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Function and mechanism in neuroecology: looking for clues

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The four questions that Niko Tinbergen identified for behavioural biology — evolution, function, development and causation — are all important and should be studied in their own right. Recently, there has been a debate as to whether these four questions should be investigated separately or whether they should be integrated. Integration of the four questions has been attempted in novel research disciplines such as cognitive ecology, evolutionary psychology and neuroecology. Euan Macphail and I have criticised these integrative approaches, suggesting that they are fundamentally flawed as they confound function and mechanism. Investigating the function or evolutionary history of a behaviour or cognitive system is important and entirely legitimate. However, such investigations cannot provide us with answers to questions about the mechanisms underlying behaviour or cognition. At most, functional or evolutionary considerations can provide clues that may be useful for a causal analysis of the underlying mechanisms. However, these clues can be misleading and are often wrong, as is illustrated with examples from song learning and food storing in birds. After summarising the main issues in the neuroecology debate, I discuss some misunderstandings that were apparent in the responses to our critique, as well as some recent relevant data. Recent results do not support the neuroecological approach. Finally, I suggest that the way forward is a cautious and critical use of functional and evolutionary clues in the study of the mechanisms of behaviour.


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