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6/18/13

Man's Best Friend Revisited

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They are uniquely loyal to their masters. Unlike cats, they are oriented to what we want, and they understand that we are trying to communicate. They have an uncanny ability to read and respond to human emotions. Humans, in turn, respond to them with oxytocin, the same hormone responsible for bonding mothers to their babies. How did this incredible relationship between them and humans come to be? And how can they, so closely related to fearsome wild wolves, behave so differently? And of course you know what am I talking about, don't you?

Why foxes, of course! Selective breeding has evolved human-friendly foxes rather like dogs in their desire to please. These foxes will wag their tails and roll on their backs, eager to be petted by you. When I read about them I thought about other things, including my dogs, moral traits, and theory of mind--a fancy scientific term for guessing intentions of other creatures. The foxes left me wondering how wild gets tame, for the change did not occur with the wave of a magic wand.

I have never owned a fox but I have owned dogs and one in particular, Togo, a Basenji mix, I recall as very special and she seemed to think I was very special. When she wasn't trying to get all 35 pounds of herself on my lap she was outdoors. Outside, she loved to chase sticks and bring one to me with it in her mouth. She stood there wagging her tail, looking up with those soulful brown eyes until I took it from her and gave it a toss. I threw and she fetched and this could go on--not until she tired, but until my arm wore out. For me, it is a stretch to get from Togo to foxes, for I cannot imagine a fox chasing sticks but I do wonder how soon before a fox is bred to fetch.

Years later I still miss her. I find it difficult to impute human feelings such as love and a sense of fairness to a fox but with Togo it is easier, although I may be projecting too much. She would bring me her favorite bone, plop it at my feet, and offer to gnaw at it with me. I don't know why she was such a good friend and maybe loyalty and friendship are values I saw in her. Science teaches reductionism and, reducing it all, maybe she was just wired to behave as she did, although I prefer to think otherwise, else I reduce myself.

Then there is theory of mind and Togo. For scientists, theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others.  Wild creatures such as foxes also have it but in Togo this showed up in her sly side, for she knew what her chum Homer, another pooch I owned, wanted or thought.

When she and Homer were given food, Homer would plunge in and quickly gobble it all from his bowl. She waited until he was done and then slowly, daintily, lick at it while Homer stood next her, tongue salivating. She growled at him to keep his distance and thoroughly enjoyed her food so long as he wanted it. When done she left a single food scrap for him as she walked away. With theory of mind, she had him pegged. As for fairness, I see this as a sense of fairness in reverse. She had something he wanted and she was not about to give it to him. Homer never did figure out her game.  Sly like a fox he was not.

A sense of fairness can be found in undomesticated animals from bonobos to rats. A rat will open a cage to let another rat out to share some choice morsels. So will a bonobo, relative to the chimpanzee. We can see in this the origins of our own morality, which at one time was vaunted as wholly human. Wholly human, indeed. That reminds me of attempts in popular magazines to label our species. One is this: Man, the moral animal. Uh-uh. Nope. We can no longer make this claim to exclusivity given what is known about the behavior of other creatures.

Morality is one thing, domestication another. Togo's ancestors became domesticated at the dawn of civilization. Foxes have become so only recently, and this through a scientific study. Part of the study's intent is to answer the question, How do creatures become domesticated?  How does a fox become like my dog Togo?  How do the wild become tame? This is a question apart from morality, for the evidence as seen in rats and bonobos, for instance, suggests rudimentary "morality" is not something creatures learn from people. Wildness, so to speak, contains in itself moral traits. From wildness to tameness, though--therein lies a big question. How does a species get from the one to the other?

The way is paved by DNA in certain species. We have domesticated species such as pigs, chickens, horses, and now foxes. But still, a great leap happened between wild and tame. How could such a huge transformation  occur? Certainly domestication arose out of human dominion over plants and animals, from which came livestock and farming.

Because food could be found around agricultural communities, certain canids and felids came into close contact with people and the eventual result was dogs and cats. To say this, though, is not to explain why natural selection into human communities happened to them alone.

It was not a common phenomenon. Evolution favored only a handful of unfortunate wild animals to successfully breed and get along with humans. I say "unfortunate" because by hitching their fate to people, animals limit variability in natural selection and, thereby, adaptability of future generations. Humans tolerate in homes and farms only what they want.

The reason for tameness, the uncommon phenomenon, scientists say, is found in genes of these animals. As for how DNA domestication occurred in a few select species, scientists are at work on the issue and through the engineered taming of foxes and other creatures, the question might be answered. More.

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