Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's a dog's world. Literally.

From Razib Khan at

A Dog's World

Excerpt from this brief essay:

The take-home message here is that the mind is not an amorphous general mass. Rather, it exhibits domain-specific modularities. Language comes to mind immediately as a classic case and serves as a model for psychologists who wish to argue for massive modularity. The human ability to learn language quickly and easily is simply not an extension of our general intelligence. Those who lack this capability are pathologically deficient. In contrast, attempts to teach chimps and gorillas language suffer the problem that they seem unable to generalize syntax. This is not simply because of lack of intelligence; small children who are low in general intelligence have much greater powers in this domain than adult chimpanzees. Another example of a core human competency is facial recognition. Like language particular forms of brain damage can actually destroy the innate human ability to recognize faces immediately. It so happens that the ability to recognize humans visually is not restricted to humans, 90% of dogs are able to fix upon a photograph of their owner in a line-up. In contrast, only 50% of cats are able to complete this task.

This mosaic construction of our minds is almost certainly the result of the fact that evolution does not see beyond its nose. The problems which arise from this are documented entertainingly in Kluge, in which the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus outlines the various deficiencies of our suboptimal solutions to evolutionary pressures. But I come not to bury evolution but praise it, as the example of the domestic dog shows the power of natural selection to reshape a lineage in the eyes of its owner. In short dogs are ideally adapted to the ecology of Homo sapiens. Not only do they exhibit mammalian neoteny, which seems to trigger normal reflexes of affection and playfulness, but despite atrophying in many of the skills necessary to survive in the wild they’ve developed abilities to comprehend the mentality of another species.

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to both James Watson and Francis Crick that if you want to learn about human evolution, don't waste your time on chimps; study dogs instead. We have gone from canis lupus to canis familiaris in about ten to fifteen thousand years, as opposed to the millions of years for so many other species. The selection pressures on dogs are huge.

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