Do animals make shopping lists?

21 September 2010

It may be a bird found in North America and not our closest relatives, the great apes, that prove the human process of thought is not as special as first supposed according to a talk being given at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire today (20 September). The presentation forms part of a symposium on “Cognition, computation and consciousness”.

A number of cognitive psychologists have argued that the fundamental distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to imagine the future. As humans, we spend much of our time planning the long-term future, from shopping lists to pension plans. Traditionally, it has been claimed that only humans are capable of such temporal perspective taking because mental time travel, the ability to cast one’s mind forwards and backwards in time to reminisce about the past and imagine future scenarios, is unique to humans.

Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, of the University of Cambridge, will present evidence showing that a large-brained member of the crow family, the western scrub-jay, is able to plan for the long term future. In a study with scrub-jays, which naturally hide food caches for future, the birds learned to expect breakfast to be served only in one of two rooms, the breakfast room as opposed to hungry room. When given a novel opportunity to cache in the evening, the birds preferentially hid the food for tomorrow’s breakfast in the hungry room suggesting that they can indeed plan for the future.

Professor Clayton says of the findings: 

“In understanding the origins of human cognition, a fundamental distinction is made between a particular competence is the product of cultural evolution e.g. mathematical reasoning as opposed to a consequence of biological evolution e.g. trial and error learning. The fact that we share the capacity for future planning with other animals suggests the latter.”

The symposium part of an extensive scientific programme at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre and will cover topic such as is the human brain special; the evolution of human culture; and the genetic basis of cognition. Speakers include Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor Robert Plomin and Sir Paul Mellars FBA.