Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Amazing Canine

I've been reading a book about dog rescue by Steven Kotler called A Small Furry Prayer and let me tell you, dogs are amazing. But this time I'm not talking about their cuteness, fluffiness, or sweetness. I'm talking about their evolution in relation to human evolution. Human evolution is tied so tightly to wolf evolution that in many ways, we are more similar to dogs than to apes. Much of our behavior adapted over time to imitate wolf behavior:
"When early hominids first arrived on the Eurasian steppe, socially - which is to say emotionally - we were much more like primates, but we left more like wolves.... We are here, because we were first there, a fairly selfish animal confronting a hostile new territory in the Eurasian steppe. Wolves were the steppe's top predator, and we wanted to share that spot. So we adopted wolflike strategies, and this decision not only changed the course of human history but also may have been the starting point for human history" (pg. 82).
Or, in other words:
"Scientists can trace intelligence, self-awareness, and long-term planning to our chimpanzee ancestry, but... traits such as patience, loyalty, cooperation, and devotion both to one's immediate family and to a larger social group are not prevalent among primates" (pg. 83).
Humans and wolves already had much in common, "unlike primates, both wolves and humans are nomadic, omnivorous, social species" (pg. 83), and so it behooved both species to "form an evolutionary partnership." Of course, the partnership wasn't immediate, but eventually humans and wolves began hunting together, each species using their strengths for the common good. Wolves handled the tracking because of their more sophisticated senses of hearing and smell, and humans handled the killing because of our opposable thumbs and "bipedal stances". Traits like loyalty, patience, and cooperation became more important as human communities grew to include wolves and the "pack" expanded.

Of course, over time, the domesticated wolves evolved into dogs (which is amazing in itself) and the bond between humans and canines (and their reciprocal, mutualistic relationship) increased as time passed. Dogs are man's best friend because
"We have evolved to cohabit with dogs. Their presence is part of what makes us feel safe in the world" (pg. 86).
Sorry, cat people, but that's science.

Just as humans have evolved to need dogs, dogs have evolved to be more in tune in humans than any other animal, including other humans. Before the 1990s, scientists widely believed that imitative behavior was a capability that dogs lost in their domestication from wolves, that dogs are therefore "dumber" than wolves. Studies pitting wolves against dogs in completing imitative tasks seemed to confirm this belief. But one researcher, Vilmos Csanyi wasn't buying it. He did some studies of his own working on the idea that "dogs aren't dumber than wolves, only more attuned to human desires" (pg. 213). Maybe the dogs in previous experiments didn't complete the required tasks not because they couldn't, but because they weren't sure if the humans wanted them to. Through his work with dogs, Csanyi "discovered that dogs can understand pointing, nodding, and staring - three things that chimpanzees have a very hard time doing" (pg. 213). In one study,
"Dog puppies and wolf cubs were raised in identical environments for three months, then, with handlers in the room, were given a chance to remove a chunk of meat from a cage by pulling on a rope. Both dogs and wolves solved this pretty quickly. Then the rope was tied down, so pulling it to get the meat became impossible. The dogs gave it a few tries, failed, and looked at the humans for help. The wolves ignored the humans and pulled until they were exhausted.
"Csanyi believes this proof that unlike wolves, dogs have an innate ability to pay attention to people, an ability sculpted by millennia of cross-species cooperation and communication" (pg. 214).
Likewise, dogs are experts at reading human emotion. Because the left hemisphere of the human brain controls both emotions and the right side of the face, "for face reading, the right side of the face is far more salient than the left. When we meet a stranger our gaze shifts to the right side of their face because that's how we figure out if the person wants to kiss us or kill us" (pg. 241). Dogs do this, too, but only when meeting humans:
"researchers... showed a series of dogs images of people, other dogs, monkeys, and inanimate objects. When the dogs saw another animal or an inanimate object, their gaze moved evenly across the image. When they saw humans, their gaze moved directly to the right sides of the faces" (pg. 241).
How fascinating is all of this information!? A Small Furry Prayer is turning out to be much more than the simple memoir I thought it would be. Today, I just wanted to share some of what I've been learning, but when I finish the book I'll write another post that focuses more on the writing, story, etc. and publish later in the week.