For students today, it may be hard to imagine that there ever was a time when evolution and ecology were studiously ignored by researchers in learning and cognition—a time when the work of ethologists and animal behaviourists also proceeded independently of most of psychology. If times have changed, and if considerations of evolution and cognition are now inextricably intertwined, it is largely because of the tireless efforts of Dr. Sara Shettleworth, the 2012 recipient of the Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award. She has made it her life's work to "capture a vision of an approach to the evolution of mind in which it is natural, indeed necessary, to integrate the answers to questions traditionally asked in psychology laboratories with the answers to questions about ecology and evolution."
Dr. Sara Shettleworth completed her B.A. with High Honors at Swarthmore College in 1965. Her first publications arose from work with her undergraduate mentor, John Nevin. In 1966 she received her M.A. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her PhD at the University of Toronto in 1970 and remained to become a Professor there both in Psychology and in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She is currently Professor Emerita of the University of Toronto. Funded by NSERC throughout her career, her research on learning and memory in a variety of species of birds and mammals has appeared in over 100 articles and book chapters. An early paper, Constraints on Learning (1972) became a Citation Classic. In it she set the stage for her analytical pursuit of adaptive, ecologically-relevant and evolutionarily-selected behaviors. Highlighting the ecological context of behavior was the underpinning for a paradigm shift in experimental animal psychology that was just beginning in the early 1970s. Her work, and the spirit of her work, has been foundational and inspirational for scientists interested in understanding animal (including human) behavior. In her own research, she linked field and laboratory methodologies in the study of diverse species against the backdrop of evolutionarily-relevant functional analysis. In the best tradition of Donald Hebb, her approach is broadly interdisciplinary with relevance for multiple areas of separate study including, but not limited to, behavioural ecology, experimental psychology, behavioral neuroscience and animal behaviour.
Again reminiscent of Hebb, and his Organization of Behavior, she synthesized the field of animal cognition in a definitive and masterful scholarly work entitled "Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour" published in 1998 with a 2nd edition in 2010. This work has been described as "essential to anyone interested in the...mechanisms that guide animal thought" and a 'magisterial overview of comparative psychology'.