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The evolution of comparative cognition: is the snark still a boojum?


In "The Snark is a Boojum", Beach [Beach, F.A., 1950. The snark was a boojum. American Psychologist. 5, 115-124] famously asserted that animal psychology embraced too few species and too few problems to deserve the name comparative. Later in the 20th century, others [e.g. Kamil, A.C., 1988. A synthetic approach to the study of animal intelligence. In: Leger, D.W. (Ed.), Comparative Perspectives in Modern Psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 35. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, pp. 230-257; Shettleworth, S.J., 1993. Where is the comparison in comparative cognition? Alternative research programs. Psychological Science. 4, 179-184] expressed similar concerns about the new subfield of comparative cognition, suggesting that a more biological approach to choice of species and problems was needed to balance a dominant anthropocentrism. The last 10-15 years have seen many new developments, and a recent survey like Beach's reveals a very different picture. Not only are many more species being studied, contributions by researchers from different backgrounds are increasing, and research on comparative cognition is better connected with developmental psychology, behavioral neuroscience, primatology, behavioral ecology, and other fields. Contemporary research addresses three major aspects of cognition about equally: basic processes, physical cognition, and social cognition. This article describes a selected research program from each area, chosen to exemplify current trends and challenges for the field.