Your Dog, Yourself

hare440.jpgRecently I took a trip down to North Carolina to spend some time with Brian Hare, an anthropologist at Duke University who wants to understand how human nature evolved. While Hare spends a lot of time in Africa studying chimpanzees and bonobos, he also studies dogs. The social intelligence of dogs is not just interesting in itself, but also for the clues it offers about how we evolved. It’s possible that wolves became dogs in much the same way our chimp-like ancestors became human.

In the newest issue of Time, I’ve written a feature about canine cognition, and scientists like Hare who are trying to plumb its depths. Check it out.

(And be sure to also check out the photoessay of Hare’s new Center for Canine Cognition at Duke, from which this picture comes.)

0 thoughts on “Your Dog, Yourself

  1. If it only takes 40 generations, why is the average cat still so disobedient?

    Carl: Great question. For starters, those were 40 generations of selection on foxes, not just random mating. I would love to see what happened to wild relatives of cats in such an experiment. Actually, I’d love to see what happened to domesticated cats! I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that cats just didn’t have enough pre-existing social intelligence to respond to this selection the way dogs do. Dogs evolved from animals that lived in groups. Cats evolved from solitary ancestors. I’m not saying cats are dumb; they just haven’t had millions of years of selection for living in groups where it’s important to read others.

  2. Thanks, Carl. As one who shares my home with three Samoyeds, I am always contemplating the question you raise – who domesticated who?

  3. Carl,

    I’m surprised that a parasite fan like you missed the next obvious question about dogs.

    Since they’re basically close symbiotes, it makes sense that we altered their cognitive evolution.

    I though though, that as a rule, symbiotes alter each other.

    So how have dogs altered our evolution? We now believe humans have evolved a great deal in the last 20,000 years …

    Carl: Close ecological relationships don’t always mean that true reciprocal coevolution has to happen. The evidence is clear that some humans coevolved with cattle (the cows got domesticated, and we evolved the ability to drink milk as adults). But I know of no evidence that humans have evolved in some way thanks solely to dogs.

  4. I’ve had nine dogs in my life, but the last one, Tito, would even follow my finger when I pointed up into a tree or at the sky; he was the only one of mine to do that. That was just one of the ways he was different, but Tito’s a whole ‘nother story. There is one point concerning wolves however that I wonder about. New research doesn’t use the term “dominate male” anymore, simply “breeding male” (or female). It seems they cooperate more than earlier work with them indicated. A lot less of this “clawing it’s way to the top of the pack” business than it looked like at first.

    Carl: Hi Carl–good point. Whether there’s a big alpha male or not, there’s still a big hierarchy with competition built in. And that’s the most plausible explanation for why wolves are clearly worse at a lot of social thinking than dogs. Wolves raised by humans get the pointing test, but kennel puppies get it with basically no human contact.

  5. Nice article. I heard years ago that dogs and humans are the only ones that got the suggestion of looking in the direction of a pointed finger. One of those examples of how closely tied our species has become.

    But a question…you state that wolves are the “likely ancestors” of dogs. With a genetic makeup almost identical, your statement seems out of place. We can’t know anything absolutely, does that warrant your conservative language? Or is there more information lurking in the details?

  6. I enjoyed reading this interesting article. Incidentally, your writing is very readable. I’ve been “into” dogs for more than 70 years, having bred, exhibited, trained, or just owned them (mainly one breed, Norwegian elkhound). What did I learn, or observe? There was a lot of variability in temperament and appearance within my breed just as one sees in every breed. What a journey those wolves of softer temperament have taken with mankind. They and we seem to be quite “plastic”, dogs being molded by humans; humans, presumably by more or less natural selection. So very much to study!

  7. CZ: Thanks for the heads-up on Dr. Hare’s work. (As an alum, I should keep current with what’s going on there.) THERE’S MORE TO THE CANINE-HUMAN INTERSECT. Please see: “‘America’s Dog Revolution – Dog Driven Changes in American Society’ From the wolflike role of Biblical times to the anthropomorphic status of 21st Century America, the stature of the dog in American Society is changing” at . MM

  8. This is a new idea to me, but the comparison between the evolution of wolves –> dogs, and chimpanzees –> humans is a logical one and interesting.

    @Nancy Torbet – Its true! Humans and dogs are extremely ‘plastic’ ! Imagine how humans could look if the same level of breeding and selection that went into dogs was done on us… a little scary perhaps, but a fascinating thought.

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