Examining the Evolution of Cognition Using a Breed Differences Approach

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Examining the effects of evolution on cognition presents both cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists with an extraordinary challenge: Cognition does not fossilize and is therefore difficult to track over evolutionary time. It is far easier to examine the effects of evolution on morphological changes, as these differences are physically apparent and easily observable in the fossil record. One way to observe the effects of evolution on cognition is to explore how known selection pressures shape cognition in related species yet this can lead to some confounding variables as different species also have different morphological or motivational mechanisms at work as well as cognitive mechanisms. We therefore examined the evolution of cognition through artificial selection of cognition traits in the domestic dog- a single species with breeds that have been selected by humans to perform specific behavioral roles. Different breed groups of dogs have been preferentially bred to succeed in different tasks, which help to generate intuitive predictions about which breed groups should succeed on some cognitive tasks and which groups should be less successful. We therefore conducted a self-control task: the cylinder task. In this task dogs mush inhibit their instinct to go directly towards food and must detour around a clear barrier to successfully achieve the food reward. We will demonstrate that although dogs are, as a whole, fairly successful with this task, variation in breed relates to variation in success at the cylinder task. We suggest that exploring breed differences in cognition in dogs can provide some insight into the evolution of cognition more broadly.



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