Evolutionary transitions in learning and cognition.


Ginsburg S(1), Jablonka E(2)(3).
Author information:
(1)Natural Science Department, The Open University of Israel, 1 University Road, POB 808, Raanana 4353701, Israel.
(2)The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv University, 6934525 Ramat Aviv, Israel.
(3)CPNSS, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK.


We define a cognitive system as a system that can learn, and adopt an evolutionary-transition-oriented framework for analysing different types of neural cognition. This enables us to classify types of cognition and point to the continuities and discontinuities among them. The framework we use for studying evolutionary transitions in learning capacities focuses on qualitative changes in the integration, storage and use of neurally processed information. Although there are always grey areas around evolutionary transitions, we recognize five major neural transitions, the first two of which involve animals at the base of the phylogenetic tree: (i) the evolutionary transition from learning in non-neural animals to learning in the first neural animals; (ii) the transition to animals showing limited, elemental associative learning, entailing neural centralization and primary brain differentiation; (iii) the transition to animals capable of unlimited associative learning, which, on our account, constitutes sentience and entails hierarchical brain organization and dedicated memory and value networks; (iv) the transition to imaginative animals that can plan and learn through selection among virtual events; and (v) the transition to human symbol-based cognition and cultural learning. The focus on learning provides a unifying framework for experimental and theoretical studies of cognition in the living world. This article is part of the theme issue 'Basal cognition: multicellularity, neurons and the cognitive lens'.