Converging with Canines: Are Humans and Dogs Evolving Together?

In our man-made world, it can feel like everything is converging all at once. Indistinguishable glass skyscrapers sprout up in cities all over the globe, near identical car models vent carbon dioxide into the air on different continents, and people around the world see their waistbands expand as they gulp down the same McFood. Global economies are more connected than ever, with natural disasters in Japan, sovereign debt issues in Europe, and rumors of Wall Street misdeeds shaking worldwide markets within minutes. Even the social media that deluge us with information seem like they’re growing more and more alike, as we now drown in unending streams of look-alike feeds, postings, messages and links from Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others.

You may wonder whether the forces of convergence are a recent phenomenon, a product of human technology, or whether they may have deeper roots in the natural world. In fact, convergence can and does occur in the realm of biological evolution, albeit at a more comfortable pace. For example, “convergent evolution” occurs when different species independently evolve similar solutions to comparable evolutionary pressures. A classic example of this is the development of wings and the ability to fly by birds, bats and pterosaurs:

Diagram of wing morphology and/or and comparative network hub structure of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (image credit: National Center for Science Education)

Consider also the independent evolution of sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies by fish, cetaceans and ichthyosaurs:

Sleek ocean swimmers (image credit: All About Reptiles)

Closer to home, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have concluded that we may be undergoing a process of cognitive convergent evolution with dogs based on our social relationships over thousands of years with these “best friends” of ours. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello reviewed a large number of studies focused on canine, human, and non-human primate social and communicative skills and reached some interesting conclusions.

Proof of convergent canine-human evolution (source unknown)

They began their analysis by focusing on research showing how well domestic dogs do at interpreting human social and communicative behavior. For example, dogs excel at tests in which experimenters hide food in one of several opaque containers and then signal where it has been hidden by pointing, gazing, bowing or nodding, or placing markers in front of the target location. The dogs easily interpret this type of cue, passing tests such as these on the first attempt and performing correctly even when humans try to trick them by walking towards the wrong container while pointing in the opposite direction to the correct container.

Also, studies have shown that dogs are aware of what humans can see. For instance, if a human turns around during a game of fetch, the dog will almost invariably bring the ball back around the human and drop the ball in front of his face. Similarly, dogs have shown that they prefer to beg for food from humans whose eyes are visible than from ones whose eyes are covered with a blindfold or bucket, but are more likely to approach forbidden food when a human’s eyes are closed.

Indeed, dogs actually consistently outperform chimpanzees and other primates at these types of skills, even though, in areas of non-social cognitive performance, dogs do not do so well. For example, non-human great apes are much better at making inferences about the location of hidden food based on non-social cues (such as a tilted board that might be tipped up by hidden treats) and at tests that require them to achieve food rewards by, for example, reeling in food attached to strings.

With this in mind, Hare and Tomasello turned to whether domestic dogs’ specialized social skills are likely to be due to convergent cognitive evolution with humans or whether another explanation is more plausible.

First, they considered the possibility that dogs learn to recognize human social cues based on their experiences growing up in human households. They found, however, that studies show that even puppies as young as nine weeks old are adept at solving problems using human pointing and gaze cues, and that puppies raised without much exposure to humans are equally skilled at interpreting these cues.

Then, they considered whether domestic dogs may have simply inherited their social skills based on their common ancestry with wolves, since wolves are, after all, pack hunters who need to be able to follow complex social interactions with other wolves and with prey. However, although wolves are generally equal to or better than domestic dogs at memory tests and tasks involving general problem-solving abilities, wolves (even those raised by humans) are simply unable to match the performance of dogs at spontaneously using human social cues to solve problems.

Next, the researchers sought evidence for the evolution of social skills in dogs through their long-term relationship with humans. They looked at a population of domesticated foxes, where the selection for breeding had been based solely on the tendency of individual foxes to be non-aggressive and fearless around humans. Interestingly, these foxes were just as adept as dogs in using and interpreting human social cues, and far better than a population of control foxes that had been bread randomly with respect to their attitude towards humans.

Based on all of these comparative findings, Hare and Tomasello concluded that the best explanation for dogs’ specialized social skills is that they evolved as a consequence of dogs having been domesticating by humans, representing a case of convergent cognitive evolution. Interestingly, Hare and Tomasello went further and, based on their review of the research on domesticated foxes, concluded that the evolution of specialized social skills in domesticated dogs may actually have been an incidental byproduct of an initial decision to select based solely on nonaggression (as opposed to social intelligence).

Finally, turning to primate evolution, Hare and Tomasello speculated that a similar process may have contributed to differences between human and chimpanzee social skills. Under what they refer to as the “emotional reactivity” hypothesis, they predicted that differences in temperament between humans and other primates may help explain some of humans’ extraordinary social cognitive abilities. They point to studies showing that chimpanzees’ willingness to cooperate with each other can often be limited by lack of social tolerance for one another resulting from fear and/or aggression, and contrast this to a more socially tolerant temperament that may ultimately have enabled our hominid ancestors to develop flexible forms of cooperation and communication. In other words, humans underwent a form of self-domestication leading to greater social abilities, thereby convergently evolving with our canine companions who were undergoing the same process.

