Chimps, Dogs, Or Ants: Which is a Better Model For Human Sociality

Over at UD Denyse O’Leary is all twitterpated over this news story. The news item concerns a paper accepted for publication in the journal Advances in the Study of Behavior. The paper hasn’t been published yet, so we are dependent on MSNBC for details:

Lead author Jozsef Topal explained to Discovery News “that shared environment has led to the emergence of functionally shared behavioral features in dogs and humans and, in some cases, functionally analogous underlying cognitive skills.”


“In my view, pet dogs can be regarded in many respects as ‘preverbal infants in canine’s clothing,’” he said, adding that many dog-owner relationships mirror human parental bonds with children.
In one of many recent studies conducted by the team, Topal and his colleagues taught both a 16-month-old human child and mature dogs to repeat multiple demonstrated actions on verbal command — “Do it!,” shouted in Hungarian.

The idea that dogs might serve as models of human behavior is not a new idea. Dogs, like humans are highly social animals that evolved from other highly social animals. For example, one line of research looks at the ability of dogs and wolves to perceive and act on cues provided by humans (turns out wolves don’t pay that much attention to cues provided by humans).
Of course, other animal models have been suggested:

Some naturalists, from being deeply impressed with the mental and spiritual powers of man, have divided the whole organic world into three kingdoms, the Human, the Animal, and the Vegetable, thus giving to man a separate kingdom… Spiritual powers cannot be compared or classed by the naturalist; but he may endeavour to shew, as I have done, that the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree. A difference in degree, however great, does not justify us in placing man in a distinct kingdom, as will perhaps be best illustrated by comparing the mental powers of two insects, namely, a coccus or scale-insect and an ant, which undoubtedly belong to the same class. The difference is here greater, though of a somewhat different kind, than that between man and the highest mammal. The female coccus, whilst young, attaches itself by its proboscis to a plant; sucks the sap but never moves again; is fertilised and lays eggs; and this is its whole history. On the other hand, to describe the habits and mental powers of a female ant, would require, as Pierre Huber has shewn, a large volume; I may, however, briefly specify a few points. Ants communicate information to each other, and several unite for the same work, or games of play. They recognise their fellow-ants after months of absence. They build great edifices, keep them clean, close the doors in the evening, and post sentries. They make roads, and even tunnels under rivers. They collect food for the community, and when an object, too large for entrance, is brought to the nest, they enlarge the door, and afterwards build it up again… They go out to battle in regular bands, and freely sacrifice their lives for the common weal. They emigrate in accordance with a preconcerted plan. They capture slaves. They keep Aphides as milch-cows. They move the eggs of their aphides, as well as their own eggs and cocoons, into warm parts of the nest, in order that they may be quickly hatched; and endless similar facts could be given. On the whole, the difference in mental power between an ant and a coccus is immense; yet no one has ever dreamed of placing them in distinct classes, much less in distinct kingdoms. No doubt this interval is bridged over by the intermediate mental powers of many other insects; and this is not the case with man and the higher apes. But we have every reason to believe that breaks in the series are simply the result of many forms having become extinct.

This is fromThe Descent of Man: and Selection in Relation to Sex. This quote appears at the beginning of Chpater VI.
Technically, Darwin is making an argument about classification, but note that all the ant behaviors listed above have human equivalents and based on that list ants behave a lot more like humans than dogs do.
There is a deeper issue in O’Leary’s post though (and no, I’m not referring to her ignorant comment about rattlesnakes and ribbon snakes). From UD:

Much more can be learned about human behaviour from studying the normal relationship between humans and dogs than from tracking troupes of chimpanzees, eating other troupes’ babies (or human babies) – and inventing explanations for human behaviour based on activities few humans would relate to.

Oddly enough, the canine studies O’Leary seems to favor and accept are based on the same techniques and methodologies that are used to study chimps. She doesn’t, no surprise, explain why they yield correct results on canines and incorrect results on chimps. Here are two examples of chimp studies. The first one I have posted before:

The second explores chimpanzee cultural diversity (something one does not see in canines) and touches on a subject I have posted about before:

To make O’Leary’s contradiction more obvious here is a video that talks about the use of both chimps and dogs to understand human behavior. Yet, if we followed O’Leary’s logic (and I use the term loosely) we would accept the results based on the dog part and toss the results based on the chimp part even the methods were virtually identical. A clearer example of why ID is a science stopper could not be found.

Clearly, there is no valid scientific reason to reject one part but not the other. O’Leary is rejecting the chimp studies based on ideological predilections not genuine scientific reasons.
Another good example is her final note:

(Note: I don’t believe the explanation here that chimpanzees eating human babies is a “recent development.” There is no good reason to doubt that it has always been a normal behaviour pattern for that species.)

Apparently, we are supposed to take O’leary’s word – even though she provides no evidence to back up her statement – over that of people who, you know, actually know what they are talking about.
Finally, I have to wonder at O’Leary’s obsession with painting chimps in the worst possible light with all the talk of rampages and baby eating.
This calls for a picture:
Giving The Finger 3.jpg
As for me, I’ll stick with the ants and I, for one, welcome our ant overlords!

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10 Responses

  1. “For example, one line of research looks at the ability of dogs and wolves to perceive and act on queues provided by humans (turns out wolves don’t pay that much attention to queues provided by humans).”
    Unless you mean “cues”, I have no idea what are you saying here. :)

  2. “queues provided by humans” ???
    Maybe you meant “cues provided by humans”?

  3. Sheep. I vote sheep.

  4. Yes, I did mean “cues”…

  5. The rattle snakes and ribbon snakes thing is just plain weird. It’s not as if they are even closely related. Very nutty. She must have been surfing an Ontario species at risk page. That has me worried, I wonder what she is up to?

  6. I’m not sure it really makes sense to model human behavior on *any* other species, simply because we tend to project so much human behavior onto those other species to begin with. Darwin’s ants are highly anthropomorphized–sure, they sound very human in the description, but that’s more because of the analogues used to describe their behavior in more understandable terms than because of any inherent similarity. The same sort of thing happens when studying other species, as well. It seems pretty circular to then take these models of animal behavior that are informed by our understanding of human behavior, and try to use them to inform human behavior all over again! We’ll just end up back at our initial assumptions about humans, and will have learned nothing.

  7. “For example, one line of research looks at the ability of dogs and wolves to perceive and act on queues provided by humans (turns out wolves don’t pay that much attention to queues provided by humans).”

    Unless you mean “cues”, I have no idea what are you saying here. :)

    Research indicates wolves are too smart to stand in line all night waiting to buy a new ipod.

  8. You missed the most groundbreaking of the results presented here – apparently a scientist made a 16-moth old child do what he told it to do! He should write books on the subject and become filthy rich. But perhaps it only works in Hungarian… ;-)
    Studying animals to learn mor about ourselves is always interesting, but researchers tend to become so involved in their chosen subject that they forget the most prominent fact: our society is nothing like that of ants, or dogs, or even chimps. Something must be different as well between us, obviously.
    Though I hesitate to say it is “intelligence”, after reading some of the stuff the ID-maniacs are saying. Pehaps “imagination” would be a better candidate…

  9. I don’t know why anyone pays any attention to what O’Leary says about anything. She and the other ID advocates will take every science news story (strangely, never a scientific study itself) and use it as an excuse to toot their ideological horn. No understanding of the science involved, no analysis beyond their mental blinders, it’s really irritating. Reading Denyse O’Leary on evolution is like watching CNBC on the economy: you know what side they’re on and that nothing is more important than twisting the facts to suit their position.

  10. The latest Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival, which includes this post, is HERE. Please check it out.

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