5th Annual Lecture | Frans de Waal

"Cognitive Continuity: A Kingdom Full of Special Mental Capacities"

Frans de Waal

Living Links, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, EMORY University, Atlanta

"Cognitive Continuity: A Kingdom Full of Special Mental Capacities"  


3:00 pm | Welcome by Heinz W. Engl (Rector of UniVie)
3:15 pm | Welcome by Franz-Markus Peschl (CogSci Research Platform, UniVie)
3:20 pm | Introduction by Thomas Bugnyar (Department of CogBio, UniVie)
3:30 pm | Lecture by Frans B. M. de Waal (Emory University, USA)
4:30 pm | Reception

About the talk

Despite the mechanistic view of animals that prevailed during last century, an undercurrent of scientists nourished a more cognitive approach. Initially, their research was ridiculed and suppressed, while a firm taboo was placed on anthropomorphism. They were told to favor simple explanations of behavior. From a Darwinian perspective, however, the simplest assumption about related species (such as humans and apes) is that behavioral similarity is based on psychological and mental similarity. Cognitive continuity ought to be the default assumption. Neuroscience increasingly supports homologies, and human uniqueness claims have fallen one by one. Other primates are now being depicted as political, cultural, even moral beings. The wall between human and animal cognition has begun to resemble a Swiss cheese. This cognitive revolution is not limited to the primates, however. It is rippling across the entire animal kingdom, from tool-using crows to cooperating fish. Many unexpected new capacities have come to light, such as that animals monitor their own knowledge (metacognition) or reflect on past and future (time travel). Many cognitive capacities are the product of convergent evolution, which means they do not fit a one-dimensional scale from “lower” to “higher” forms. Instead of universal learning mechanisms that apply to all animals equally, we see highly variable cognitions connected to the ecological context of each species. I will provide an overview of the methods and findings of this new science, called evolutionary cognition, with an accent on primates and elephants and my own specialization in cooperation and empathy. The central message is one of cognition on demand.

About the speaker

Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social cognition of primates. His scientific work has been published in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior. His popular books - translated into over twenty languages - have made him one of the world's most visible primatologists. His latest book is Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton, 2016). De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology, Director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, and Distinguished Professor at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today.


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