Later On

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Dogs and wolves

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New Scientist magazine has a very interesting article on wolves and dogs—in particular, on how domestication has shaped the evolution of dogs away from certain wolf characteristics and increased the intelligence of dogs, including the acquisition of a basic sense of right and wrong. The article also includes this interesting sidebar:

Wild at heart

Genetic evidence tells us that domestic dogs are descended from grey wolves, with dogs being biologically classified as a subspecies of Canis lupus. Put a wolf into the alien environment of a human home, though, and it becomes very clear that domestication has taken dogs a long way from their wild roots.

The traits that we prize most in dogs are simply not there in wolves: they are hard to train, wary of new experiences, scared of strangers and unpredictably aggressive. They also have some rather antisocial habits. For example, they scent-mark a lot, like to escape and would probably trash your home. On the upside, wolves don’t bark – although that probably limits their ability to communicate with people (see main story). Instead, they howl.

Owning a pet wolf is increasingly fashionable and there are plenty of websites offering tips to would-be wolf tamers. However, the best advice, according to canine behaviour expert James Serpell from the University of Pennsylvania, is don’t. “Wolves do not make ideal house pets,” he says. That might also help to explain why our ancestors apparently only domesticated wolves once, despite the two species living together over large swathes of the globe for millennia.

Inevitably the article delves into evolutionary changes in dogs—evolution is inseparable from the life sciences—and there’s this interesting note:

… Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago. Since then their brains have shrunk, so that a wolf-sized dog has a brain around 10 per cent smaller than its wild ancestor (see “Wild at heart”). That was one reason why animal behaviourists felt dogs were merely simple-minded wolves. It has become clear, though, that despite the loss of brain volume, thousands of years spent evolving alongside humans have had a striking effect on dog cognition.

For one thing, researchers are increasingly convinced that dogs must possess some sense of right and wrong in order to negotiate the complex social world of people. A pioneer in this area is Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has spent decades watching animals at play. He has championed the idea that in many social species, including dogs, one of the functions of rough-and-tumble play is to develop a rudimentary sense of morality (New Scientist, 13 July 2002, p 34).

The fact that play rarely escalates into full-blown fighting shows that animals abide by rules and expect others to do the same. In other words, they know right from wrong. Bekoff argues that this is a survival adaptation that allows animals to smoothly navigate other social interactions.

Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, takes the concept of dog morality even further. In a series of experiments, her team rewarded dogs with a food treat if they held up a paw. They found that when a lone dog was asked to give its paw but received no treat, it would persevere for the entire experiment, which lasted 30 repetitions. However, if they tested two dogs together but only rewarded one, the dog who missed out would make a big show of being denied its treat and stop cooperating after just a few rounds. “Dogs show a strong aversion to inequity,” says Range. “I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might.”

This is quite a claim: even the idea that primates respond to unfairness in a similar way to people is highly contested. So why would a dog need such a trait? Range points out that the concept of inequality is crucial for the stability of human societies; without it we would not punish freeloaders. Dogs probably evolved this response to help them negotiate our social world.

While the relationship between people and dogs may be built on fairness, it is mediated through effective communication. Perhaps that is why many researchers are fascinated by this aspect of canine cognition. …

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 11:22 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Tagged with ,

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