I’m not sure I entirely buy the notion that we humans are so exceptionally tolerant, but I have noticed that you’ve started to look a bit like your dog. In a future post, we may look at whether we may also be evolving to be more like members of the cat family:

Which one is the lion? (source unknown)

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ResearchBlogging.orgHare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (9), 439-444 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2005.07.003

They’ll Take Two in the Bush – Crows and Ravens Show Patience

We live in an “act now!” world that frequently tests us, luring us with temptations and encouraging us to indulge. We may clearly see the importance of living within our budget yet still be dazzled by the shiny appeal of that new sports car; we may strongly believe in the benefits of a healthy diet yet still be weakened with lust for that large slab of double chocolate cake.

Nevertheless, we do sometimes succeed in delaying immediate gratification for the sake of something better in the future, in remembering those clichés about “good things come to those who wait” that our parents and grandparents inflicted on us. Undoubtedly, this is something we’re able to achieve because we’re humans, because we can be goal-directed and can prevail over our impulses, because we are more than unthinking animals who are captives to their immediate needs. Right?

Not so fast.

It is true that many animals seem unable to defer gratification, with prior experiments showing that animals such as rats, pigeons and chickens will rarely choose a delayed food reward over an immediate one, even if the delayed reward is much more attractive and the delay is only a few seconds. (From an evolutionary standpoint, this sort of impatience may make a lot of sense when an animal faces competition and future opportunities for food are unknown. “Life is uncertain, have dessert first!”)

To date, the major exception has appeared to be in primates: chimpanzees, bonobos, rhesus macaques and capuchin monkeys have demonstrated that they can wait for up to five minutes or so if that enables them to obtain a desirable food reward – a level of performance comparable to that of humans. (Interestingly, tests have shown that we humans seem to be much better at deferring money rewards than food rewards. Perhaps this, too, has a basis in natural selection, as food has been obviously always been an imperative, whereas money has existed for only an evolutionary blink of the eye.)

Also, while all of this might lead one to conclude that the ability to delay gratification lies solely within the province of humans and our closest relatives, it now turns out that corvids, the famously smart bird family (see prior AnimalWise posts here and here and here and here) that includes ravens and crows, may be every bit as patient.

When's dinner going to be ready? (from Wikipedia, photo credit: Cj005257)

As described in a paper published last week in Biology Letters, a team led by Valérie Dufour of the University of Strasbourg recently found that crows (Corvus corone) and ravens (Corvus corax) are able to tolerate delays of over five minutes in order to obtain a better reward, and that they may use the same sort of tactics to distract themselves while they wait as humans do.

In this study, six crows and six ravens were first trained to exchange tokens for food rewards, and then were given a series of “delayed exchange” tests. In each test, a bird would be handed an initial piece of food, which it could either eat immediately or, upon receipt of a signal after a designated waiting period, exchange for a more a desirable reward that it could see throughout the testing period. If the bird ate the initial reward or tried to exchange it too early, the test would end, but if it waited until the proper signal after the waiting period had elapsed – success, a better reward!

The researchers ran the tests with different types of reward (which they labeled as low-, medium- and high-quality) and with varying waiting periods (from 2 to 640 seconds).

Not surprisingly, the birds were generally more willing to exchange for the most highly preferred rewards and, as the following graphic illustrates, had a harder time as the delay period increased (with both crows and ravens maxing out at 320 seconds, or slightly over five minutes):

Interestingly, when the birds had to wait 20 seconds or longer before being able to exchange, they usually placed the “reward in the hand” on the ground and/or cached it in nearby crevices. The researchers believed this to be a distractive strategy, as “[t]hese behaviours probably alleviate the cost of waiting: not having to hold the food distracts the bird’s attention from it.”

As someone who routinely has to put snack food out of reach or even out of sight in order to prevent Homer Simpson-like devouring, this explanation makes a lot of sense to me. (For those of you who would prefer a more uplifting example of a strategy for avoiding temptation, I invite you to think about Ulysses having himself lashed to his ship’s mast so that he can safely listen to the songs of the Sirens.)

In any event, delaying gratification is significant because it involves, on some level, making a judgment about the future and the likelihood of achieving a prospective reward. While it’s not clear whether this entails a full “sense of self,” it is worth (re)noting that corvids are one of the few animals that have demonstrated the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, a cognitive test that’s often used to measure whether an animal has at least rudimentary self-awareness.

Once again, corvids are no bird brains!

