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How a discarded burrito proves that studies claiming domesticated animals are “dumber” than their wild counterparts get it wrong
“Are domesticated animals dumber than their wild relatives?”
That is the question that led researchers to comprehensively comb through nearly 90 peer-reviewed studies to determine whether the common belief that they are is true.
According to this view, domestication resulted in changes to brain size (reduced) and “altered behavioral patterns,” such as dependence,1 that,
[R]einforced the idea to the general public, but also among researchers, that domestic animals are less smart than their wild relatives. This perception has, at times, cast animal domestication in a negative light, portraying it as a form of degeneration.
Despite these enduring beliefs, the evidence for the proposition is unconvincing. Roughly 30% of the studies concluded domesticated animals were less intelligent, another 30% concluded the opposite, and the remainder (40%) “found similar cognitive performance between the two groups.”
Here’s my take, based on one of those reviewed studies and Oswald, my dog, wanting a burrito scrap discarded in a pipe:
When the city where I live was doing road work by our house, the crews always lunched in the same spot, and Oswald always seemed to find scraps they left behind.
One day, one of those scraps was tossed in or somehow ended up in the middle of a large pipe, which Oswald was too afraid to go into (as pictured above). He barked, turned around to show me I should follow him, and then let me know he wanted something in the pipe. I got on my hands and knees, crawled in, saw the scrap, and retrieved it for him. He happily ate it. From Oswald’s standpoint, it was “Mission: Accomplished.”
One of the studies reviewed by researchers compared the problem-solving skills of wolves and dogs. That study’s authors concluded that wolves could solve problems better than pet dogs and surmised that dogs were “denatured wolves” who had lost their abilities to do so. While the study correctly showed differences between wolves and dogs regarding problem-solving, the authors reached the wrong conclusion.
Researchers found that the closer and more profound the relationship between dogs and their humans, the more likely the dog would go to the person and inform them through verbal and non-verbal communication to solve the problem for him — like Ozzy asking me to get the burrito. That doesn’t show that wolves are more intelligent than dogs or that dogs can’t solve problems.
While wolves must do everything for themselves, including survival (and are largely endangered worldwide), dogs have turned humanity into slaves. In doing so, they have become one of the most successful mammals in the world, extending their lifespans, quality of life, food availability, numbers, and home ranges well beyond almost all other creatures, including the wolf. They have blanketed the world.
Every day, I feed Oswald, walk Oswald, give him a warm place to sleep, play with him, snuggle him on the couch, scratch his bum, and pick up his poo. When requested, I will do other things like crawl on my hands and knees in a pipe to retrieve a piece of leftover burrito. I do all the work, and he is neither expected nor willing to pay anything in return. That’s pretty smart of Oswald. And the 80,000,000 others in the U.S. like him.
The analysis, “Are domesticated animals dumber than their wild relatives? A comprehensive review on the domestication effects on animal cognitive performance,” was published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
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In a shared community of social animals — including those of different species — varying degrees of dependency are ultimately inevitable and inescapable. This is also true of people. Indeed, like dogs, “dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total-dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need.”
When these relationships are based on love, they aren’t necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are often necessary and beneficial. For example, when we leash dogs near busy streets or prevent them from eating a discarded piece of chocolate, our gifts of foresight and intellect protect them from dangers they may be incapable of perceiving and shielding themselves from. Such limits on autonomy protect and enhance their well-being in a way their wild counterparts might not be protected.