Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Do Dogs and Wolves Form Dominance Hierarchies?

I Stand by What I Wrote—And Here Are 3 Reasons Why

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
                                                                                                  —African Proverb

Competition vs. Cooperation
Dr. Marc Bekoff recently wrote an arcticle here at Psychology Today stating, in no uncertain terms, that dominance hierarchies are real. He backed this up by saying that this is the current scientific consensus.

I’m not denying that the consensus exists. But it seems to me that we may have been seeing this issue backwards. The members of a wolf pack are not in competition over resources, nor are they seeking biological advantages over one another. The pack is actually about pooling resources, sharing them—not about fighting over them.

Here I’ll give 3 very simple, very clear and specific reasons for why I believe that dogs and wolves do not form dominance hierarchies.

1) Dominance = A Vertical Chain of Command
It seems to me that a true dominance hierarchy is a top-down system with a clear and invariable vertical chain of command. Examples in human society are the military, educational systems, and families. [1]

In animal groups the deciding factor of who’s dominant is reportedly about who controls access to resources: food, water, the best place to sleep, mating opportunities, etc. Yet none of the human systems I mentioned above are about controlling access to resources; they’re about enforcing obedience to authority. If a soldier, student or child disobeys, there are clear consequences. But in canine packs and multiple-dog households, if a supposedly subordinate animal has possession of a bone or a toy, he or she is often allowed to keep it despite the fact that the more dominant dog may also want it. There is no clear, vertical chain of command.

Dr. Bekoff has observed this himself: “Complicating the picture is the phenomenon of situational dominance. For example, a low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts. I've seen this in wild coyotes, dogs, other mammals, and various birds. In these cases possession is what counts.”

Situational dominance? Possession is what counts? From what I understand these ideas simply do not gibe with the definition of a top-down system.

2) Dominant and Submissive Labels Are Meaningless
In his book Dog Language, Dr. Roger Abrantes explains how to tell if one member of the pack is feeling or acting dominant he “will make its body appear large and stiff.”

But is this specific form of body language is always consistent with dominance? If, for example, a dog or wolf wins or controls access to resources by acting in a “submissive” rather than a “dominant” manner, wouldn't that animal then be, by definition, dominant?

One example is the conflicts that seem to arise between a breeding pair over how to “disburse food to the young.”

This typically starts when the breeding male brings a dead animal such as a hare back to the den where the female is waiting with her pups. She comes out of the den. The male stands tall and stiff. The female starts to crouch low to the ground, but keeps coming toward him. 

The closer she comes the more “dominant” his posture becomes. 

Hers, meanwhile, becomes more and more “submissive.” 

This continues until the female, nearly rolling over on her back, snatches the dead animal—the “resource”—right out of the male’s jaws while he just stands there, frozen.

Who’s most dominant here? Obviously the female; she clearly gains total and complete control of an important resource. Yet her posture is defined as “submissive” while the males is defined as dominant, even though hes the loser! [2]

It seems to me that the words we attach to these postures should always relate to an animal’s “rank and status” in any given situation, under any and all conditions and circumstances.

3) Female vs. Male Perspectives
In canids, group formation is a function of prey size. According to Ray Coppinger, wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form packs. Coyotes, who are usually solitary, will form packs when small prey is scarce. Etc., etc.

Since dominance is supposedly about conflicts over who controls access to resources, and since the primary resources for wolf packs are large prey animals, if the pack is a dominance hierarchy we should see constant conflicts over access to the prey animal. Yet hunting seems to be a cohesive, cooperative effort on the part of all pack members. Even when the animal has been killed, no wolf always eats first.

If wolves actively cooperate and consistently share resources, then why has science focused so much attention on so-called dominance?

The problem may have something to do with gender perception or what I would call sexual semiotics: it's been shown that male researchers often tend to focus their attention on agonistic behaviors while female researchers are more interested in affiliative behaviors. [3]

In the 1960s, for instance, when Thelma Rowell studied the baboons in Uganda, the accepted idea was that they lived in a clear male dominance hierarchy, were extremely competitive, and were constantly fighting over food and females.

Yet Rowell found that baboon society was peaceful. Aggression was rare between males, and they rarely stole food from one another. This caused Rowell to conclude that baboon society was one of “active cooperation.” She even went so far as to say that dominance hierarchies only exist because the observer creates them.

We know that social friction exists in dogs and wolves. But is it really dominance? I'm no scientist, but I think that's a legitimate question.

Granted, the “data are there,” meaning that the dominance model has plenty of statistical numbers to back it up. The problemif there is onemay be that statistics are often dependent on which behaviors the observer deems relevant, which may bring us back to sexual semiotics.

