Dwarves on the Shoulders of Giants. The Dark Side of Cognitive Science


  • Francesco Tonci Ottieri della Ciaja University of Vienna


Cognitive Science is the multidisciplinary study of the mind... but which minds are we speaking of? Those of humans or those of other animals. While cognitive science frameworks often focus on models of the human mind, recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology have only been possible thanks to animal models [1]. These are often based on in vivo experiments on animal subjects. In the European Union alone, in 2020 over 640'000 animals have undergone studies on the nervous system [2]. Of these, 101 were primates, 406 pigs, 44 dogs and 35 cats. On 99.1 out of 100 cases, the animals were not reused after the study, meaning that they were euthanised [2].

Generalising animal models to human cognition - or to cognition in general - leads to two issues. The first can be called the problem of inter-species extrapolation: is it always methodologically valid to extrapolate conclusions from animal studies to human cognition? The second is a moral problem: to what extent are we morally justified to cause physical and psychological suffering to non-human subjects in a scientific setting? These two questions are gaining prominence in the neuroscience and psychology literatures, but not so much in the cognitive science literature. The thesis will focus on the moral question, with occasional references to the extrapolation problem.

The thesis will be a purely theoretical work. It will begin with a review of the literature on methods of animal experimentations for studies on cognition. This will help to put together a glossary of relevant terms, as well as a list of techniques used in animal models. These will allow for the design of a checklist with which to evaluate papers. The cognitive science literature will be systematically analysed to answer the following questions: how reliant is cognitive science on animal models? Which current paradigms are more so? And to what extent might this reliance be ethically problematic? In addressing these questions, the aim is to raise awareness of the issue within the cognitive science community.


[1] J. L. Bermúdez, Cognitive Science an Introduction to the Science of the Mind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

[2] EUROSTAT, “Section 2 – Details of all uses of animals for research, testing, routine production and education and training purposes in the EU,” ALURES - Animal Use Reporting System - European Commission, https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/envdataportal/content/alures/section2_number-of-uses.html (accessed May 29, 2023).