7 Things Dogs Teach Us About Biology
Man’s best friend has a few burning secrets to share.
Well… “secrets” may be a slight exaggeration. What follows below are seven facts and stories that are widely observed by plenty teachers, scientists, or even just curious kids who ask the right questions. But for most dog-lovers out there, the links between our furry friends and the amazingly rich field of biology may seem slim, if not entirely nonexistent.
Which, to a naturalist like myself, feels like a prime opportunity to explore some pretty cool science.
So let’s dive in. And yes, I fully acknowledge that this article is less movie-themed than most posts on this blog. However (and this is true) dogs do in fact dominate the list of animal screen time, so I’m considering this one fair play.
#1 Eyebrows. Starting in high-gear.
In our own human evolutionary history, eyebrows have quite a unique story. While they do serve a physical function (keeping moisture or dust out of our soft, squishy eyeballs) we depend on brows for a much greater, more modern function as well: communication. And so it’s completely understandable that most other mammals don’t share the same expression-full bushy brows as we do… except for dogs.
Many evolutionists (including Darwin himself) believe that our eyebrows’ evolution came about in tandem with our ancestors’ need to communicate and emote. And if dogs have converged on the same expressive facial features, it’s likely there was a similar pressure to communicate nonverbally. Amazingly, while the functionality of the canine brow is structurally a bit different than in our own primate lineage, the expressive features of dogs manage to appropriately mimic the expressions in humans.
“The eyebrow (or eye-marking) language of the dog is similar to the eyebrow language of people. When the dog becomes angry, the space between the brows (spots) is contracted and the brows angle downward. The hair will also rise up around the eyes to give a stronger impression of a human-style eyebrow.” — Stanley Coren, in the appropriately titled How to Speak Dog
But the eyebrow phenomena is just one small hint towards a much broader topic: #2 Evolutionary Theory.
Just like for eyebrows, we can ask hundreds of questions that all hint at a greater mystery: why are dogs the way they are? Why do dogs have paw pads? Or why do dogs wag their tails? This line of inquiry is something that children, families, teachers, anyone could ponder during their time sitting alongside pets and never realize that they’re inadvertently investigating an amazing evolutionary lineage. We could ask the same question about the physiology of any animal — and many scientists do — but it’s the daily and devoted exposure to dogs that prompts us to ponder ask these questions so frequently, often without fully understanding what mysteries they entail.
And similar to the case for eyebrows, there are answers to these questions buried in the actual natural history of canines. What’s more significant, though, is the insatiable curiosity that sparks this investigation. Who knows how many scientists and evolutionary theorists got their start by sitting alongside an unsuspecting pup. I certainly did.
When we narrow our lens a bit further, this conversation becomes the perfect demonstration of point #3 Heredity. In the context of dog breeding, heredity seems utterly straightforward — traits from a mama and papa dog get passed down to the next generation. Shepherds beget more shepherds, huskies beget more huskies. While the fine details of the concept were a bit hairy before the 18th Century, humans were selectively breeding dogs long before that era. Even if the rules weren’t clearly written down, prehistoric dog owners understood enough instinctually about heredity to help shape the dogs we know today.
#4 Selection is an entirely separate bubble of science, too. While heredity may be a law of nature, artificial selection is the tool we use to control it. As mentioned above, selective breeding of species like dogs or pigeons (among dozens of others) predated our modern understanding of genetics — Charles Darwin actually used the human-guided pairing of dogs as evidence for the mechanisms that allowed natural selection to take place.
“When we compare the many breeds of dogs, each good for man in very different ways… We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them; indeed, in several cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.” —THE Charles Darwin
Taking a step back from genetics, there been another interesting concept at play in our prehistoric connection to doggos: #5 Symbiosis. We may normally think of symbiotes as having a more physiological connection — like remoras and sharks, or cattle egrets — but the relationship between humans and dogs is far more social. Still, in early prehistory, domestication was a mutualistic advantage that benefited both species; we gained protection and hunting allies, and dogs gained a stable source of food and shelter.
Amazingly, according to some scientists, it’s a bit unclear which species domesticated which.
Our symbiosis with dogs was a match made in heaven, and one of the leading reasons that this puzzle came together sheds light our next point: #6 The Senses. It’s no surprise to anyone that dogs have a much more powerful sense of smell than our own, which makes them a perfect companion to keep by our sides. In fact, it’s theorized that early humans lost their adept sense of smell largely because our reliance on dogs rendered the sense practically unnecessary.
But the observations go much further than that. The myth of dogs being colorblind is only half-true, but regardless of its validity, it opens the doors for dog owners — especially young kids — to learn a valuable lesson about the animal kingdom: different species see the world in unique ways. Dogs may not truthfully be colorblind in the traditional sense, but bees do indeed see ultraviolet light, and hawks do indeed have 20/4 vision. This isn’t an easy concept to grasp, but our deep-seeded anthropomorphism of dogs makes it an easier perspective to understand: animals see the world differently than we do.
And this brings us to the final point on this list, although you can be assured that there are dozens — if not hundreds or thousands—of other robust lines of scientific inquiry that have all begun with our four-legged, floppy-eared friends: #7 Smarts.
There are plenty of reasons why our relationships with dogs are so robust (see above), but another leading reason may be that, relative to most other mammals, dogs are incredibly intelligent. Actually, according to a 2009 study, the smartest dog breeds are on par with the IQ of human toddlers. For context, I like to refer to a classic study of intelligence and “self-awareness” called the mirror test — basically an animal’s’ ability to recognize its own reflection. Animals that pass are the smart ones: apes (obviously), dolphins, elephants, and bizarrely a type of magpie which actually makes a lot of sense.
For a long time, dogs were thought to be nowhere close to this level of intellect… Until we modified the test to incorporate smell. In 2015 a scientist was able to prove what many people long-believed: dogs are self-aware too, they just rely on vision less than these other species.
And so we circle back to evolution. The journey of dogs’ growing intelligence is a unique one; it has grown in parallel to our own human journey towards sedentary and social communities. While the groundwork for intelligence was critical for prehistoric wolves living in packs, when dogs began to integrate with humans, our packs merged. The need for deeper communication, cognition, and intellect became far more paramount.
This article could easily go on for weeks and weeks, but for now, I’ll let the story end here. In short: dogs are great. They’re companions that we can easily love, but when we look through the right lens, they can also wildly transform our understandings of the natural world.
This happens. Not that I can really complain. CBS totally stole my idea.