Thelma Rowell writes, “A zoologist … must always return to the question of selective advantages. … It is so very obvious that monkeys enjoy being together that we take it for granted. But pleasure, like every other phenomenon in life, is subject to, and the result of, evolutionary pressure—we enjoy a thing because our ancestors survived better and left more viable offspring than their relations who did not enjoy (and so seek) comparable stimuli.” (Haraway, 1978, p. 51.)

Following this line of reasoning—and operating on the principle that the wolf pack’s primary function is to hunt large, dangerous prey—what’s more important or more likely for success? A social structure built on dominance, aggression, and fear? Or one built on the pleasure of being in one another’s company, snuggling up when it’s cold, licking each other’s fur, playing with each other when you feel like it, all of which, over time, create feelings of harmony and cohesion rather than tension and divisiveness? The pack would still exhibit the same structure, it would just be an affiliative heterarchy not a dominance hierarchy.[4]

Would wolves define themselves by the occasional flare-ups that take place when environmental stressors increase social friction, or by the constant internal emotional pull they feel for the simple pleasure of being in one another’s company?

It's impossible to say. However, as a dog trainer my observations suggest that dogs would prefer to live in harmony with us, and with one another. I also know that in dogs, dominance is often a symptom of anxiety. When you reduce a dog’s anxiety, whatever dominance tendencies that dog had, simply disappear.

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1) In her book Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, Linda Marie Fedigan defines a linear dominance hierarchy as “a straight-line rank ordering of animals drawn up by the researcher according to what the researcher perceives to be an animal’s relative abilities to intimidate, obstruct or control another’s bodily movements and thus win such conflicts or use resources first.” (94)

2) Some might argue that in wolf packs males perceive females as a resource rather than as rivals, so they make pains not to exert dominance over them, only over other males, but if that’s the case, then dominance isn’t a social behavior but a sexual one, a topic for another discussion at another time.

3) "Numerous observers among primatologists and science studies scholars have suggested that women observed differently. For some, women's patience makes them ideal observers." ("Culture and Gender Do Not Dissolve Into How Scientists 'Read' Nature: Thelma Rowell's Heterodoxy," Vinciane Despret, Dept of Philosophy, University of Li├Ęge, Belgium; 2009, p. 

4) As its name implies a heterarchy derives its structure comes from differences in temperament. Following this idea, some pack members would be seen not as more dominant, necessarily, but more direct, while others aren't necessarily submissive, they would just have a tendency to be indirect. These variations of the direct and indirect approach to others may very well be necessary for the pack to succeed during the hunt.

Wolves, Scrub Jays, & the Feeling of Being Watched

Do animals know when they’re being watched?

“Oh, grandmother! What big eyes you have!”
“The better to see you with,” said the wolf.

The Eyes of a Killer
The world is full of prey and predators. Each has to develop tricks to “outwit” the other. Instead of spinning webs, some spiders hide under leaves to lie in wait for their prey. A cuttlefish can instantaneously change its pigmentation to blend in with the background, either to avoid predators or to sneak up on its prey. Most mammalian predators “stalk” their prey, getting low to the ground and holding perfectly still whenever the prey looks in their direction.

Do animals know when they’re being watched? Have you ever had the feeling of being stared at? I know I have.

Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has completed tens of thousands of trials on the sensation of being stared at and found that 60% of test subjects reported being stared at while they were actually under scrutiny while 50% mistakenly reported being stared at when no one was looking. According to Sheldrake, this suggests that there may be a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. Personally, I have to wonder if the percentages would have gone up if the volunteers had been stared at by someone with malicious intent.

Sheldrake: “The ability to detect [danger] makes biological and evolutionary sense. It may be deeply rooted in our animal nature, and widespread in the animal kingdom.”

Scrub Jays and Spanish Wolves
 This brings up an interesting behavior seen in scrub jays, a member of the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens and magpies. For some time now it’s been believed that scrub jays will cache and re-cache their food based on who they think is watching them. This has been touted by some as another example of corvid intelligence (along with crows and ravens using tools and remembering human faces).

Some have even said that this is proof that corvids may have a Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to be aware of one’s own mental states, and to impute mental states onto others. However, a new study, done using computer models, shows that the scrub jay’s behaviors can be explained as a stress response, having nothing to do with intelligence or a ToM.

Meanwhile, another study, this one out of Spain, shows that wolves living in the Galicia region choose to live in high places that are difficult to access, areas where vegetation hides the wolves from human eyes, even though this provides less access to prey. In fact, researchers determined that the influence of avoiding human contact was at 35% while food availability was only 17%!

