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Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

Though TIME completely misrepresents the article with the title of this piece the article is quite nice.  Most of the findings are quite straightforward and the utility of the article is that it does a nice job of illustrating how genetics and learning combine to explain behavior (and “intelligence”).

Here’s a nice example from the article:

Once dogs became comfortable in our company, humans began to speed up dogs’ social evolution. They may have started by giving extra food to helpful dogs–ones that barked to warn of danger, say. Dogs that paid close attention to humans got more rewards and eventually became partners with humans, helping with hunts or herding other animals. Along the way, the dogs’ social intelligence became eerily like ours, and not just in their ability to follow a pointed finger. Indeed, they even started to make very human mistakes.

A team led by cognitive scientist Josef Topál of the Research Institute for Psychology in Hungary recently ran an experiment to study how 10-month-old babies pay attention to people. The scientists put a toy under one of two cups and then let the children choose which cup to pick up. The children, of course, picked the right cup–no surprise since they saw the toy being hidden. Topál and his colleagues repeated the trial several times, always hiding the toy under the same cup, until finally they hid it under the other one. Despite the evidence of their eyes, the kids picked the original cup–the one that had hidden the toy before but did not now.

To investigate why the kids made this counterintuitive mistake, the scientists rigged the cups to wires and then lowered them over the toy. Without the distraction of a human being, the babies were far more likely to pick the right cup. Small children, it seems, are hardwired to pay such close attention to people that they disregard their other observations. Topál and his colleagues ran the same experiment on dogs–and the results were the same. When they administered the test to wolves, however, the animals did not make the mistake the babies and dogs did. They relied on their own observations rather than focusing on a human.

There are a few mistakes in this article and/or researcher’s thinking though.

One question the research of Topál, Hare and others raises is why chimpanzees–who are in most ways much smarter than dogs–lack the ability to read gestures. Hare believes that the chimps’ poor performance is one more piece of proof that the talent is rooted not in raw intelligence but in personality. Our ape cousins are simply too distracted by their aggression and competitiveness to fathom gestures easily. Chimps can cooperate to get food that they can’t get on their own, but if there’s the slightest chance for them to fight over it, they will. For humans to evolve as we did, Hare says, “We had to not get freaked out about sharing.”

This paragraph is a bit misleading.  There isn’t this thing called Personality.  The same mechanisms at play in dog behavior, pertain to primates too.  Evolution and learning shape the chimps behavior, just differently than humans and/or dogs.  In reading articles like this it’s important to sift out the trap words like mind, personality, “human nature”, and intelligence.

All in all though, and enjoyable piece.

Now back to football….

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