Thursday, 11 April 2013

Like No Other Animal on the Planet

I want to recommend the BBC Horizon documentary The Secret Life of the Dog, which explores the relationship dogs have with humans re: domestication. One of their theses (granted, not the primary one) is that humans and dogs co-evolved; our relationship with dogs has radically changed them, but it has also changed us--perhaps allowing for the agricultural revolution. Thanks to my reading of Haraway, this is something I now take as obvious.

However, the primary subject of the documentary is the way in which dogs are unique among all other animals in the traits they've developed which adapt them specifically to human interaction. For instance, when dogs look at human faces, they regularly look towards the left (so they look to the right side of the face), a trait they share with humans alone. (They do not look at the left side of anything else; left-biased expression is a human trait.) So they've developed a unique capability of reading human emotion and understanding human communication.

One of the more interesting segments is about the planned and systematic domestication of foxes as an experiment to learn more about domestication. Two things are remarkable: the first is that it was successful. While foxes may not be as incredibly domesticated as dogs are, it is nonetheless possible to domestic foxes to a remarkable degree. The second remarkable thing is that while the experimenters selected for behaviour, certain physiological traits followed: shorter legs, more white in the coat, curled tail, floppier ears. Specifically, the traits that physiologically differentiate dogs from wolves also developed in foxes over the process of domestication.

I highly recommend this video. The combination of clever scientific research, dogs, and mind-theory stuff will always interest me. The Secret Life of the Dog has an X-Files feel to some of it, which I found amusing; they play almost-eerie music when leading up to the sorts of things a really intelligent dog named Betsy can do which made me think of the psychic-of-the-week episodes, and of course the experimental breeding of foxes was reminiscent of the experimental breeding of clones that a certain Fox Mulder discovered. Perhaps this is why I considered wild sci-fi scenarios while watching the show: what if the next sentient life to exist on Earth was not AI but canine? And what other animals could we domesticate: lions? cheetahs? elephants? If we did domesticate them, what effects would that have on our own behaviour and development? In what ways (cognitively, behaviourally) would those domesticated animals differ from dogs? (I suspect that horses are another animal worth investigating re: domestication and adaptations uniquely suited for interaction with humans.)

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