Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Smart dogs & dumb people

There was a story in the NY Times Week in Review section on Sunday about intelligence in dogs. They are increasingly being used in service to people with an ever widening range of conditions, such as epilepsy, phobias, panic disorder, autism, and so on. And, it's thought that they can detect some cancers before our technological methods can -- perhaps this has to do with their exquisitely sensitive odor detection. Several reports over the last few years have shown that dogs have the ability to learn the meaning of hundreds, if not thousands of words. As the story in the Times says:
By giving dogs language learning and other tests devised for infants and toddlers, Dr. Coren [psychology professor at the University of British Columbia] has come up with an intelligence ranking of 100 breeds, with border collies at No. 1. He says the most intelligent breeds (poodles, retrievers, Labradors and shepherds) can learn as many as 250 words, signs and signals, while the others can learn 165. The average dog is about as intellectually advanced as a 2- to 2-and-a-half-year-old child, he has concluded, with an ability to understand some abstract concepts. For example, the animal can get “the idea of being a dog” by differentiating photographs with dogs in them from photographs without dogs.
But this story makes some of the usual kinds of mistakes that we believe people should be wary of.

When it is said that a dog has the intelligence of a 2 year old child, this is misleading in several ways. It may -- may -- be accurate to say that a dog has the human-like cognitive abilities of a 2 year old human, but that is far from the way the statement is typically made or construed.

Why not say that a adult human has the dog-like cognitive abilities of a newborn pup? We wouldn't last more than a few minutes in the wild. It's hard to imagine anything dogs regularly do (even dumb breeds, not to mention fully-genomed wild dogs not protected by vets and Alpo) that even a super-intelligent human can do nearly as well. And it's arrogance of the worst kind to say that a dog is just hard-wired by its nose. Much of a dog's behavior is highly cognitive.

Dr Clive D. L. Wynne, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, a specialist in canine cognition, is reported in the Times story as believing that the brains of dogs and humans shouldn't be compared.
He argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.
But to say that dogs use their intelligence only to find food and favor, or mates, implies somehow a rudimentary or more hard-wired kind of behavior than that of us noble humans. Why do we go to work in the morning, or to the bar at night? Our species-hubris is extraordinary.

From an evolutionary point of view, of course we're not dogs. We're many millions of years separated from our common ancestor with dogs. But we are related and have very similar genomes and very similar neurobiology (indeed, flies have similar neurobiology in some ways, which is why some grant-seekers may stretch the point but relate their fly work to human psychiatric disorders).

We can invoke Darwin's nostrum that Natura non facit salum -- nature works slowly but doesn't make leaps, to make the obvious point that we and dogs are similar enough that certainly we must share much of our cognitive experience. To what extent that applies to our notion of conscious experience, which is really what people are talking about, we have no current way to know. But we can be sure there are rudiments of it at the very least, since our brains are so similar -- even if not identical.

After all, your mental 'age' and your cognitive experiences, are not the same as ours. For evolutionary reasons they are likely to be vastly more similar than your experience is to your poodle's, but there is almost certainly more continuity than those who would like university research ethics panels (IRB's) to approve the experiments they propose on the grounds that dogs are just animals; those are the same people who argue that fish don't experience pain or fear.

Dogs seem to have remarkable intelligence, even in human-like ways, more than had been expected (though any dog owner might argue that this has always been obvious). If we want to set ourselves as an arbitrary baseline, it is legitimate to ask about the mental age of dogs. But we might learn more if we study rather than dismiss the cognitive mechanisms by which dogs vastly exceed our abilities, and by doing more than just counting the number of smell-receptors dogs have.

From a dog's point of view, we humans are really rather incompetent.


Jennifer said...

that is so true. I think about that, actually, as I watch our cats or goats, that they know all kinds of things that we could never know.

Ken Weiss said...

The problem, at its essence, is the idea of human exceptionalism. That is the assumption that we are unique among all of life, and need a singular explanation.

It's a kind of arrogance that borders on creationism.

Of course we're unique in all of life. But so is a particular kind of beetle or jellyfish (or goat). The closer species are to each other evolutionarily, the more similar they are biologically, as a rule.

We do things that nobody else does, like speak our kind of language. If we want to understand how that comes about, that's fine. But it's not so fine if we assume it is totally disconnected from what is found in closely related species to us.

In fact, if a bunch of humans could be raised entirely in the wild -- no clothes, tools, language, culture, etc. -- we would not seem nearly so unique. Of course that, too, would be misleading because we're only the way we are because our ancestors had those cultural things.