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Cognitive Biology

The University of Adelaide Australia

Foundations for a Cognitive Biology

The Idea

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 Rationale

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).

The Project

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)

In the News

Risky Business

wmc apis mellifera carnica drone

Most people think twice before making decisions. As it turns out, so do bees. Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Tel Aviv found that both people and bees are more likely to gamble on risky courses of action, rather than opting for the safer alternative, when the differences between the possible outcomes are easily distinguishable. When the outcomes are difficult to discern, however, both are more likely to select the safer option—even if the probabilities of success have not changed. (Source: Newswise; Nature 12 June 2008, p. 917)