

In memory of Stewart Hulse, the final chapter reprises the epilogue that he wrote for the 2006 edition of this Handbook. Hulse was not only a driving force behind the first edited volume in the field of comparative cognition, but he also served as the editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes and as a mentor to many researchers in the field. Hulse recounts some early personal experiences in order to describe the state of the field of animal learning as he (and many others) experienced it when they were students. He laments that it took so long for comparative cognition to adopt some of the science that underpins it now.

Keywords: Stewart Hulse, comparative psychology, cognition, animal psychology, animal learning


Let me say at the outset that I write this essay from a very personal perspective; those looking for annotated comments concerning facts and theories in animal learning and cognition will not find many of them here. Instead, I want to take a glance backward through my own experiences—and to make some guesses about what the years ahead may bring. The present day speaks clearly and well for itself—in particular through the earlier chapters in this book—although I will venture a few words about the current scene in due course.1

Some History

Early Events

To set the stage for the appearance of the experimental study of animal cognition in the 1970s, let us go back a few decades to sketch the scene from which the new enterprise emerged. When I started graduate work at Brown University in 1953, I found the experimental psychology of learning to be rampantly behavioristic and expressed almost exclusively in S-R terms of stimulus-response association. This situation was true for experiments and theories aimed at both human and nonhuman behavior. My textbooks were, for example, Skinner’s Behavior of organisms (1938) and some of his other contemporary books and papers, Hull’s Principles of behavior (1943) and A behavior system (1952), and Hilgard’s Theories of learning (1956)—in an up-to-date second edition. Then, there were Spence’s Behavior theory and conditioning (1956), Hilgard and Marquis’ Conditioning and learning (1940), and Tolman’s Purposive behavior in animals and men (1932).

Of course, there were many papers by these men (few women!) and others, but all were cast in the mold of strict definition by operations: that is, concepts were defined by the procedures (operations) used to study them. Furthermore, Behaviorism (with a capital B), and the philosophy of logical positivism (borrowed from the Vienna Circle of philosophers by way of physics) which lay behind it, were legitimate topics for discussion in the psychological literature. Thus, for example, Kenneth Spence (e.g., 1944) published papers on the philosophy of logical positivism and its application to experimental psychology in general. So did Skinner. And, for a specific instance, Garner, Hake, and (p. 882) Erickson (1956) wrote an elegant discussion of the application of operational principles to the study of perception (the paper is still very much worth reading).

Tolman’s work deserves a special comment because of some of the language that he used. Take his book, Purposive behavior in animals and men (1932), for example. Tolman said behavior reeked of purpose. What? Purpose? By the attitudes of the day (at universities such as Brown, Yale, or Harvard on the East coast, anyway—as compared with Berkeley on the West), purpose was a tainted word for a concept that was impossible to define or to measure in operational terms. This appraisal, of course, was unfair. Tolman and his colleagues at Berkeley did experiments that were just as strictly operational in their execution and interpretation as those done elsewhere. But, his choice of terms like purpose, goals, means-ends readiness, and the like, smacked of forbidden, unseen (and unseeable) processes that begged definition. Perhaps Tolman wrote with tongue in cheek (maybe not!), but that passed right over the heads of those of us who should have known better. After all, California was a long way from New England in those days—both in distance and in time and expense to communicate. But Tolman’s work presaged many things that are now at least a part of comparative cognition (what? cognition!?) as we know it today.

I want to move now to some parts of the study of animal learning that were notable for their absence well into the 1960s. I mention them here because, in my judgment, they had substantial impact on the later development of comparative cognition.


Remarkably, the word memory does not appear in either the text or the index of Hull’s Principles of behavior (1943) nor does it appear in the text or index of Skinner’s Behavior of organisms (1938). The term is hard to find in articles on animal learning in either the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology or the Journal of Experimental Psychology before and throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. In fairness, memory was, of course, part of the lexicon and the curriculum in experimental psychology, and it was a subject of study since the time of Ebbinghaus (1885). But, the studies (e.g., the prolific work of B. J. Underwood and others in the 1950s) were couched, as usual, in the language of stimulus, response, and associative learning—and no one at all was addressing the issue from a comparative perspective. Today, it is hard to imagine a discussion of either animal or human behavior without the concept of memory playing a paramount role. But in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, memory as such was not assigned a role in the comprehensive theoretical approaches to behavior of the day; indeed, Hull did not choose to treat memory as part of the theorems and postulates of his behavior system.

