The Department of Cognitive Biology favours a new approach to the study of cognition and communication, in both animals and humans, with firm roots in both classical ethology and traditional cognitive science. This approach is pluralistic, and follows Tinbergen's injunction to study any given biological trait from the multiple perspectives of phylogeny (evolutionary history), ontogeny (developmental history), mechanism (cognitive, neural and hormonal physiology) and function (adaptation). The approach is strongly comparative: multiple species are studied, and compared within a rigorous phylogenetic framework, to understand the evolutionary history and adaptive function of cognitive mechanisms ("cognitive phylogenetics"). We are strongly committed to experimental evaluation of multiple, testable hypotheses, rather than focusing solely on theoretical or philosophical questions.
The main roots of this approach, sometimes termed "cognitive biology", can be found in classical ethology, particularly in the Tinbergen/Lorenz tradition of field work and comparative investigation, and experimental psychology, with its focus on rigorous experimental work in the laboratory. Both careful and controlled lab experiments, and empirical study of animals in their natural environments, are considered crucial to a complete understanding of most cognitive traits. Thus, we often combine field work with laboratory work, and we attempt to combine the naturalist's eye for species-typical behaviour with the psychologist's search for shared cognitive mechanisms.
Crucially, we accept the explanatory power of cognitive and mentalistic concepts in understanding behaviour. Contemporary cognitive science is focused on human cognition, some scientists remain doubtful about whether, and when, cognitive concepts can be appropriately ascribed to animals. Part of the goal of our research is to help complete the cognitive revolution, by demonstrating the applicability of basic cognitive concepts to nonhuman animals, and thus strengthening and broadening our biological understanding of human cognition and communication.