The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

If you decide to read this book, and I suggest that you do, then prepare to become quite annoying. This book is so packed full of interesting facts that it is likely that on every second page you will be nudging your partner and saying “Did you know that dogs .. .. ?” The facts will range from their skills smelling and seeing, through their social behaviour and cognitive structures, to their morals and their very genetic makeup. This is a wide ranging scientific book which attempts, and largely succeeds, in giving a potted summary what we know about ‘the dog’. Despite the scientific slant this is, however, a very easy book to read and at times can be quite humorous.

It is surprising that there are not more books on this subject. This symbiotic relationship between two different species is quite unusual and very special. The length of time that our species have cohabited is stunning and it appears that both ourselves, and the dogs, evolved together and we both influenced the development of the others evolution. The fossil evidence for dogs dates back around 14000 years; a burial site in Israel (Ein Mallaha) which was dated at around 12000 years ago shows that man and dog are well acquainted from the start. The burial site contained the remains of an elderly man, curled up, with his hand resting on the skull of a young puppy.

Not only is our relationship with the dog one of our earliest relationships it is also part of a very small and select group. Of the thousands of animals and birds which have inhabited the earth alongside us only about a dozen species have entered into a domestic relationship with man. It is probably fair to say, though a few weird cat people might disagree, that the relationship mankind has with the dog is of a magnitude greater than with any other animal.

It is not that there are not a lot of books about dogs, there are. But these are often ‘how to’ books (“How to train your Alsatian“), encomia to various breeds (“For the love of Spaniels“) or pop-psychology about the dogs’ mental state or yours (“What your dog is saying to you” or “How to live as an alpha male; being a wolf in a man’s world“). This book is not like these, it is a measured review of our current scientific knowledge and it tends to puncture quite a few commonly held myths about dogs especially in the area of language and dog psychology. However, as someone who has always lived with dogs, and whose dogs grace this page, I found this more hard-nosed approach all the more interesting.

The book tackles the idea of domestication, the idea that we tamed wolf pups to become dogs, and reveals that this is very unlikely to have been the case. We, as a species, did not domesticate the dog; the dog, as a scavenger, learnt how to carve a niche for itself and moved into our society. We may later have promoted different breeds by determined mating but prior to this there is no evidence that we created the dog by breeding from its forbearer the wolf.

The cognitive styles and communication of the dog are also considered and it is shown that it is not helpful to try and shoe-horn the dogs’ actions into explanations based on human cognition or conversation. It is very rarely appropriate and very commonly leads us to errors of judgement. Dogs are not partially developed humans and is best not to think of them in these terms. It may be occasionally helpful to think of them as a form frust of wolves. But,in any event, it is better to be aware of the research that has been done and use this exciting and interesting data to understand our friends. This would stop us making the many mistakes that other books anthropomorphism lead us to (Or worse, the mistakes when we analyse our behaviour on the basis of our behaviour being related to those of the dog or wolf pack).

There is so much information in this book it keeps the reader actively engaged. Readers who live with dogs will especially find items of interest and surprise on just about every page. Those readers will also end with a much better understanding of the dog than when they started. Those readers who are not fortunate enough to live with a dog will also find it enjoyable and may help them understand why their neighbours spend time picking up 2 millions tons of dog faeces annually in the United States or why they pay $5billion a year to feed these parasites who have moved in with them.

This is a book that explains dogs as dogs, not as some reflection of ourselves. It is important to remember this as, as the author notes, “If dogs truly were human, they would be jerks. As dogs, they are wonderful”

Monogamy through the eyes of chickens.

I have been feeling increasingly sorry for Emrys this last month or so. Emrys is our rather elderly Sussex cockerel and over recent times has started to look rather the worse for wear. He is the only cockerel we have who has a name as he was a gift from a neighbour and arrived named. My wife has continued to use the name since so he is quite unique amongst our poultry in having a name (Though I think secretly my wife has names for some of the ducks also. I sometimes call the stag turkey names, but these vary on how annoying he is and are not fit for printing). Emrys and his flock live at the front of the small holding and the other flocks of hens and their cockerel are spread as far apart as possible. This gives them space to roam and, initially at least, reduces the fighting.