Why do scrub jays feel stressed when another bird is watching them? And why would wolves rather avoid human contact than live in a habitat where food was more plentiful? An even better question might be, absent a Theory of Mind, how do wolves and scrub jays know when someone is watching them? And, for that matter, how did I know that someone dangerous was staring at me that day at the diner?

A Gut Feeling
Animals and humans will avoid stressful situations whenever possible. Being stared at in that diner in Provo, Utah was certainly stressful to me (though even more so when I found out who’d been doing the staring). Being watched also seems to create a stress response in scrub jays. And we could also interpret the new data on Spanish wolves in a similar fashion: apparently it’s less stressful for wolves to go hungry than it is to be seen by human eyes.

However, the data on the caching behaviors seen in scrub jays show that the “watchers” were clearly visible; when the observers were hidden the birds didn’t cache and re-cache their food. So it may be that wolves and humans have a sixth sense about being watched, while birds may not.

If wolves do have this sixth sense it would indicate that it’s not a recent evolutionary development, but an ability that all mammals might be endowed with. This begs the question since there are actual physical organs (eyes, ears, etc.) attached to the other five senses, what organs would process the sensation of being watched, and how would these organs go about doing so?

In her book Molecules of Emotion, neuroscientist Candace Pert writes, “The entire lining of the intestines, from the esophagus through the large intestine … is lined with cells—nerve cells and other kinds of cells—that contain neuropeptides and receptors. It seems entirely possible to me that the density of receptors in the intestines may be why we feel our emotions in that part of the anatomy, often referring to them as gut feelings.”

So it’s entirely possible that the body does, in fact, have a sensory organ capable of registering the uncomfortable feeling of being watched (particularly by predators). Just as our eyes register visual objects and our ears register audible signals, etc., the receptors in our intestines may register gut feelings of being watched by predators.

The enteric nervous system also produces neuropeptides associated with learning, and with motivating behavior. In fact, 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut while roughly 50% of the body’s dopamine is produced there. Both chemicals are important in helping animals determine what environmental stimuli are the most salient and important. And there’s very little in life that’s more important than avoiding danger.

The question of how these feelings are transferred from the eyes and mind of watcher to the enteric nervous system in the watched remains mysterious. But it probably takes place via disturbances or vibrations in an unseen medium or energy field. Of course Western Science objects to the idea of invisible energy fields (except when it comes to things like gravity and electromagnetism). Bio-energetic fields don’t exist as far as most scientists are concerned.

Yet acupuncture is said to operate through subtle energy fields in the human body. And even though the American Medical Association discounts the idea of these energy fields being an operative factor in the effectiveness of acupuncture, they do admit that it can be effective for some ailments.

There are also studies showing that tai-chi, yoga, and meditation—which are all theorized to operate via changes in the body’s energy field (or chi)—provide real, measurable health benefits.

Again, since there is no health benefit quite like the one of avoiding being killed by a predator, it seems to me that the feeling of being watched—even when you can’t see who’s watching you—may very well be a real phenomenon, one that’s worthy of further study.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Holding a Mirror Up to Science and Nature

Throwing Water on His Enthusiasm 
When “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” was made on July 12th last year, I refrained from making any critical comments in deference to Marc Bekoff, my (then) colleague at PsychologyToday.com. I didn’t want to throw any water on his enthusiasm by writing a more realistic assessment (such as the one found here).

What is the declaration? You can read the entire document here: (it’s only 2 pages long). Or read the actual declaration below: 

“The absence of a neo-cortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states, along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” 

The first thing to realize is that the declaration contains no definition of what consciousness or self-awareness are, no definition of intent or examples of “intentional” behaviors in non-human animals, nor any other higher mental capacity that humans and animals might hypothetically share except for “affect,” which is the ability feel pleasure, pain, simple emotions and feeling states.

The scientists who produced this document set out 4 specific rationales for the declaration, contained in 4 short paragraphs. 

Poking a Stick in a Bottle 
Paragraph 1 states that research into consciousness is “rapidly evolving,” and that this calls for “a periodic re-evaluation of previously- held preconceptions in this field.” It’s true that there are some long-held preconceptions, and that they should be re-evaluated. However that doesn’t mean that humans are not unique in the animal world.

For instance, in recent years much ado has been made of the fact that chimpanzees, other apes, and even corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, etc.) have been observed using, and in some cases fabricating, tools enabling them to access food. It’s quite amazing to see a crow bend a wire with its beak and use it to get food out of a long-necked bottle. But some scientists have tested corvids and apes to determine whether they understand “why” their tools are effective, and the answer seems to be no: these animals have no idea as to how or why they work.1 

Yes, these behaviors are amazing. But they don’t rise to anything near the human ability to design manufacturing plants devoted to building automobiles, airplanes, or spacecraft, or designing robots that can help doctors perform surgery, or creating computers and smart phones, or big-budget movies filled with tons of CGI effects, etc, etc, etc. 