Interestingly, there was one notable person who speculated about the physiological and theoretical underpinnings of memory (and purpose, too!), and that was D. O. Hebb, whose book The organization of behavior (1949) treated both concepts, though not at length. It is ironic, perhaps, that Hebb’s contributions have had far greater impact on modern-day experimental psychology and neuroscience, in my opinion, than most of the books on learning and behavior of the time (Skinner’s work is an important exception).


Ethology and the study of behavior in natural settings was mostly ignored prior to the 1960s in American experimental psychology—certainly in the psychology to which I was exposed at Brown.2 My only exposures as a student to ethology (my teachers and the Zeitgeist in America encouraged me no further) were, first, a colloquium given to the Psychology Department by William Verplanck (in 1952, I think) who had just returned from spending some time with ethologists in England, and, second, a lecture by Nikolaas Tinbergen—presented in the Biology department, of course. Most of us, at our peril and to our subsequent misfortune, had begun to neglect Tinbergen’s lecture by the time we returned to the Psychology laboratories. We had no S-R hooks on which to hang his message. It is ironic, to say the least, that Lorenz and Tinbergen (along with Karl Von Frisch) were to win the Nobel prize in 1973 for their work in ethology, or, as the Nobel committee put it, “… for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns.”

It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the ethological approach had much impact on the study of animal learning and comparative cognition in America. As a matter of fact, the first laboratory experiments on imprinting in this country, so far as I can tell, were done in 1956 with neonate chicks by Julian Jaynes at Yale University as his doctoral dissertation (e.g., Jaynes, 1956). The work was innovative and brilliant in my judgment, but it had little contemporary influence on either animal learning in America or ethology in Europe.

(p. 883) Harbingers of Comparative Cognition

Although the experimental psychology of animal learning was content to enter the 1960s with the theories and experimental approaches of behavioral psychology and S-R associationism, there were events in human learning and memory that were eventually to find their way into the study of animal learning. These events were to lead to the first hints of a science of comparative cognition in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Lashley and the Problem of Serial Order in Behavior

In my view, one of the most important papers ever published in psychology was Lashley’s contribution to the published proceedings of the Hixon Conference at Princeton University, The problem of serial order in behavior (Lashley, 1951). In that paper, Lashley provided a concise description of the shortcomings of associative stimulus-response chains as a model for many aspects of human behavior.

There are two of his observations that are relevant here. First, he described how skilled serial movements, such as those of a concert pianist, could never be described by the then-current S-R models based on feedback from successive movements; there simply was not time for physiological feedback from one finger movement to modulate the production of the next. Instead, Lashley proposed that such complicated skills as the playing of a multi-note arpeggio must rely on the afferent outflow of some pre-programmed central representation of the entire motor sequence. Upon this representation, there could then be others stacked in hierarchical fashion to produce the more complicated serial structure of an entire musical composition. For those wedded to linear, associative S-R approaches, this idea was heresy; most chose to ignore it. Not so for others who were beginning an interest in the psychology of language.

Lashley’s second major contribution, akin to the first, was that language production defied the principles of S-R chains. To illustrate this point, he gives an example based on the use of the word “right” in a sentence. He says, and I quote (and paraphrase slightly), “The word right, for example, is noun, adjective, adverb and verb and has four spellings and at least ten meanings. In such a sentence ‘The millwright on my right thinks that some conventional rite … symbolizes the right of every man to write as he pleases,’ (… the proper …) arrangement is obviously not due to any direction association of the word right itself to other words but to meanings which are determined by some broader relations….” “From such considerations, it is certain that any grammatical form which ascribes (… the arrangement …) to associative linkage of the words of the sentence overlooks the essential structure of speech. … The order is imposed by some other agent.”3

As I have said elsewhere (Hulse, 2002), Lashley discusses virtually every topic that might appear in a book on comparative cognition—not only the problem of serial order, but also timing and temporal coordination, spatial organization, and the numerous ways in which we remember and recall information. His article remains seminal.

If Lashley’s work helped mark the beginnings of modern linguistics and our contemporary understanding of language in both psychological and linguistic terms, then the appearance of Chomsky’s work in the 1960s further secured the coffin of a purely associative approach to the structure of language. For an example of this work, see Chomsky (1957, 1972) and his review of Skinner’s attempt to treat language in behavioral terms (Chomsky, 1959; Skinner, 1957).

