The research is all very cool. What I wanted to comment on though from a cultural analysis perspective is the way Evan and Brian phrase their title as ‘Dogs Hijack the Human Bonding Pathway’. What’s with the hijacking? Are dogs up to some nefarious takeover plot at the expense of us humans? Certainly that is what is implied by the natural English reading of the word ‘hijack.’ This reading is in fact emphasized, in my view, because the title is paired with an image of a human looking at a Yorkshire terrier. Certainly that seems to imply the reading that dogs are using us at our expense to their benefit – more so than if the image had paired the human with a more apparently useful dog, like maybe a coonhound or a huskie. Would the title even have made intuitive sense with a black and tan coonhound in the picture?
Of course it can’t be that dogs hijack human bonding in an immediate proximate sense, because hanging out with dogs just feels good. In evolutionary biology we often distinguish between using a word in a proximate or ultimate sense. The difference is timescale. Proximate sense means the word applies to the time scale we experience things in. So, we live, die, mate, and have all sorts of other ecological interactions. Ultimate sense means the word applies to the evolutionary time scale where all the aggregate outcomes of those proximate things add up to result in genetic drift, natural selection, etc. A classic example is you could say a person’s skin tanning in response to sun exposure is an adaptation in a physiological proximate sense, or that its ability to tan is an adaptation in an evolutionary sense (it is an aggregate product of generations of selection for tanning – I understand some other humans have this ability).
So, it can’t be that dogs hijack us in a proximate sense, because that would be like saying US Airways hijacks me each time I fly to DC. A professional pilot took me there quickly, with a cold drink in my hand, and I was actually reasonably comfortable.
So I think the only sense in which hijack could have been meant then was the ultimate sense. That’s where to me the title reflects this tendency in evolutionary biology to always see the glass as morally half empty. Most evolutionary biologists will admit there is a lot of cooperation in the natural world, but they tend to emphasize selfishness at all turns. Some people won’t like me saying that, and certainly some particular evolutionists aren’t like this, but I do think it’s the tendency. And yes, having spent a year or so watching monkeys steal food from each other, get eaten by predators, etc. I’ll agree there is a lot of rank selfishness in the natural world.
However, we shouldn’t let all that become a knee-jerk reaction of negativity, and especially about dogs! Now, no one has the data needed to test whether living with dogs has been a net fitness benefit or cost to humans, but this is a blog, so I’m going to make my anecdotal qualitative case that dogs are clearly a net fitness positive. And if it’s a net fitness positive, then dogs haven’t hijacked us; rather, dog-human coevolution is a case of evolutionary mutualism.
Dogs have done a lot for us over the past 20 thousand or so years since we domesticated them. First, they have helped us hunt. We still use them that way today, but I reckon it was even more fitness beneficial to have a good dog at your side when hunting without firearms. Dogs have served as draft animals and protected our children from predators. Terriers also had an important function of exterminating disease-bearing rodents. It seems to me that one less person getting the plague in your family probably more than made up in Darwinian fitness for whatever table scraps and occasional grooming that it cost you to raise the terrier.
I’m willing to concede that perhaps in today’s modern environment dogs may well be a net fitness loss, but that’s not relevant to an evolutionary statement about hijacking. And by modern I mean really modern, because until just recently dogs still performed the critical evolutionary functions I just described. And now for the anecdote. It so happens that my mother-in-law grew up in rural India. As a teenage girl she had a German Shepherd Dog as a pet. One day her father (my wife’s grandfather) was taking a nap in the heat of the day, and a cobra came over the threshold into his bedroom. I don’t recall from the telling of the story who saw the cobra, but someone did and shouted at Dad I guess and he woke up and stayed on the bed while the cobra was still on the floor between the bed and the door. So, as all the humans were standing about, basically trying to figure out how to get Dad out of the room with the cobra on the floor, the German Shepherd rushed in, and before anyone else had moved, the dog rushed the snake and snapped it in two with it’s jaws. Amazingly, the dog didn’t get bit by the snake and survived the encounter. Needless to say this dog was subsequently of legendary status in their village.
Look folks, that’s awesome. I can’t properly quantify a selection coefficient from that, but clearly saving a Dad with teenage children from a cobra earns Rover a whole lot of kibble in the Darwinian end-game. So, maybe next time the magazine Science will spare the knee-jerk negativity and go with a title that reflects what has likely been a long evolutionary history of mutually beneficial cooperation. I’d suggest something like, ‘awesome super-canines save their owners through the human bonding pathway’, and no I don’t think super-hero capes in the accompanying picture would be out of line.