Human Exceptionalism

Dogs Prove Human Exceptionalism

Everyone knows that dogs did not evolve, they were (and are still, technically) wolves that were intelligently designed by us.

The tight bond between humans and our best friends, and more particularly their exposure to our love and our genetic and behavioral manipulation has created special traits not often seen in the natural world. From the story:

Dogs are becoming more intelligent and are even learning morals from human contact, scientists claim. They say the fact that dogs’ play rarely escalates into a fight shows the animals abide by social rules…

Dr Peter Pongracz from Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, and colleagues have produced evidence dog barks contain information that people can understand. They found even people who have never owned a dog can recognise the emotional ‘meaning’ of barks produced in various situations, such as when playing, left alone and confronted by a stranger.

His team has now developed a computer program that can aggregate hundreds of barks recorded in various settings and boil them down to their basic acoustic ingredients. They found each of the different types of bark has distinct patterns of frequency, tonality and pulsing, and that an artificial neural network can use these features to correctly identify a bark it has never encountered before.

This is further evidence that barking conveys information about a dog’s mental state, reports New Scientist magazine. They also discovered people can correctly identify aggregated barks as conveying happiness, loneliness or aggression.

‘Even children from the age of six who have never had a dog recognise these patterns,’ says Dr Pongracz.Dogs are not just able to ‘speak’ to us–they can also understand some aspects of human communication.

Still, we shouldn’t make too much out of this:

Dr Alexandra Horowitz from Barnard College in New York prefers the term “theory of behaviour” to describe dogs’ apparent insight. She said: ‘I think there is a massive territory between a theory of mind and a theory of behaviour.’ Her own recent study illustrates the point–when dogs play together, they use appropriate signals for grabbing attention or signalling the desire to play depending on their playmate’s apparent level of attention, such as whether it is facing them or side-on.

That could be interpreted as mind reading, she admits, but a simpler explanation is that dogs are reading body language and reacting in stereotyped ways.

This much is clear: It took the exceptional species–us–to change what were only 10,000 years ago gray wolves and intentionally transform them into the multitudinous breeds of dogs that are not only noble–and at times delightfully goofy–but also protectors, wonderful companions, and the givers and receivers of tremendous love and joy.