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ResearchBlogging.orgDufour V, Wascher CA, Braun A, Miller R, & Bugnyar T (2011). Corvids can decide if a future exchange is worth waiting for. Biology letters PMID: 21920957.

Rosati, A., Stevens, J., Hare, B., & Hauser, M. (2007). The Evolutionary Origins of Human Patience: Temporal Preferences in Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Human Adults Current Biology, 17 (19), 1663-1668 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.033.

Heilbronner, S., & Platt, M. (2007). Animal Cognition: Time Flies When Chimps Are Having Fun Current Biology, 17 (23) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.012.

On the Branch of a Tree, Not at the Top of a Ladder

Every so often, it’s good to see something clearly illustrating that it’s not all about us, that evolution doesn’t simply progress its way up a ladder, climbing ever higher until it reaches humans on the top rung.

Genetic comparisons offer one such clear illustration.

For example, now that we’ve fully sequenced the human and chimpanzee genomes, we can take a close look at the different paths our genes have travelled during the six or seven million years since we parted ways from a common ancestor. In that time, humans and chimpanzees have plainly diverged quite a bit — on the one hand, humans have learned to walk on two legs, experienced dramatic growth in brain size, and now excel at speech, language and a whole host of cognitive functions; on the other hand, although chimpanzees are clearly intelligent primates, they still retain many of the physical and behavioral characteristics that they had millions of years ago.

Obviously, then, our genes have undergone the greater process of Darwinian natural selection … right?

Wrong.

The Human-Chimpanzee Genome Comparison

Do you think those humans are ever going to evolve like us? (photo credit: Delphine Bruyere)

A team of researchers led by Margaret Bakewell and Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan1 decided to systematically compare the human and chimpanzee genomes to find out which species’ lineage has undergone more positive Darwinian selection over time. In essence, they lined up the two genomes to identify where they differed, and then used the DNA of the rhesus macaque, which shares an older ancestor with each of us, to figure out whether differences were due to changes in the human or in the chimpanzee DNA.

Moreover, since some DNA changes have no impact on protein production, the team was able to use statistical methods to look at the changes that do impact protein production and identify which of these were positive in the sense that they conferred a survival or reproductive advantage. (Without getting into the mathematical details, genes where a disproportionate number of the DNA changes do impact protein production are the ones where positive selection is taking place.)

In all, the researchers scanned nearly 14,000 genes (greater than 50% of the genes in the primate genome), and carefully controlled for relatively quality differences in the available genomic sequences. Using their most conservative data, they identified 154 genes that were under positive selection in the human lineage and 233 in the chimpanzee lineage. In other words, chimpanzees have 51% more positively-selected genes than humans have.

The research team summed up these findings:

[I]n sharp contrast to common belief, there were more adaptive genetic changes during chimp evolution than during human evolution. Without doubt, we tend to notice and study human-specific phenotypes more than chimp-specific phenotypes, which may have resulted in the prevailing anthropocentric view on human origins.

Interestingly, the types of genes undergoing positive change are not particularly correlated to the areas where we have seen the greatest physical divergence, such as brain size. Rather, as the below charts indicate, the areas of positive selection are widely distributed through biological processes, molecular functions and tissue groups (in the charts, PSG stands for “positively selected gene”) :

What Explains the Greater Positive Selection in Chimps?

The researchers believe that the principal explanation for the findings is that, for most of the time that humans and chimpanzees have evolved separately, the average population size of chimps was 3-5 times as large as that of humans. This is significant, as population genetic theories predict that positive selection is less effective in smaller populations (i.e., in a small group there are simply fewer opportunities for the occurrence of beneficial mutations with survival and/or reproductive advantages).

Now, there are a few caveats to this story. For one, this type of comparison does not necessarily capture recent or ongoing changes that are not yet “fixed” in the genome, so recent positive changes to the human genome may have gone undetected. Also, while this analysis adds up the relative number of genes undergoing positive change, it does not take into account the fact that some changes may be more important than others, as a change to a single gene can sometimes have a dramatic impact. Also, the study focuses on changes to genes that impact the proteins that they produce, but not the way in which those genes are expressed (e.g., whether and when the genes are turned on or off), and gene expression can account for very significant differences between species.

Nevertheless, even with these caveats, this study is an eye-opener.

From a human perspective, we naturally see our distinguishing characteristics as critically important, and often assume that they reflect something special from an evolutionary standpoint. When we look closely, though, we sometimes find that our views are far more subjective than objective. From a broader perspective, we have been just a single species with (for most of our history) a relatively small population, and have accordingly undergone a correspondingly slower rate of natural selection.

Makes one wonder whether the chimps, with all of those positive genetic changes, could have evolved a way for handling debt ceilings and political consensus. Now that would be an adaptation that would come in handy these days!

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1Bakewell, M., Shi, P., & Zhang, J. (2007). More genes underwent positive selection in chimpanzee evolution than in human evolution Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (18), 7489-7494 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0701705104

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