Monday, September 05, 2005

Canine theory of mind?   posted by Razib @ 9/05/2005 01:49:00 PM

The New York Times has an interesting article that addresses the theory of mind, this part was very interesting to me:

...Earlier this year, Brian Hare of Harvard, Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and their colleagues showed that ordinary domestic dogs understand what is meant when a human being points at something (as in "the food's under this one!"'). Even apes don't understand pointing, which suggests that selective breeding has left dogs especially attuned to reading human minds.

With the standard caveat that this is ongoing research, if dogs have developed a form of human-biased theory of mind through selection operating on natural wolf variation that suggests a rather short timeline for this sort of trait, we have had domestic canines for no longer than a few tens of thousands of years.1 Remember that one of the major claims of Evolutionary PsychologyTM is that there simply hasn't been enough time for evolution to reequibilitrate our Pleistocene Swiss Army Knife mentality.2 Evolutionary PsychologyTM argues that our minds are characterized by extremely contingent specialized cognitive modules which show little within-species variation (language is the archetype, we can all speak and understand). Since they focus on human beings I am curious as to how they will attempt to rebut the dog research. Their perception of the slow pace of evolution suggests to me that proponents of Evolutionary PsychologyTM won't want to posit a canine theory of mind module geared toward H. sapiens. One last point to consider is that if apes are deficient in a cognitive skill which dogs are not then that suggests that the power of selection within the milieu of human culture is enormous.

Related: I believe this is the paper implied by the quotation above.

1 - There have been many repeated reports of dog ability to infer human cognitive state, but the pointing contrast with chimps struck me in particular.

2 - Remember, for a quantitative trait the response to selection is proportional to additive genetic variance (variance of the phenotype attributable to loci of independent additive effect on the phenotype), so response = (narrow sense heritability) * (selection differential). I am suspect that to a first approximation this is the sort of evolutionary dynamic that drove dog sensitivity to human cognitive states. From what I can gather proponents of the Evolutionary PsychologyTM view seem to posit sequential fixations on a each locus so that the each locus is selected against the genetic background that includes the prior fixation. This sort of evolutionary genetics can result in mechanistic epistasis which would imply a highly contingent genetic architecture.