Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pointing the Finger

There is a very flawed article in the September 21 issue of Time magazine; the article's title is The Secrets Inside Your Dog's Mind, written by Carl Zimmer.

The gist of the article is that dogs understand what it means when you point to something, and other animals don't.

Along the way to making an evolutionary argument for why this is, Zimmer gets many things wrong.

Zimmer uses now-debunked myths about wolves and their social bonds to make some of his points. But in reality, the hierarchy of a wolf pack is not all that complex, and there is not a constant struggle for the role of alpha male. A natural wolf pack is a family unit. This is according to one of the world's leading experts on wolves, who deeply regrets his old role in perpetuating such myths. See "Everybody Knows..."

The next problem in the article seems to come from the research scientists: the idea that humans are fundamentally different from all other animals. That brings me back to one of my all-time favorite quotes, from Gareth Patterson, an expert on lions:
We are not much different in fact to many other forms of animal life; and it is because of subtle human conditioning -- not the actual facts -- that we are raised to believe there is a wide gap between what is human and what is animal.
Starting from an erroneous point of view is going to lead to erroneous conclusions, unless these research scientists can be very honest with themselves about their biases.

Zimmer then says dogs' behavior is determined by their evolutionary origins, giving as an example the idea that if your dog licks your face when you come home, this is because wolves will lick a pack member's mouth when he returns from a hunt, to induce him to regurgitate some food.

OK, then why do my cats greet me when I come home, and appear to be satisfied with a pat on the head or even just a "hello"?

I don't know what to make of the next example in the article: A dog will act guilty when scolded after the dog did something wrong, AND act guilty when scolded for no reason. This is supposed to show that dogs don't have a sense of right and wrong. But come on now, think back to when you were a little kid--wouldn't you do the same sort of thing? I know I did.

Zimmer also says that while dogs may recognize a word like "Frisbee", they can't use it in a sentence. OK, he didn't put it exactly that way, but that's the gist of it. But how much attention have people actually given to dogs' language skills? It is now known that prairie dogs have a spoken language, with nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and that they put these words together in meaningful ways. How long until other animals are allowed into the language club?

I have to leave my analysis there for now; my final word is that we should be very wary when a writer presents guesses at what happened thousands of years ago as plain fact. And if you watch the video that's linked in the Time article, see if you don't agree with me that the tests they are using on the dogs are also very flawed--the dogs have a number of ways to find the treat, not just by following a person's pointed finger.

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