The New Scientist site is carrying a story headlined, “Dogs aren’t stupid wolves; they are much smarter.” Sadly, the oddly headlined story (“much smarter” than what? stupid wolves? whoa!) is just a come-on for a feature in the print edition of the magazine and only the first paragraphs appear online. But people aren’t stupid subscriber-sheep, and someone somewhere has seen fit to post the entire text of the article in a Usenet group.
The gist of the article is that dogs’ close association with humans over the last 100 centuries or so has endowed them with some “remarkable mental skills.”
“Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago. Since
then their brains have shrunk, so that a wolf-sized dog has a brain around 10
per cent smaller than its wild ancestor. That was one
reason why animal behaviourists felt dogs were merely simple-minded wolves. It
has become clear, though, that despite the loss of brain volume, thousands of
years spent evolving alongside humans have had a striking effect on dog
“For one thing, researchers are increasingly convinced that dogs must possess
some sense of right and wrong in order to negotiate the complex social world of
people. A pioneer in this area is Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at
Boulder, who has spent decades watching animals at play. He has championed the
idea that in many social species, including dogs, one of the functions of
rough-and-tumble play is to develop a rudimentary sense of morality.
“The fact that play rarely escalates into full-blown fighting shows that animals
abide by rules and expect others to do the same. In other words, they know right
from wrong. Bekoff argues that this is a survival adaptation that allows animals
to smoothly navigate other social interactions.
“Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, takes the concept of
dog morality even further. In a series of experiments, her team rewarded dogs
with a food treat if they held up a paw. They found that when a lone dog was
asked to give its paw but received no treat, it would persevere for the entire
experiment, which lasted 30 repetitions. However, if they tested two dogs
together but only rewarded one, the dog who missed out would make a big show of
being denied its treat and stop cooperating after just a few rounds. ‘Dogs show
a strong aversion to inequity,’ says Range. ‘I prefer not to call it a sense of
fairness, but others might.’ ”
Fascinating. I don’t know how the resident dog in these parts comes down on the fairness question. But he has shown a strong disapproval of profanity, which he no doubt has observed is associated with human emotional states he has no desire to be around.
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