The Computer Metaphor

The first hints of what we now call cognitive psychology began to appear in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the introduction of the digital computer as a model for psychological processes. Miller, Galanter, and Pribram were among the first psychologists to write on the topic with their publication of Plans and the structure of behavior in 1960. In that book, they conceived of human plans for action as a simple computer program. Their idea was that human action could be expressed in formal, logical representations of information. Thus began the use of the digital computer as a metaphor for human behavior. We now have memory, storage, information processing, retrieval, attention, and so on, as everyday parts of our psychological lexicon. In 1960, however, these terms and the ideas behind them were simply not part of animal learning.

The Demise of Responses as Arbitrary Events

For Skinner and others, responses were events that could be arbitrarily selected for instrumental (or operant) conditioning. It didn’t matter whether the rat pressed the lever with its nose, its paws, or (on one occasion that I observed) its rear end. All these responses were functionally equivalent in that they got the lever pressed; each was presumed to be as (p. 884) typical of a Response (with a capital R) as any other.

Near the end of the 1960s, however, ethology and the idea that behavior was sometimes not arbitrarily selected began to have an impact on the study of animal learning in America. Among the first work was that of Garcia and his associates (e.g., Garcia & Koelling, 1966) on the specificity of cue to consequence, Bolles’ (1970) idea of species-specific defense reactions, Seligman’s (1970) rather circular idea of response preparedness as measured by the facility with which a certain type of response could be learned, Hinde and Stevenson-Hinde’s (1973) notion of ethologically-based constraints on learning, and so on.

I think one of the major results of this work was to make us realize, on the one hand, that behavior was tied to a biological system that had evolved uniquely for the functional needs of each species, and that in the natural world some responses were not as effective as others in getting the job done. On the other hand, I think these discoveries and insights helped to free animal learning from the constraints of the behavioral tradition with its dogma of stimulus-response association, thus opening the way for us to contemplate alternative pathways for studying animal learning and behavior.

The Rise of Representation

One of the major legacies of the computer-as-metaphor revolution in the 1960s was the idea that behavior could be represented by systems that were not directly observable. Terms such as image, attention, even memory began to enter the lexicon of what was now called cognitive psychology. These terms were reflected in representational systems—often computer programs—and cognitive psychology became the study of the processes that worked on the representations. Once again, theorizing about human behavior had set the stage for important changes in the study of animal learning.


It would be a mistake to assume that animal cognition arose—de novo—from the events of the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of animal “mind” had been around since Darwin’s time. Plus, there was a continuous debate over whether or not animals had minds, and if so, the manner in which “mind” was expressed in what animals could do. Similarly, there was debate over whether or not animals had “consciousness,” and how that, too, might be expressed. In my view, the great contributions of behaviorism were: (a) to see how far we could go in explaining behavior without the concepts of mind and consciousness and (b) to develop the behavioral tools and theory to do so.4


As I observed earlier, memory as a concept was notable in the study of animal learning mostly for its absence as either an everyday concept or something to study experimentally. Perhaps the first glimmers of animal cognition as we know it today were initial studies on animals’ ability to remember things. Again, there were a few historical antecedents, notable in their own right, but not part of the Zeitgeist at the time. Walter Hunter’s famous experiment on the delayed reaction in the early part of the 20th century is a case in point. In order to solve a discrimination problem after a delay, the animal had to retain some representation of the items to be acted on after the delay. So is the example of Harlow’s work on learning sets in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Here, representations (memories) of individual discrimination problems became combined into a single, organized memory—a categorical representation, if you will—that encoded features common to each of the individual problems. To be sure, Harlow (e.g., 1949) did not use this terminology (notice that he spoke of sets to learn, not to remember), but his experiments and others like them are easily interpreted this way.

But it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the experimental study of memory in animals really began in earnest. One of the techniques that became widely used was that of delayed matching to sample. Here, you will recall, a stimulus is presented to an animal during an observation period, and later the initial stimulus, together with a comparison, are presented simultaneously. The animal gains reward only by responding to the sample stimulus that was presented earlier. The variable of interest is the length of the delay period between presentation of the sample and presentation of the comparisons.

