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Archived NIMBioS Working Group

Cooperation and Cognition

Topic: Cooperation and communication in the evolution of cognition

Meeting dates: December 9-11, 2015; May 4-6, 2016

Arik Kershenbaum, Zoology, Univ. of Cambridge
Dan Blumstein, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA
Marie Roch, Computer Science, San Diego State Univ.
Sara Waller, Philosophy, Montana State Univ.
Yu Shiu, Bioacoustics, Cornell Univ.


All animals solve problems because to do so increases their fitness. In most cases, natural selection can explain complex adaptive behaviours that may give the impression of "intelligence:" foraging, predator avoidance, etc. However, some behaviours – particularly those that require complex predictions about future events – are less easily explained by simple adaptation of non-cognitive behaviour. Humans solve such problems by forming abstract mental models of the behaviour of other individuals, something that requires a sense of oneself as an individual, and an understanding that other individuals have a similar sense of self. Attempts to detect such a theory of mind experimentally in non-human animals have been controversial, and many researchers maintain that only humans have a sense of self.

Some animal behaviours, such as cooperative hunting, are difficult to explain using simple adaptive mechanisms. Coordination between hunters may provide greatly improved probability of success, but would appear to require that individual hunters predict the actions of their pack-mates, something that would imply a sense of self and sense of other. Communication between hunting animals may facilitate the progress of a hunt, and as such could be an indicator of complex mental states such as individual self-awareness and theory of mind.

This working group will build mathematical models of complex behaviour, such as cooperative hunting, based on a range of assumptions, such as degree of self-awareness, the extent to which individuals can and do predict the choices of their pack-mates, and the amount of information transferred between individuals communicatively. This will provide a framework for testing the evolutionary advantage of theory of mind when performing complex cooperative tasks.

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Meeting Summaries

Mtg # Dates Agenda Summary Photo Evaluation
1 Dec 9-11, 2015 Link Link Report
2 May 4-6, 2016 pdf

Meeting 1 Summary. Many collective behaviors such as flocking and herding can be explained by simple individual-based interaction rules, without the need for complex cognitive explanations. However, social cognition varies widely among animal species and in some cases is highly sophisticated. If simple interactions requiring limited cognitive abilities are generally sufficient to produce complex social behavior, it is surprising that complex cognition evolved at all. Our group seeks to understand this apparent contradiction: how do complex cognitive skills benefit individuals, when should animals be smarter, and how does this vary across different species and ecological niches? We investigate these questions using the example of collective/cooperative hunting. In our first meeting, we developed a conceptual and analytical framework for addressing these complex questions, defined concepts, and determined our group's focus. We began developing several formal models (both simulation-based and analytical), and drafted the introduction for the first of a series of planned papers.

Group photo.
Meeting 1 participants (L to R): Arik Kershenbaum, Rufus Johnstone, Dan Blumstein, Marie Roch, Elizabeth Hobson, Margaret Crofoot, Susan Alberts, Yu Shiu. Not pictured: Sara Waller.

NIMBioS Working Groups are chosen to focus on major scientific questions at the interface between biology and mathematics. NIMBioS is particularly interested in questions that integrate diverse fields, require synthesis at multiple scales, and/or make use of or require development of new mathematical/computational approaches. NIMBioS Working Groups are relatively small (up to 10 participants), focus on a well-defined topic, and have well-defined goals and metrics of success. Working Groups will meet up to 3 times over a two-year period, with each meeting lasting up to 2.5 days.

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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