As time passes, and as the birds get more adventurous and curious, the area around their base, that that they call home, gradually expands. A few months ago, Emrys’s flock’s area grew until it butted against the newest cockerel and his flock’s area. Cockerels do not mix and never make good neighbours. Most cockerels view any other cockerel as the spawn of the devil, even if it is their own offspring, and see their presence as a reason to fight. These fights are vicious, and can sometimes can be fatal to one of the birds, though usually they are short-lived, noisy, flashes of talons and beaks until one party retreats. Although often in these quick spats they can inflict serious damage on each other.

Emrys has been losing these fights. He has lost a

081218_1302_Monogamythr1.jpg
Emrys after losing again

lot of his plumage and carries some scars on his comb. Sometimes he is bloodied and hides away in the bushes. His nemesis, the other cockerel, steals his ladies during the day luring them away with promises of treats and food. I know there are dangers with anthropomorphism and I am not sure how much Emrys understands of his situation, I hope not too much, but it is very hard to not feel sad when you spy him, on his own, obviously just having lost a spat and watching his wives playing with the other group. But is does bring home to you the many positive advantages that we, as a species, have experienced but failed to arrive for chickens. When one looks into the eyes of a chicken, or regards their scaly legs and talons, it is very easy to see their relationship to the dinosaurs. Looking at them is like peering down the tunnel of the years to primitive times.

 

 

Chickens and other fowl are different to other birds. The vast majority of birds, about 90%, are monogamous. Some may just be monogamous for one breeding season, some for a series of seasons, and some species mate for life (famously swans, albatrosses, owls and eagles). It is generally assumed that the development of monogamy, in bird and other animals (including ourselves), was very valuable in ensuring the development of vulnerable offspring. Having both parents actively involved in the rearing of children helps their survival, this is especially important when the young are born immature and very vulnerable as with birds, and especially so with humans.

This monogamy helps young develop more safely. It also results in closer bonds between family members and is possibly the evolutionary driver to our human experience of love. If we are to mate and stay with one individual we need an extremely strong feeling of attraction which can outweigh the pressures of sexual attraction of other potential mates. Love of one partner to another, of a parent to a child, of a family member to another is the primary glue that allows us to join people together and create families and society. Although there is a current tendency to decry monogamy as traditional, old-fashioned and out-of-date most research concludes that monogamy is a valuable and core element of stable societies. A paper by Heinrich et al summarised thus :-

In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses. By assuaging the competition for younger brides, normative monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fertility, and (iii) gender inequality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normative monogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death and homicide. These predictions are tested using converging lines of evidence from across the human sciences.

A recent review in The Economist explored the link between polygamy and war. Worrisomely it showed that in areas where polygyny was allowed, more than one woman per man, then violence and war were much more common. It also explored the reasons underpinning the breakdown of monogamy and the risks that this holds for society. Unfortunately as the Koran blesses polygyny there is considerable growth in the practice in Islamic areas. This does tend to act as a destabilising influence on society in these regions and, as the article discusses :–

Wherever it is widely practised, polygamy (specifically polygyny, the taking of multiple wives) destabilises society, largely because it is a form of inequality which creates an urgent distress in the hearts, and loins, of young men. If a rich man has a Lamborghini, that does not mean that a poor man has to walk, for the supply of cars is not fixed. By contrast, every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.

This has lead to the finding that “Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are.” Although the research shows this I knew this already  from watching Emrys. He is unable to cooperate with his neighbours, he can’t develop friendships with others, his whole life is fighting, preparing for fighting and trying to subdue his harem. It unfortunately seems that if as a society we start to abandon monogamy we might start to live a bit more like Emrys, and, had Emrys the ability to think, he’d tell us this is not a good idea.

oznor
Hey Emrys ! Were these your wives ?