Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Nature or Nurture?

A story on NPR last week says that 10-month-old babies and dogs make the same 'mistake' in a test devised by child psychologist Jean Piaget. 1-year-old babies and wolves raised by humans do not make the mistake.

The test involves placing a toy behind one of two partitions. If the younger babies or the dogs see the toy put in place A repeatedly, they will look there first even if they have seen the toy moved to place B. (You can see an example of this test on YouTube.)

Psychologists cannot agree on why young babies make this error. Nevertheless, Adam Miklosi of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, decided he could use this test to make some guesses at the evolution of dogs.

It turns out that dogs make the same mistake as the younger babies, while wolves, like the older babies, will head straight to place B when they've seen the toy moved there.

Miklosi came to the conclusion that dogs trust people more than their own senses and that this is an evolutionarily-inspired trait that was part of the domestication of dogs--and, conversely, wolves do not have the "domestication genes".

There's a couple of problems with this conclusion. For one, it relies solely on only one of the possible explanations of why babies act the way they do. Also, it does not explain why dogs do not grow out of that behavior and act the way the wolves do, while babies will do so quite quickly.

Now, consider this: some have said that our pet dogs are like "perpetual puppies"; that the way they are raised keeps them in a baby-like state because that is the way people want them to behave. I think this idea brings us closer to understanding the results of Miklosi's experiment.

Miklosi's conclusions are rooted in the idea that "domestication" is a genetic trait that arose through evolution. I still contend that "domestication" is a myth and that the proper way to look at animals' interaction with humans is in terms of socialization, and that there is much evidence for this. Look at Christian the lion or the many lions George Adamson worked with. These animals were well socialized, not domesticated. Look at the wolf in the Mission: Wolf video I posted yesterday, in which the animal is in the process of becoming socialized to humans. On the other hand, look at feral dogs or feral cats. If "domestication" is supposed to be an intrinsic trait, what happened to their domestication genes?

The NPR story also quotes Clive Wynne, who studies dog cognition at the University of Florida: "It's a very thought-provoking experiment. I think like a lot of good studies, it doesn't lead so instantly to conclusions. It leads to new questions."

Thank you, Mr. Wynne. Keep those questions coming.

No comments:

Post a Comment