Man's best friend lends insight into human evolution

Mar 01, 2007

Flexibly drawing inferences about the intentions of other individuals in order to cooperate in complex tasks is a basic part of everyday life that we humans take for granted. But, according to evolutionary psychologist Brian Hare at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, this ability is present in other species as well.

As Hare discusses in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, chimpanzees utilize social cues like eye gaze and face orientation to monitor others' behavior or infer motives of other subordinate or dominant individuals, or even deceive them, when competing for food.

But it turns out that chimps are not very good at drawing inferences about others' mental states in cooperative situations — such as when an experimenter (or another chimp) helpfully points to hidden food. This is a skill that humans already display in infancy, and according to Hare it seems to have evolved since the human lineage split from that of chimps a few million years ago.

For Hare, who has worked with a number of different animal species, to understand the "unique" human ability to use social cues cooperatively we should look not just at our closest animal relatives, but also at our best animal friends. While chimps may fail to infer others' mental states when cooperating, domestic dogs do quite well at such tasks. If you point to hidden food, dogs often grasp what you are trying to tell them. Puppies even do it without prior training, indicating that it is an innate ability, not simply one they acquire through contact with their owners.

What accounts for this piece of convergent evolution between humans and domestic dogs is nothing other than the process of domestication — the breeding of dogs to tolerate, rather than fear, human company.

According to Hare, domesticated dogs' ability to solve social problems may have emerged once the brain systems mediating fear were altered — and the same thing may have occurred in human evolution. Chimps, he says, are constrained in solving cooperative problems by their impulse to fear more dominant individuals and behave aggressively toward more subordinate ones.

"Taken together," Hare writes, "the results on chimpanzee cooperation and their use of social cues support the hypothesis that evolution in human social problem solving, much like that of dog social problem solving, occurred after changes in our species' social emotions lifted social constraints."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Research on guilt-prone individuals has implications for workplace

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Japan's smartphone 'zombies' wreak havoc on the streets

Nov 12, 2014

When the lights change at the Shibuya crossing in Japan's capital, one of the world's busiest pedestrian thoroughfares, hundreds of people with their eyes glued to smartphones pick their way over the road.

Why dogs are the new darlings of cognitive science

May 23, 2014

This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until it ...

Recommended for you

Mindfulness helps teens cope with stress, anxiety

4 hours ago

As the morning school bell rings and students rush through crowded corridors, teenagers in one Portland classroom settle onto mats and meditation pillows. They fall silent after the teacher taps a Tibetan ...

Study links suicide risk with insomnia, alcohol use

6 hours ago

A new study is the first to show that insomnia symptoms mediate the relationship between alcohol use and suicide risk, and that this mediation is moderated by gender. The study suggests that the targeted ...

Echolocation acts as substitute sense for blind people

12 hours ago

Recent research carried out by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has demonstrated that human echolocation operates as a viable 'sense', working in tandem with other senses to deliver information to people with visual impairment.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.