Werner Honig, Michael D’Amato, and William Roberts, among many others, researched this paradigm vigorously. One of the early consequences of this endeavor was the first (to my knowledge) conference on animal memory held at Dalhousie University in 1969. The book that resulted from that conference (Honig & James, 1971) was the first that really dealt with memory as representation and as such marks the true beginning of the study of animal cognition.

(p. 885) Developments

Through the 1970s, the field of comparative cognition began to plant deep roots. As evidence of this growth, consider some volumes that appeared during the decade. Medin, Roberts, and Davis published Processes of animal memory in 1976. Premack (1976) published Intelligence in ape and man in the same year. I, together with Harry Fowler and Werner Honig, published Cognitive processes in animal behavior in 1978. With both pride and humility, I think we were the first actually to use the term cognitive in a title for a book reporting experimental work with animals. In the early 1980s, Roitblat, Bever, and Terrace (1984) published a large book (based on a conference at Columbia University) entitled Animal cognition that contained chapters by the leaders in the new field.

And so it goes. I recently checked the Eisenhower Library book holdings at Johns Hopkins using the keywords animal cognition. The search generated 80 titles, the newest published in 2004. Without doubt, animal cognition is very much a part of the current scene in experimental psychology (and in parts of biology, evolutionary psychology, and ethology).

What Has Happened to S-R Associationism and Skinner’s Behavioral Psychology?

A complete answer to that question would no doubt require many essays, if not books. But I would like to make a few personal observations.

First, current studies of association as expressed in the language of Pavlovian conditioning are numerous and continue to make significant contributions to knowledge. Robert Rescorla, Allan Wagner, N. R. Mackintosh, John Pearce, and Peter Holland (now at Johns Hopkins, I’m delighted to say), among many others, both defined the modern field in the 1970s and continue to develop it today. There is no doubt that the study of simple associations (which are not so simple at all!) remains a fruitful, and important enterprise. That is true not only for the information gained about associative learning per se, but more recently because the associative model and the knowledge we have acquired about it in the last 30 years or so provide important tools for studying the mediation of learning and memory by the central nervous system. Besides, representation, memory, and the retrieval of memory remain important topics; they certainly fall within the general realm of cognitive processes.

I believe that Skinner’s continuing influence lies not so much in the experimental analysis of behavior that was so important in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather in the practical application of behavioral control. Let me quote from the last sentence of The behavior of organisms (1938):

“… We must cast our lot with a non-statistical investigation of the individual and achieve whatever degree of reliability or reproducibility we may through the techniques of measurement and control” (p. 444)

Skinner was drawing a contrast between the statistical approach to the study of behavior in which one uses research to describe the behavior of groups of individuals in terms of measures of central tendency and variability, and the study of behavior in which one examines the variables that control behavior, one individual at a time. This single-organism approach has proven to be very powerful, especially in arenas where the goal is to help individuals manage themselves (e.g., in institutional settings where feedback, shaping, tokens, and so on, are important therapeutic tools). The approach that Skinner espoused has even contributed to our everyday lexicon. For example, although I did not use the term in raising my own children (not many did so then), my grandchildren are very familiar with “time out” for bad behavior; they are not alone, I’m sure. More recently (December 8, 2004), an article in the Wall Street Journal proposed that instead of a fine, investment firms should be forced to take a time out from doing business for an infraction of the rules. A lot of research suggests this ought to be quite effective. In any case, I suspect that few recognize that the term was originally used in the study of pigeon behavior at Harvard.

Comparative Cognition Today

I started this essay with the observation that this book defines, per se, the current scene in comparative cognition as well as anything could. However, I want to make a few observations that may be handy.

Cognitive Processes in 1978 and in 2005

First, I think that the main contribution of animal cognition as it appeared in the 1970s was to legitimize certain topics for experimental study with nonhuman animals, and second to develop the techniques to do so. To illustrate this idea, let us compare the topics that were covered by the contributors to Hulse, Fowler, and Honig (1978) with those that are covered here. In 1978, the 14 chapters in Hulse, Fowler, and Honig touched on (p. 886) the following general topics using either rats or pigeons as subjects: representations and expectancies in Pavlovian conditioning, avoidance learning (especially cue-to-consequence effects), working and spatial memory, “surprise” in Pavlovian blocking, selective attention, timing, and serial learning. One chapter touched on nonhuman primate behavior: cognitive mapping in chimpanzees. A final chapter discussed the abstractness of human concepts and how that idea impinges potentially on a search for abstract concepts in nonhuman behavior; comparisons were made between the capacities of pigeons, nonhuman primates, and dolphins. Premack (who wrote the last chapter) could have talked about “language” in nonhuman primates, but he did not, at least directly. In fact, nonhuman primates were noteworthy for their limited appearance on stage—the platform was dominated mostly by rats and pigeons.

