Survival of the Friendliest
Did dogs “self-domesticate”? Did humans?
The wolves that were social enough to approach human settlements and eat our ancestors’ scraps evolved into man’s best friend. Evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare tells Tiffany O’Callaghan what dogs reveal about our own evolution. Hare runs Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center. He is co-author with Vanessa Woods of The Genius of Dogs. They recently launched the website dognition.com.
Tiffany O’Callaghan: You set out to study human evolution. How did you end up studying dogs?
Brian Hare: One thing that equipped humans to acquire language was our ability to read gestures. My undergraduate adviser at Emory University, Mike Tomasello, was exploring the hypothesis that this might be unique to our species. He was telling me that our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, are not good at reading gestures the same way that we are in a cooperative context. I said, “Wait a second, I think my dog can pass the same test the apes are failing.” That’s how it got started.
TO: How can dogs teach us more about ourselves?
BH: The dog is the only species we’ve found that has some of the communicative skills that look like what infants need to acquire language and culture. So what in the world are they doing in dogs? And what evolutionary process allowed that to happen? If we can figure out how it happened in dogs, it helps us figure out how our own species evolved.
TO: Tell me about the similarities between dogs and human infants.
BH: Dogs are the only species that have been identified to date that learn words in the same way as human children—by using inferences. Show a child a red block and a green block, for example. If you then ask for “the chromium block, not the red block,” most children will give you the green block, despite not knowing that “chromium” can refer to a shade of green. The child infers the name of the object. Dogs have been found to learn in the same way. (via The genius of dogs: Brian Hare on friendliness, intelligence, and inference in dogs. - Slate Magazine)