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Dogs v. Wolves May 7, 2012

Posted by Administrator in Education, Mechanistic Relativism, Science.
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The Scientific American examines a study on the social adaptation differences between dogs and wolves.  The question being asked is this: Are social adaptations made by the species a function of genetics (nature) or environmental learning (nurture).

Researchers took two cohorts of dogs and wolves at four to six days after birth, and had them hand-raised by humans.  The human “parents” had  a protocol to follow that insured the subject animals were fed, carried and cared for by “parents”, and were regularly exposed to new humans to acclimate them to the presence of them.

Then at six weeks, a series of experiments were run to determine if, given a situation where interaction with a human were advantageous to the subject animals:

In one simple task, a plate of food was presented to the wolf pups (at 9 weeks) or to the dog puppies (both at 5 weeks and at 9 weeks). However, the food was inaccessible to the animals; human help would be required to access it. The trick to getting the food was simple: all the animals had to do was make eye contact with the experimenter, and he or she would reward the dog with the food from the plate. Initially, all the animals attempted in vain to reach the food. However, by the second minute of testing, dogs began to look towards the humans. This increased over time and by the fourth minute there was a statistical difference. Dogs were more likely to initiate eye contact with the human experimenter than the wolves were. This is no small feat; initiating eye contact with the experimenter requires that the animal refocus its attention from the food to the human. Not only did the wolf pups not spontaneously initiate eye contact with the human experimenter, but they also failed to learn that eye contact was the key to solving their problem.

(The table in the original article shows quite clearly the difference.  This was not a mere statistical significance.  There is no question there is a difference between species.)

The long and the short of this is that it seems there is a genetic difference in social interactions.  Wolves will NOT interact with humans, while dogs will.

My one beef with this article is this:  “In one sense, this is a remarkable example of tool use.”  And of course, the title of the article refers to this as well, when in fact this study says NOTHING about tool use, but draws the distinction between social preferences in wolves and dogs.  The term tool use is fraught with political intrigue.  Goes against that idea, once again, that humans are unique.  I cannot see dogs viewing us as “tools”.  A tool is a passive object, capable of nothing on its own till activated by the user.  (Think of ANY workshop tool, or the twigs chimps use to prize termites out of their mounds.  Without the animated force of the tool user, the tool just sits there.).  So, to view humans as tools for dogs to use is, in my mind, a gross misuse of the term.

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