By 2005, approximately a quarter century later, this book contains chapters covering the following topics (broadly defined): perceptual grouping; visual illusions, visual and spatial cognition; pitch perception; reaction time; search images and attention; spatial learning and mapping as used per se and in foraging; spatial, prospective, and retrospective memory, and memory for lists in both the auditory and visual domain. Then there is timing and the interaction of time and event/place learning; numerical ability; categorization and conceptualization (in many forms); sequential learning; tool use; cognitive development, and “intelligence” more generally defined. The field has certainly expanded!

Similarly, let us look at the species studied. They include the usual suspects, pigeons and rats, but also rhesus monkeys, capuchin monkeys, baboons, chickens, several species of songbirds (including scrub jays, ravens, crows, and chickadees), honeybees, humans, chimpanzees, dolphins, and quail (I hope I haven’t missed any!). So, we have primates, both human and nonhuman, birds of several taxa, insects, and rodents; this contingent represents a substantial expansion of the animals studied since the 1970s.

What generalizations can we draw from these facts? First, the range of topics that are now included in the study of comparative cognition has broadened substantially. I am particularly impressed by the sensory and perceptual processes that are under scrutiny when they were not before, by the various guises in which research on memory now appears, by the growing body of literature concerning how animals find their way in the world through maps, landmarks, and the like, and by the various forms of research on concept and category formation.

The study of language or language-like behavior in nonhuman animals is not a major part of the discussion in this book, although several chapters do touch on the subject. My impression of this literature is that it has taught us more about human language than animal “language” in the sense that we have learned what people can do that animals cannot. But, maybe we have mined the best of what was to be learned about the topic and moved on.

In any case, it is clear that comparative cognition is alive and well today, attracting new students, and enjoying increasing international interest. What of the future?

Comparative Cognition Tomorrow

In this section I want to speculate. That is an enterprise, of course, that is fraught with hazard because there is a good chance that some of my speculations (I hope not all!) will be wrong. But, prognostication can be useful, so I am going to take the plunge. I will take credit for any wisdom that proves prophetic in the times ahead; please indulge me any mistakes.

Will We Have a Truly Comparative Cognition?

In the previous section, I noted that the species that were studied in the 1970s were very limited in number, a fact that was first lamented by Frank Beach (1950) decades before the 1970s ever arrived. Substantial progress has been made in the last quarter century, as I also noted. But there is still room to grow.

I believe that it is especially important to emphasize an ethological tradition in choosing both species, topics, and experimental paradigms as we plan our research. That is why I lamented early on in my remarks about the relative absence of ethological influences in American studies of animal learning. My comment here is also in the spirit of the recent emphasis on evolutionary psychology and on the perspective that an evolutionary approach has to offer.

For example, with a few important exceptions, we rarely choose species as a tool in our experimentation. Sara Shettleworth has adopted this technique in some important work of her own (well summarized in her 1998 book), and several of the authors in the present book have also used this tool to good effect. For example, we can learn interesting things when we compare the behavior of closely related (p. 887) species on some common task, e.g., the food-storing ability of corvid birds. That is especially so when we are interested in the neurological substrate of the behavior in question.

In a related sense, we rarely—as experimentalists—select a species for its own sake and then work out methods to study whatever cognitive capacities that species may possess. We are still overly wedded, in my opinion, to a general-process theory of learning in which we cling to the faith that there are “typical” animals from which broad generalizations can be drawn about behavior in many species. We are getting better, as many of the chapters in this book demonstrate. I foresee less and less research on an existence proof—that is, whether or not a given species has the same cognitive capacity as we, or some other species, do (usually, the species is us). But, we are still stuck sometimes on an anthropocentric approach to the problems that we choose to study in nonhuman animals. Here is where ethology and a keen sensitivity to evolutionary principles can help us.

