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Friday, June 05, 2020

Naive like a puppy

It’s time humans stop expecting cats to relate to them as dogs

Written by Simantini Ghosh | Updated: June 27, 2019 12:22:40 am
Naive like a puppy As for whether dogs are capable of emotional bonding, there is so much scientific evidence in its favour, that it is not a question anymore, actually. (Representational Image / AP-PTI)

The editorial, ‘Puppy eyes’ (IE, June 19) claims that dogs have evolved to manipulate human emotions, based on a finding by a research group at the University of Portsmouth. The cited study finds that there is a specialised muscle found above the eye sockets of dogs that allows them to modulate their facial expressions, and specifically assume the fabled “puppy eyed” look to which we hapless humans find ourselves jelly-legged with love and adoration. The research is a legit find, having made its way into one of the world’s foremost scientific journals with extremely wide readership. But even then the study — and the editorial — left me a bit baffled with its (almost puppy-like) naïveté.

The idea that humans react fondly to facial features that reflect those of babies of our own species has been the leading theory in this field since being proposed in 1943 by Konrad Lorenz, whose work in instinctive behaviour instills a gospel-like reverence, despite his Nazi politics. Since that time, there has been an abundance of evidence that indeed, humans do respond to the young of most vertebrate and mammalian species because of the similarity of facial and bodily features in human babies — a flat head, chubby cheeks, round big eyes, a small pudgy nose, rotund bodies and short extremities. In that sense, almost all species have evolved, including our own, to invoke feelings of love that ensure protection, nourishment, shelter instead of cruel treatment or harm. The evidence in the University of Portmouth study is at best a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle trying to understand the biological changes that underlie the process of domestication and bifurcation of the canine species from the wolves. However, as for whether dogs are capable of emotional bonding, there is so much scientific evidence in its favour, that it is not a question anymore, actually. Dogs and wolves share 99.9 per cent of their genomes but in chromosome six, at a few loci, our canine friends differ in the expression of few genes that influence social interactions, suggesting they are hard wired to interact favourably with our species.

The erstwhile cat parent in me takes offence at the bad rap that is in the share of cats, including in the editorial. Cats are not manipulative: We just don’t understand as much about their behaviour as we do for dogs. Even genetically, the difference between domesticated cats and their feral counterparts are not as stark as the difference between dogs and wolves. Further, research suggests that while dogs recognise us as a separate species and their endearing behaviours are reserved for human interactions, a dog is likely never to behave with a fellow canine as he might react with a human. A cat, in contrast, treats us just as physically bigger cats. All their behaviour towards humans, hissing, purring, kneading, rubbing their bodies, raising their tails are behaviors they routinely conduct with other cats. This does not make them manipulative, it is just our lack of understanding the feline world.

But what tickled the funny bone in me was the obviousness of the research — and at points, the editorial too. Before the existence of this muscle was known, no one knew their dogs had them wrapped around their little finger-err-paw? It is almost similar to the analogy of the clinical trial testing on whether jumping without a parachute increases the chances of death in pilots. Of course, biological features in all domesticated animals evolved to evoke feelings in humans that would be of evolutionary advantage to such animals. The jump from evolution to manipulative is so abrupt, I am reminded of the Bengali litterateur Sandipan Chattopadhyay, who while once critiquing the love of jargon in leftist theoreticians had remarked, it is but a pity that the frog is not aware of its own scientific name.

Turns out, not only dog owners, the poor canines are equally ignorant about their own manipulative abilities.

The writer is assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Ashoka University

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