When it comes to social intelligence, human toddlers have far more in common with dogs than they do with chimpanzees, according to a new study at the University of Arizona. In fact, dogs and children similarly outperform chimps on cooperative communication tasks.
The findings could help scientists gain a better understanding of how humans evolved socially and also shed some light on certain human disabilities that involve deficits in social skills, such as autism.
Looking to dogs for help in understanding human evolution is a relatively new idea, since scientists most often turn to close human relatives such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas for answers to evolutionary questions. Yet, it appears that man’s best friend may offer an important, if limited, piece of the puzzle.
“There are different kinds of intelligence, and the kind of intelligence that we think is very important to humans is social in nature, and that’s the kind of intelligence that dogs have to an incredible extent,” said Dr. Evan MacLean, assistant professor in the School of Anthropology in the University of Arizona (UA) College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“But there are other aspects of cognition, like the way we reason about physical problems, where dogs are totally dissimilar to us. So we would never make the argument that dogs in general are a better model for the human mind — it’s really just this special set of social skills.”
For the study, the researchers studied 552 dogs, including pet dogs, assistance-dogs-in-training, and military explosive detection dogs, representing a variety of different breeds. The researchers assessed social cognition through game-based tests, in which they hid treats and toys and then communicated the hiding places through nonverbal cues such as pointing or looking in a certain direction.
They compared the dogs’ results to data on 105 two-year-old children who previously completed a similar cognitive test battery and 106 chimpanzees assessed at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa.
Both dogs and toddlers outperformed chimps in the area of cooperative communication. While chimps performed well on tests involving their physical environment and spatial reasoning, they did not do so well on tests of cooperative communication skills, such as the ability to follow a pointing finger or human gaze.
Researchers also observed similar patterns of variation in performance between individual dogs and between individual children.
In the last decade, a growing body of research has been focusing on what exactly makes human psychology special. Scientists have observed that our basic social communication skills that begin to develop around nine months are what first seem to set humans apart from other species, said MacLean, also director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at University of Arizona.
“There’s been a lot of research showing that you don’t really find those same social skills in chimpanzees, but you do find them in dogs, so that suggested something superficially similar between dogs and kids,” said MacLean. “The bigger, deeper question we wanted to explore is if that really is a superficial similarity or if there is a distinct kind of social intelligence that we see in both species.
“What we found is that there’s this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that’s the same thing you find in kids, but you don’t find it in chimpanzees,” he said.
One possible explanation for the similarities between dogs and humans is that both may have evolved under similar pressures that favored “survival of the friendliest,” with benefits and rewards for more cooperative social behavior.
“Our working hypothesis is that dogs and humans probably evolved some of these skills as a result of similar evolutionary processes, so probably some things that happened in human evolution were very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication,” MacLean said. “So, potentially, by studying dogs and domestication we can learn something about human evolution.”
The research also has the potential to help researchers better understand human disabilities that may involve deficits in social skills, such as autism, MacLean said.
The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
Source: University of Arizona