Going into the Field

I believe that there is much to be gained by doing research on cognitive processes as they are used in animals’ natural habitats—or as close to natural habitats as we can devise. Cheney and Seyfarth’s work in Africa is an excellent case in point. Although there are many obvious advantages to the controlled environment of the laboratory, who knows what we lose when we measure cognitive processes under such restricted and unnatural (for the animal) conditions? Although field work is expensive and difficult to do, we should do more of it. I think we, or our colleagues in ethology and evolutionary biology, will do so.

The Development of Cognitive Processes

It is striking how little work has been done on the development of cognitive processes in nonhuman animals. There is much to be learned, I think, from watching cognitively-based behavior, such as memory, begin to take hold as an animal begins to grow. On the other end of the spectrum, we know little about the loss (or lack of it!) of cognitive capacity at the end of life. Developmental psychology has always been popular and important, and we should bring it into our field more than we have.

For example, what happens to the memory for food locations in food-caching birds as they age? Offhand, from a general-process point of view, we would suspect memory loss. But what if that were not so? Is food caching somehow a privileged capacity in these species such that it is highly resistant to forgetting even as the animal ages?

Applied Work

It is important to bring what we know about cognitive behavior in the abstract into situations of practical significance. Years ago, that was not so; there was something “pure” about basic research. For many, basic research was not to be sullied by bringing it to applied problems. That is certainly no longer true nor should it be.

Perhaps studies on the interaction between behavior and pharmacology is one of the better examples. Given the surge in research on new drugs in the last decades, comparative cognition has a major role to play in the enterprise. For example, most of us who focus on behavior are distressed at the simple (if not simple-minded) use of such prosaic tasks as passive avoidance to assess the effects on behavior of psychotropic drugs. Passive avoidance tasks are cheap to develop and easy to administer, but they hardly provide a representative sample of the behavior for which the item in question may be used eventually. Comparative cognition can bring psychopharmacology the wealth of knowledge and the sophisticated techniques that can make the field far more realistic and fruitful. Besides, I am under the impression that research funds are far more readily available for applied work with animals than they are for basic research. We should go for it!

Neurobiology and Systems Neuroscience

I have two points to make here—beyond the obvious fact that neurobiology and the study of the interaction between brain and behavior are here to stay. The first is, in a way, related to what I have just had to say about the naive and rather simple-minded application of behavioral techniques in fields such as behavioral pharmacology. In commenting on this problem earlier, I had this to say (Hulse, 2002):

I urge that instead of many complicated neurobiological manipulations measured by just one behavioral assay, we strive to use one neurobiological manipulation measured by many behavioral assays. An altered brain state creates, in effect, an entirely new animal for comparative study, and who knows how the alteration may manifest itself in behavior? (p. 16)

Psychologists and systems neuroscientists are following this tenet more and more, but it is an important thing to keep in mind.

(p. 888) My second point, also mentioned earlier, is the steady decline of the study of behavior for its own sake in animal psychology, in general, and in comparative cognition, in particular. I have the sense—this is certainly the case in biopsychology in my department at Johns Hopkins—that behavior is used primarily as an assay in the service of studying brain function. That is a slight overstatement of course; but, I am continually struck by how little graduate students know about the fundamentals of associative learning, for example, to say nothing of the principles of comparative cognition. Nonetheless, the brain is a fascinating structure; with the new tools that we now have to study it, it is going to remain a primary focus of attention.

I am not sure what to do about this. It is not a bad thing in principle. Students are trained to go where the funding is these days—they have to find jobs—and neuroscience is far richer at the moment than behavioral psychology, and likely to stay that way. I can certainly understand the need for training that leads to jobs, and I wish I knew how to increase funding for the study of behavior itself (but write your Congressman). Perhaps we should strive for a balance between the fields; after all, neuroscience is presumably in the service of explaining behavior, and it should better appreciate and understand what it is trying to explain. There are pendulums here, swinging back and forth in time, and it would be a pity if they did not come to rest somewhere in the middle.

