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Fifty years ago, Niko Tinbergen defined the scope of behavioural biology with his four problems: causation, ontogeny, survival value and evolution. About 20 years ago, there was another highly significant development in behavioural biology-the discovery of mirror neurons (MNs). Here, I use Tinbergen's original four problems (rather than the list that appears in textbooks) to highlight the differences between two prominent accounts of MNs, the genetic and associative accounts; to suggest that the latter provides the defeasible 'best explanation' for current data on the causation and ontogeny of MNs; and to argue that functional analysis, of the kind that Tinbergen identified somewhat misleadingly with studies of 'survival value', should be a high priority for future research. In this kind of functional analysis, system-level theories would assign MNs a small, but potentially important, role in the achievement of action understanding-or another social cognitive function-by a production line of interacting component processes. These theories would be tested by experimental intervention in human and non-human animal samples with carefully documented and controlled developmental histories.

Original publication

DOI

10.1098/rstb.2013.0180

Type

Journal article

Journal

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

Publication Date

2014

Volume

369

Keywords

Tinbergen's four problems, associative learning, functional analysis, inference to the best explanation, mirror neuron, sensorimotor experience, Adaptation, Biological, Animals, Association Learning, Behavior, Biological Evolution, Growth and Development, Humans, Mirror Neurons, Models, Neurological