Sunday, February 22, 2004

On the brilliance of dogs | Dog behaviour
... Dr Hare's hypothesis is that dogs are superbly sensitive to social cues from people. That enables them to fit in with human society. On one level, this might sound common sense. But humans are such sociable animals that they frequently fail to realise just how unusual are their own skills at communicating. Dr Hare therefore decided to test his idea by comparing the abilities of dogs with those of chimpanzees, which are often regarded as second only to people in their level of innate intelligence.

His experiment was simple. He presented his animal subjects with two inverted cups. Then he hid the cups behind a screen, put a small piece of food under one of them, and took the screen away. The animal had to choose which cup to look under. If the experimenter gave no cue, both species got it right 50% of the time, as would be expected. However, if he signalled in some way which was the right cup, by pointing at it, tapping it, or even just gazing at it, a dog would choose correctly every time, while a chimpanzee would still do only slightly better than chance. Chimps simply did not get the idea of social signals of this sort, however many times the experiment was repeated.

For years dogs were the neglected research subject. Domesticated, they were not nearly as romantic a subject as wolves, eagles, whales, etc.

That's changed. Dogs are a peculiar animal. They demonstrate astonishing plasticity in morphology and, now, in cognition. They are a single species with a 300% range in aging velocity. In a fairly brief period of time, only about 15,000 years, they adapted with astonishing speed to a new ecological niche -- the human host. They wormed their way into our society, becoming the second most prolific large mammal in the history of the planet. I suspect they also changed humanity, and the balance of power within early human social networks.

Hmm. Makes one think of a great idea for a science fiction short story. A hopelessly psychotic species is civilized by introducing an adaptive parasite that alters human evolution ...

One also wonders what would become of dogs if humans were to disappear? They might continue to prove themselves quite adaptable.

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