Comparative Pseudo-Cognition

Since Darwin (and probably long before), we have always been fascinated by the concepts of mind and consciousness. There are some, I think, who have taken the growth of comparative cognition (as described by the topics in this book) as an opportunity to return to such fuzzy concepts. Here are some illustrative titles that I noted in Hulse (2002). I have added some others here:

The question of animal awareness: evolutionary continuity of mental experience (Griffin, 1976)

How monkeys see the world: inside the mind of another species (Cheney & Seyfarth, 1990)

Cognitive ethology: the minds of other animals: essays in honor of Donald R. Griffin (Ristau, 1991)

The animal mind (Gould, 1994)

Wild minds: what animals really think (Hauser, 2000)

Animal cognition: the mental lives of animals (Wynne, 2001)

Animal minds: beyond cognition to consciousness (Griffin, 2001)

Now, in most cases, I have little question that these titles label books that describe perfectly sound and reasonable research and, once again, in most cases, perfectly sound and reasonable interpretations of that research. But, the titles are conducive—certainly as the public eye sees them—to interpretations of animal behavior that we have struggled for more than a hundred years to discredit. If behaviorism went to one extreme, then I believe these titles represent a view of comparative cognition that goes to another, a view we had best avoid. Perhaps I tilt at windmills here; I hope so.

There Be Dragons Here

Ancient map makers used this phrase to describe unexplored parts of the world. That was a fair warning at the time. Today, other dragons lurk in comparative cognition, and unfortunately, the beasts are all too present in the current landscape. I refer to organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and a number of even more militant groups that are single-mindedly set against the use of animals for, among other things, any experimental purpose whatsoever. This whole issue is worth another essay at least, and many do exist, so I will not go farther. However, as we all know, the future of our science is in jeopardy. This is especially so when we are working on problems in comparative psychology that easily lend themselves to anthropomorphic interpretations. These just ask for trouble. Fortunately, there are many organizations, such as the American Psychological Association for example, which work diligently on behalf of science’s point of view. But, this is a problem for which no clear end is in sight, and we would do well to climb the ramparts and remain dragon fighters.5


Before I began this essay, I asked our editors for some suggestions regarding the contents of a “postscript” chapter. The response was that I should describe comparative cognition as it grew over the past 25 years, and then speculate what the field might look like 25 years from now. Neither I nor anyone can make valid guesses about what is going to happen to comparative psychology in the near future—much less 25 years from now. However, I have used my 50-year allotment by going back farther into history than the editors suggested. (p. 889) I thought it was necessary, and illuminating, to examine more distant roots of our field.

I also began this essay with some early personal experiences in order to describe the state of the field of animal learning as I (and many others) experienced it when we were students. Without doubt, we have all become wiser in the interim. Still, I lament that it took so long for comparative cognition to adopt some of the science that underpins it now. Behaviorism held such sway that animal psychology in America took years to return to its evolutionary roots and recognize the importance of ethology and related disciplines. Perhaps modern ethology and evolutionary ecology have benefited in return—at least from the disciplined thought about animal behavior that behaviorism required.

In any case, I see a bright future for our field, and I look forward to being part of it—maybe even for 25 years. My thanks to the editors for the chance to prepare this essay.



Beach, F. (1950). The snark was a boojum. American Psychologist, 5, 115–124.Find this resource:

Bolles, R. C. (1970). Species-specific defense reactions and avoidance learning. Psychological Review, 77, 32,48.Find this resource:

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(1) I have commented in other places on some of the ideas I discuss here, especially in a book edited by Fountain, Bunsey, Danks, and McBeath (2002). In that volume, I was especially concerned about the problem of sequential order in behavior (the topic of the conference from which the book originated), but I ventured some thoughts about animal cognition more generally that are also relevant here. The reader will forgive me if borrow briefly from myself on one or two occasions.

(2) There were exceptions, of course, although all were couched not in ethological terms, but in those of comparative psychology. N. R. F. Maier and T. C. Schneirla wrote Principles of animal psychology in 1935 (Maier & Schneirla, 1935) from a comparative perspective. Some of us read this book. Then there was Margaret Washburn’s The animal mind (which was published initially in 1908 and revised through a fourth edition in 1936). So far as I know, none of us read this one—for perhaps obvious reasons.

(3) I have paraphrased some of this paragraph from Hulse (2002).

(4) Consciousness is once again a topic for discussion and research—at least in human psychology. I would maintain that the term remains of dubious value in animal psychology. However, this is another example of psychology rediscovering old issues and looking at them afresh.

(5) The dragon’s breath, of course, flames over a much wider expanse of medicine and science than comparative cognition. Perhaps, too, I beat a dead reptile here.