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Animal learning and intelligence


The ability to learn is common to most animal species: the need to exploit past experience being obviously extremely important for survival, many animals have evolved ways of coping with it. Although the complexity of learning needed for optimal survival may be different in different species, the basic mechanisms appear to be fairly constant even in phylogenetically distant ones. This homogeneity across species in learning mechanisms is in some ways surprising in view of the large phylogenetic differences and of the considerable variability not only in the general plan of their bodily structures, but also, more specifically, in their neural organization and in their behavioral adaptations. One possible explanation is that animals have acquired learning very precociously, and that the original and basic mechanisms have proved so efficient and faultproof as to be preserved from then on without any significant modification. Most researchers of the subject seem to accept the equation «intelligence=learning capability», operationally very useful because it leads to a variety of formal tests. Some researchers, stressing that behavior is subject to the same evolutionary principles as any other character of the organism and acknowledging some problems in the accepted laws of learning, have tried to find a satisfactory answer to the question of animal intelligence by attempting a synthesis between the concepts of animal learning psychology and those of ethology. To some extent, dissatisfaction with established learning theories originated within the theories themselves: the study of phenomena such as autoshaping, selective attention, preferential learning of some responses amongst the many possible, conditioned learning of taste aversions, etc. Further difficulties for conditioning theories arose from the discovery of ethological phenomena. Other researchers have attempted to check the hypothesis that animals possess cognition. A number of complex experimental situtations have been devised to this purpose, but the results still are far from conclusive.