Josep Call on Studying Cognition in Animals

Scientist Interview: August 2011

Josep Call

In a recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Clarivate Analytics, Dr. Josep Call was named a Rising Star in the field of Psychiatry & Psychology. His work also ranks among the top 1% among researchers in the field of Plant & Animal Science and the Multidisciplinary field. His overall record in the database includes 115 papers cited a total of 2,653 times between January 1, 2001 and April 30, 2011.

Call is the Director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig, Germany, which is part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He is also the Editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, on the editorial boards of five other journals, and a member of the American Psychological Association, the Asociacion Primatologica Española, and the International Society for Comparative Psychology.


SW: Please tell us about your educational background and research experiences.

I am a comparative psychologist specialized in primate cognition. I received a B.A. (1990) from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain), and a Master's (1995) and a Ph.D. (1997) from Emory University, Atlanta (USA). From 1997 to 1999 I was a lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool (UK) where I taught courses on primate cognition and cognitive evolution. In 1999 I moved to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) where I am currently a senior scientist and co-founder and director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig.

SW:What first drew you to evolutionary anthropology? Is there a specific area within this field on which you focus, or do you maintain a wide variety of interests?

ApesI have always been interested in animal behavior in general and animal problem solving in particular. Most of my work entails assessing ape problem-solving skills in a variety of situations both with experimental and observational methods. By comparing how human and nonhuman apes solve problems we hope to contribute to elucidating what (and when) changes occurred during the cognitive evolution of apes and humans.

SW:One of your most-cited original papers from our databases is the 2000 Animal Behaviour paper you coauthored, "Chimpanzees know what conspecifics do and do not see," (Hare B, et al., 59: 771-75, part 4 April 2000). Would you tell us a bit about this paper—your expectations going in, how the work was done, your findings, where this work has gone since this publication?

At that time, my colleagues (Brian Hare, Bryan Agnetta, Mike Tomasello) and I had become dissatisfied with the way experiments on visual perspective taking in apes were being conducted, and this includes some of our own work. The problem was that the setup, often adapted from studies with children, presented apes with what amounted to a cooperative situation in which a human tried to inform an ape about the location of some hidden food. However, this is not what chimpanzees typically do. Instead, chimpanzees often compete for food with other chimpanzees.

So we presented our question on visual perspective taking in a competitive rather than a cooperative setup. The results really surprised us since chimpanzees performed really well compared to previous studies. Since then other colleagues have adopted this competitive paradigm to test other species including other primates, goats, and birds.

SW:A more recent paper of yours discusses the differences between the psychology of humans and non-human apes (Call J, Topics in Cognitive Science 1[2]: 368-79, April 2009). What are these differences? Are there any similarities in our social cognition as well?

We think that humans have evolved special skills of social cognition that allow us to cooperate with large numbers of individuals (regardless of kinship relations) to an unprecedented degree among animals. My colleagues and I have hypothesized that cooperation of this sort is grounded on shared intentionality, i.e., the ability and motivation to share our psychological states with others.

ApeAlthough some nonhuman species can read some of the psychological states of others, they do not seem to show the same inclination to share them with others as humans do. So what we see in humans is an interesting mixture, with some cognitive processes being in common with other species and others that seem to be uniquely human.

SW:You've studied cognition in several species of primates, from monkeys to the great apes. How are they similar? How do they differ?

Primate species differ in a number of ways. Some possess more inhibitory control than others, some are more skillful at using tools than others, and currently there is some tantalizing evidence suggesting that some species possess better metacognitive abilities than others.

One idea that we have defended over the years is that it is difficult to make a clear-cut distinction between the cognition of monkeys and apes. Of course that there are some tasks in which apes outperform monkeys (e.g., mirror self-recognition, stage 6 object permanence) but there are also many others in which no such clear-cut distinction is apparent. In our view, making broad generalizations with regard to monkeys and apes is only justified after careful consideration of the results from multiple tasks.

For instance, imagine that I tell you that apes outperform monkeys in two tasks. You may want to take this as evidence of a clear gap between monkeys and apes. But would you have the same opinion if I were to tell you that we did not find such clear-cut difference in eight other tasks that we tried? Faced with this information, would you conclude that monkeys and apes are more similar or more different to each other?

Additionally, when comparing species, it is crucial to take into account the socio-ecological correlates of those cognitive differences. The field has taken important steps in this direction but much more research is needed.

SW:Changing gears a bit, you've also done several studies on the domestic dog. Can you sum up the major points/papers about cognition in the dog for us? (I have two dogs, and I've always wondered if they really understand what I say!)

Since you are a dog owner, what I will say next may not surprise you very much. Dogs are very good at reading human-given communicative cues, more so than other species such as primates or wolves. However, some studies suggest that they are not as good as some primate species and wolves when it comes to individual problem solving. In fact, dogs seem to prefer enlisting the help of humans when facing difficult situations whereas those other species tend to approach problems in a more individualistic fashion.

Study teamWith regard to whether your dogs understand what you say, yes, this is definitely possible but you should test it. My colleagues (Juliane Kaminski and Julia Fischer) and I found a dog named Rico (later on we discover others) capable of fetching objects after the experimenter only provided their name. Rico was able to comprehend labels for more than 200 different objects. If you want to know whether your dog can do it too, I suggest that you can try it at home. Please read our paper, follow the method, and you will get an answer to your question.

SW:What would you say is the ultimate goal or benefit of this work?

The advancement of knowledge, both about ourselves and other animals.

SW:Are there any projects you have forthcoming that you are free to discuss?

For some years now, I have been interested in the issue of metacognition in animals (i.e., knowing about knowing). I would like to continue to pursue this fascinating yet slippery topic in the years to come. Again, we continue to make some inroads but there is much more to be done.

SW:In what directions do you see your field (or key aspects thereof) going in the next decade?

I am hoping that wide comparative analysis will become commonplace in the field. Assessing one single species in one single task, which is the most common practice, is clearly not sufficient. I envisage multiple labs working together in a coordinated fashion to be able to produce high-quality data on multiple species and multiple tasks.End

Josep Call, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Director Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Leipzig, Germany


Tomasello M, et al., "Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition," Behav. Brain Sci. 28(5): 675-+, October 2005 with 391 cites. Source: Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics.



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