Sara Shettleworth:

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(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The Canadian zoologist Sara Shettleworth has probably written the most comprehensive study of the animal mind ever and therefore a fundamental textbook on "comparative cognition".
She first gets consciousness out of the way: whether an animal is conscious or not is impossible to determine, since consciousness is a private,subjective phenomenon. We can study cognition, and certainly cognition lends credibility to the idea that at least some animals must be at least to some degree conscious, but experiments can only prove facts about cognition. She reviews the field of cognitive ethology from the beginning and then analyzes the main cognitive tasks from an information-processing perspective: how animals process information: perception (how information is acquired by the senses), attention (how information is selected), learning, memory, communication, etc.
Her conclusion is that the animal mind is structured in a number of adaptively specialized modules. She subscribes to Sherry's theory that different cognitive modules may be using different processing techniques, as determined by evolution. She claims that all animals are "intelligent", if by "intelligent" we mean capable of solving problem of ecological relevance (otherwise they would be extinct). After all, if cognition is modular, it is unfair to compare the modules of one animal (such as humans) the modules of another animal, since they can be more or less relevant in a species for the species' unique problem solving requirements.
By the end of her review of cognitive faculties, it become apparent that, at least among vertebrates, there are no significant differences in learning, except for language. All vertebrates are capable of "associative" learning, to some degree. What no other vertebrate seems to be capable of is "syntax". This lends credibility to MacPhail's hypothesis that language could be a human-specific module. No matter how "intelligent" the problem solving of other animals can be, it still does not allow them to grasp the concept of syntax (meaning composed from a number of ordered elements).

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