Foundations for a Cognitive Biology
Cognition is, first and foremost, a natural biological phenomenon — regardless of how the engineering of artificial intelligence proceeds. As such, it makes sense to approach cognition like other biological phenomena. This means first assuming a meaningful degree of continuity among different types of organisms—an assumption borne out more and more by comparative biology, especially genomics—studying simple model systems (e.g., microbes, worms, flies) to understand the basics, then scaling up to more complex examples, such as mammals and primates, including humans.
The start-simple-scale-up approach enabled the truly stunning achievements in molecular biology and genetics in the second half of the 20th century. During the same period cognitive science focused mainly on the most complex end of the cognitive spectrum (e.g., language comprehension, human problem solving). Six decades after the dawn of the ‘cogitive revolution,’ and despite one of the most intensive research efforts in human history, we still can’t even agree on which phenomena are cognitive, except in the most uncontroversial cases (e.g., humans, great apes).
With funding from the Australian Research Council (DP0880559), philosophers and scientists at the University of Adelaide and several other institutions in Australia and overseas are aiming to develop a conceptual toolkit for describing cognitive (and/or proto-cognitive) phenomena across diverse kinds of living things. The idea is to look first at the simple model systems that have proved so successful elsewhere in biology to see whether analogues or homologues of the cognitive functions and mechanisms we know from research in more complex animals (e.g., rodents, apes, humans) can found be there. It is hoped a theoretically well-grounded toolkit of basic cognitive concepts will facilitate the use and discussion of research carried out in different fields to increase understanding of two foundational issues: what cognition is and what cognition does in the biological context.
Cognitive Biology was inspired by and is firmly situated within the 'biohumanities' framework initiated by Professor Paul E. Griffiths (University of Sydney), during his Federation Fellowship, and since elaborated as a programme with his longtime colleague, Dr Karola Stotz. As they describe it in a recent issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology:
Biohumanities is a view of the relationship between the humanities (especially philosophy and history of science), biology and society. In this vision, the humanities not only comment on the significance or implications of biological knowledge but add to our understanding of biology itself. (Stotz and Griffiths 2008, p. 37)