I came across an interesting idea in David Grimm’s Citizen Canine.
I guess Grimm went for cute by titling his book like that [geddit? — Citizen Kane], even though the book’s about dogs and cats and the word is that Grimm is a cat-person. I think Bugs may feel a little put out about that. I know I do.
I’m pretty sure Bugs would rather appreciate Grimm’s point that the reason the ancient Greeks honored the feline over the canine was that the Greeks valued liberty and autonomy. The Romans went for dogs, preferring loyalty and obligation. We are great admirers of the Greeks on this blog. They had six words for love.
But back to the interesting idea. Grimm writes that it’s smart to keep stress levels down by getting along with one’s fellows. Animals that pay attention to social cues, and respond to them, develop advanced cognitive skills. Consider the difference between chimps and bonobos, both of whom are so close genetically that they’re practically indistinguishable. Chimps are competitive and can be nasty. Bonobos, on the other hand, cooperate with each other. They resolve conflicts by having sex, not making war. Bonobos score much higher than chimps on theory-of-mind testing, designed to assess whether subjects possess attributes resembling empathy and understanding of others.
The idea that caught me was that relaxed cooperation, leading to increased cognitive skills, is a favorable evolutionary adaptation. Here’s a quote from Grimm, referring to our own species:
“[A]s we began to settle down in large numbers, we ostracized the most aggressive and antisocial members of our groups . . . . Eventually, we began to understand each other’s gestures [and] we developed a complex theory of mind . . . .” Grimm posits, then, that human intelligence is a direct result of our own self-domestication.
What we need to understand, though, is that dogs are not necessarily smarter than cats. They are just more tuned-in to humans. “Every species has evolved the skills it needs to survive.” Dogs need close connection to humans.
Cats? Not so much.