Puppy-Dog Eyes of Science (Savage Minds)

April 24, 2015 – John Hartigan

“Scientists say…” It’s interesting what natural science research starts making the rounds on social media. Mostly on diet or health broadly, and increasingly concerning climate change. On rare occasion—as over the past few days—some reports surface that offer insight into the circulating clutter itself, as in “cute dog” photos. In this instance, they’re opportunities to glimpse changing understandings of big topics, like domestication and evolution.

Links for two articles recently popped up in my Twitter feed: “The Science of Puppy-Dog Eyes” (NYTimes, 4/21/14) and “The Guilty Looking Companion,” Scientific American(4/20/15), both treating the gazing behavior of dogs and its various effects on humans. The first, by Jan Hoffman, reported on a study published in Science (in a themed-column on evolution), titled, “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” The second, by Julie Hecht, “The Guilty Looking Companion,” builds off an article in Behavioral Processes, on a tangled question: “Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed?” Both suggest a far more agential companion species than many people might’ve suspected, but more importantly they each complicate stock domestication narratives suggesting it was something we simply did to them. They also suggest opportunities for extending social analysis beyond the human.

As the title of the Science article suggests, dogs were possibly canny drivers of domestication: “dogs became domesticated in part by adapting to human means of communication: eye contact.” In particular, the speculation is that dogs cleverly “utilized a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child.” Evolutionarily, “the challenge for dogs may simply have been to express a behavioral (and morphological) repertoire that mimicked the cues that elicit caregiving toward our own young. Indeed, these juvenile characteristics of dogs are known to carry a selective advantage with respect to human preferences.” So dogs wile their way into our good graces by coopting the cuteness channel we have for children. To complicate agency a bit further, this seems to all hinge on a bidirectional hormonal mechanism: people and dogs both develop heightened, pleasurable levels of oxytocin from protracted gazing into each other’s eyes. “These findings suggest not only an interspecific effect of oxytocin, but also the exciting possibility of a feedback loop,” since “shifts in oxytocin concentration in a dog might elicit similar changes in a human and vice-versa—just as when a mother bonds with her infant.” Domestication just got a good deal more interesting.

“The guilty looking companion” takes up the theme of sociality and how social bonds are respectively maintained in various species, but also how humans might be duped by our tendency to anthropomorphize dogs as possessing a subjective state approximating shame. The reparative behaviors of appeasement and reconciliation that maintain relationships, practiced by many species, when manifested by dogs, reads easily, to us, as “guilt.” But through a fascinating series of experiments, researchers countered that these canine gestures are just “cohesive displays,” which operate “to reduce conflict, diffuse tension, and reinforce social bonds.” Dogs are not responding to ameliorating a subjective sense of shame at transgressing rules; they are instead “incredibly sensitive to environmental and social cues.” If there’s furniture torn or overturned, the owner is looking for someone to chastise—better grovel or cringe. These behavior are very effective, according to surveys of dog owners, who withhold punishments in the wake of such displays. But Hecht concludes with a caution: “It might just be that we’re anthropomorphizing,” in reference to the viral spew of “dog shamming” photos. “Which, in this case, might not be good for us or our dogs.” Indeed, but what is even more valuable here is the perspective opened up onto thinking about parallel and converging forms of species sociality, beyond the question of who is domesticating who.

On that topic, another recently published science article pursues just these openings, though unfortunately it does not seem to be circulating widely at all. “Testing the myth: Tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves,” in Proceedings B (Royal Society Publishing) reports on findings that indicate “a steeper dominance hierarchy in dogs than in wolves.” While “tolerance” is supposed to be the character trait “selected for,” dogs appear far more aggressive and uncooperative with conspecifics than wolves. The problem with “all domestication theories” to date is that they’ve ignored “apparently contradictory behaviours…observed in dogs and wolf packs.” There’s an enormous amount to this piece, but it may come down to “face,” as Erving Goffman developed the concept. “Visual communication in dogs is somewhat impaired due to their reduced visual (facial as well as bodily) expressions,” which “might lead to an inability to control conflicts in close quarters.” Wolves are far more articulate in reading both gaze and facial features in conspecific communications. Range et al write, “Although dogs and wolves seem to use the same signals overall, it is possible that dogs do not use them as appropriately as wolves”—i.e., they haven’t refined the etiquette of conspecific communications quite as well, though they’re very good at circumventing our conspecific gaze signaling tendencies.

But that “wolves appear tolerant, attentive, and at the same time cooperative towards pack members” is in stark “contrast to the starting point of several recent domestication hypotheses.” Free-ranging dogs—constituting about 76-83% of the global dog population!!—not so much. So the questions swirl as to dogs’ cognitive and emotional processes underlying their intraspecific sociality and how that variously aligns with ours, in the deep past and today.

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