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Dr Pamela Lyon
ARC Postdoctoral Fellow
708 Napier Building
North Terrace Campus

Email: Pamela Lyon
Phone: +61 8 8303 4920
Fax: +61 8 8303 4341

Why Cognitive Biology?

The adjective ‘cognitive’ generally refers to a computational or information-processing approach (e.g., cognitive psychology, cognitive ethology, cognitive anthropology, cognitive neurobiology). When Brian Goodwin (1978) and Margaret Boden (1980) first employed the phrase 'cognitive biology' (albeit each slightly differently from the other), their main point was that information-processing ideas and analogies — for example, information, signal transduction, encoding, decoding — could be used to illuminate and better understand biological phenomena.

We adopt this usage with some qualms, caveats and further elaboration. While we adopt the information-processing implications of ‘cognitive’, we believe that important mechanistic and structural aspects of cognition were obscured, rather than illuminated, by the use of this language, not least because it depended on highly abstract ‘functionalist’ scaffolding. We are interested in mechanisms, especially mechanisms that have been conserved despite large-scale evolutionary change.

First and foremost, however, we are interested in the explicitly cognitive (mental) aspects of biological phenomena, those that concern the traditional subject matter of psychology: cognition, affect and motivation.

Why Cognitive Biology?

Why not ‘biological cognitive science’ or something like that? Why not simply ‘embodied cognition’, a label in widespread use that people can relate to? Two main reasons: one is a matter of emphasis, the other of method. We want to keep the focus on biology because for too long cognition was considered a function that could be almost entirely divorced from its physical instantiation, to the extent that whatever could be said of cognition almost by definition had to be applicable to both organisms and machines.

We believe the foundations of cognitive science will become much clearer than they currently are  if cognitive scientists assume (if only for the sake of enquiry) that cognition is a biological function similar to other biological functions--such as respiration, nutrient circulation, waste elimination, and so on. The humble bacterium Escherichia coli became the workhorse of genetics not simply because it was easy to grow but because it became clear that many of genetic mechanisms discovered in bacteria applied to much more complex plants and animals, including humans, which was a real surprise (Darwin notwithstanding). Genomic comparisons of hundreds of organisms as different as worms and humans suggest that a staggering number of biological mechanisms, including those underlying information processing, are highly conserved among widely divergent creatures.

By adopting a rigorously natural-science approach to cognition, we believe we will gain more traction on the foundational issues of what cognition is, what it does and how it works. Currently, we cannot say that this organism is cognitive and that one is not, in the way that biologists can say this organism reproduces sexually or not. Application of the label ‘cognition’ to a collection of processes depends almost entirely on the opinion (however educated) of the person applying it. As far as we can tell, no other scientific enterprise (certainly, no successful scientific enterprise) allows quite this degree of latitude in defining central theoretical constructs. Meanwhile, the need to attend to the descriptive and theoretical foundations of cognitive science is becoming ever more critical, as the flood of empirical data grows more oceanic by the day--to a point, as Steven Rose puts it, that "almost inhibits meaning".