Rob Hardy on books


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Science Goes to the Dogs



Rob Hardy


Here is a book of real, cutting-edge science that will be accessible to anyone. It's reporting of genuine scholarship, it describes experiments in detail, it has graphs, and it's got seventy pages of footnotes at the end. The reason the science here goes down so easily is simply the subject matter. The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think (Dutton) is by the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center Brian Hare and his wife Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at the center. It tells about how dogs got to be partners with humans with advantages to both sides, what dogs can figure out and how, what dog breeds are smartest, and much more. The book is written in the first person with Hare being the person; he affably describes how much he learned as a kid from his dog Oreo. A professor told him that chimpanzees could not understand human gestures, and Hare blurted out, "My dog can do that!" The professor didn't shut him up, but encouraged him to do research, and Oreo was his first subject. The book invites all of us to have some scientific fun learning what our dogs can do, and the authors have set up a website to help with home research that will supply broad-based data for their team. 




One of the most surprising facts here is how research on dog behavior was so slow in coming. The scientific study of animal cognition took off in the 1970s, and researchers were busy examining primates. Dolphins and birds were eventually examined, too. Not dogs. Dogs were domesticated animals, and the view was that humans had bred out the intelligence they needed to get by in the wild. It is astonishing that someone didn't say "My dog can do that!" long before Hare did, because any dog owner knows that there is some sort of special intelligence dogs have in getting along with humans. Dogs were smart enough to become partners with humans originally, and demonstrate intelligence in countless ways, both useful and amusing to us. 




How dogs and humans formed their partnership is presented in a new way here. It used to be taught that humans domesticated wolves as fellow hunters, but wolves are possessive of their kills, and humans were doing pretty well at hunting without any help. We domesticated cows and pigs, but those have no fangs and won't fight us for food as wolves would have. The real answer is garbage. Wolves would have naturally avoided humans, but piles of bones and scraps would have attracted them. Wolves who were too scared to take advantage of the garbage bonanza, or those who were too aggressive and got killed, would gradually have been screened out. "Humans did not set out to domesticate wolves. Wolves domesticated themselves. The first dog breed was not created by human selection but by natural selection." Dogs have become vastly different from wolves; dogs like being around humans more than they do other dogs, for instance. While there are wolves all over the world, they are all pretty much the same sort of animal; no one needs to be told that dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  




Hare traveled to Siberia for confirmation of this tale from a real scientific hero, Dimitri Belyaev. One of the attractions of this book is that it has introductions to ideas in natural selection, Mendelian genetics, Skinnerian behaviorism, and the outrageous and disastrous imposition of national philosophy onto science in the Stalinist years. Belyaev avoided being shot, as was his geneticist brother, but eventually became a director of a genetic institute where he bred foxes to change their behavior (although he told the authorities he was working to improve their fur). Belyaev selected and bred foxes that were curious toward humans and had less aggressiveness. It did not take long before the foxes were not only friendlier but they developed the ability (like Oreo) of reading human gestures, even though that was not a focus of the breeding. They enjoyed interacting with humans, and their looks changed, with tails that curled and ears that became floppy. These are all changes analogous to changes from wolves to dogs. 




The experiments described here are fascinating, all the more so because there is a "try this at home" attitude. It is surprising how involved the research had to be in order meticulously to weed out alternative explanations. For instance, Oreo had a choice of two cups, under one of which was a treat. Naturally, Hare the experimenter had not put food under one without faking putting food under the other. He settled himself between the two cups, and pointed to the one hiding the food. "Okay, Oreo, go find it!" he said, and Oreo went to the cup pointed at. But the experiment had to be re-done in ways that showed Oreo was not simply sniffing his way to the right cup rather than following a point. Maybe Oreo was associating the pointing hand with food and merely going to the cup closest to the pointing finger. Maybe he was just responding to a motion, with no idea that it was a point. Maybe he could respond to Hare's point but would know nothing about the point of some other human. Or maybe training and playing catch made Oreo a genius at following points, whereas an "ordinary" dog would be unable to. The fascinating experiments show that indeed, dogs understand gestures made by humans and they are born understanding, without having to be trained.  




There are plenty of other "genius" abilities examined here, but the key is that dogs got themselves into a niche where not only did being responsive to gesture prove directly useful (Oreo got the treat), but also it secured them in a comfortable relationship. We like it that our dogs are so "in tune" with what we are doing and that they pay us such close attention, so we take care of them. There are no other species that spontaneously read our gestures as well as dogs can, and by such means, dogs have become our partners for hunting, or leading the blind, or sniffing out bombs, or just being close, attentive friends. 




There are illuminating pages here on canine characteristics that will interest any dog lover. Some dogs are smarter than others, but what breeds are smarter? It is not a question that science has a current answer for (although many dog owners will propose their favorite breed as smartest); there are so many breeds, and there is little agreement about what a breed really is. There's only rudimentary research on the question so far, but it seems unlikely that there will be big differences between breeds. Are pit bulls aggressive? No, and plenty of dogs that look like pit bulls are something else entirely anyway. Can dogs feel guilt? No; experiments showed that a disapproving voice or gestures from an owner would produce subservient behavior that looked like an admission of guilt, whether the dog had done wrong or not. There's lots of news in this book, a perfect illustration of how looking at something scientifically can only increase our wonder and delight at it.



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