Paragraph 2 is about neural substrates of “affect” or emotion, which don’t appear to be confined to the neo-cortex—a part of the brain that is highly developed in humans. This is not news. Emotion is controlled by an older part of the brain called the limbic system, not the more recently evolved neo-cortex. The only passing reference to “consciousness” here is the mention of “states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making,” which the authors say are “evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks.”2

Paragraph 3 is about an apparent parallel evolution of bird and human consciousness (again without a clear definition of what that is). This idea is supposedly backed up by “near human-like levels of consciousness … observed in African grey parrots.” Further evidence of the similarities between bird and human consciousness is cited in a single study done on 4 magpies, 2 of which exhibited “self-recognition” during a mirror test.3 

The declaration mentions mirror tests done on dolphins and elephants. Using the plural here is a bit of sophistry: at present only one dolphin and one elephant have passed the test. The declaration makes it seem as if all dolphins and elephants have self-awareness. (Since von Economo neurons—which seem necessary for an organism to acquire self-awareness—have been found in the brains of both species, this is entirely possible, though dolphins have far more VENs than we do, and elephants have far less.) 

Paragraph 4 talks about how hallucinogens may disrupt cortical processing, and that certain psychotropic drugs that disrupt normal conscious behaviors in humans seem to produce similar behavioral disruptions in non-human animals as well. Since there’s no clear evidence that the disruptions were rooted specifically, and solely in consciously-derived behavioral choices, this too is meaningless.

What really jumped out at me, though, was the mirror test on magpies. When I read that I had to scratch my head. Since the mirror test is one way of determining if a non-human animal has the capacity for self-awareness, it seemed to me that there must have been some mistake here, either in how the test was administered, or in the whole idea that the mirror test is some kind of proof of self-awareness.

So I did some research. And here’s what I found out. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do 
The mirror test was reportedly inspired by something Charles Darwin saw while on a visit to the London Zoo in 1838. He observed an orangutan named Jenny throwing a tantrum after being teased with an apple by her keeper. This made Darwin wonder what the subjective experience of an orangutan might be like. He also watched Jenny gaze into a mirror and wondered if she recognized her own reflection.

In 1970, Gordon Gallup Jr. did the first mirror test on non-human animals with two male and two female wild, pre-adolescent chimps. They were exposed to a mirror for 10 days, familiarizing them with its reflecting properties. Then they were sedated and marked with an odorless dye on the upper part of one eyebrow and the opposite ear.

Then they were put in a cage and observed for 30 minutes to determine if they touched either of the marked areas. Finally the mirror was reintroduced into the cage and the chimpanzees were observed for mark-directed behaviour. The number of incidences of mark-directed behavior rose from one during the post-anaesthesia, mirror-less period to four to ten after the mirror was reintroduced (Gallup, 1970).

According to Gallup’s interpretation, passing the mirror test shows that an animal is  capableof conceptual self-awareness, one of the cognitive features that, according to "The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness," some animals share with us (Gallup, 1977, p. 337). 

Smoke and Mirrors? 
However, the mirror test does not show a de facto cognitive ability. For instance, Western children show mirror recognition at about 18 – 24 months of age. But some children don’t just try to wipe a “hidden” mark off their own nose, they’ll also try to wipe a non-existent mark when they see it on their mother’s nose. 4 Also, some children from other cultures are reportedly unable to pass the mirror test until about theyre about 7 years of age. 5 Even adults in some cultures are unable to pass the mirror test.

Another problem is that Gallup said that about the test with chimpanzees that it was the ability or opportunity to view themselves  as others saw them that made them capable of passing the mirror test. Yet autistic children, some of whom don’t have the ability to see themselves from another’s perspective have no trouble passing the mirror test. 6 

Another unanswered question is how people suffering prosopagnosia—the inability to recognize faces—clearly have the capacity for self awareness but are unable to pass the mirror test.

Complicating things further is the fact that children go through a number of stages of awareness, and changes in mood, when introduced to a mirror where non-human animals dont. 

The Complexities of the Mirror Phase in Children 
In her 1968 doctoral dissertation (predating Gallup’s work by 2 years), Beulah Amsterdam not only tested young children for mirror recognition using the hidden-mark, she also first noticed that children went through 4 discrete stages of mirror interactions: 7, 8, 9  

1st) from about 3 – 12 months babies tend to view their own mirror image as a playmate, 2nd) from around the first year, they seem to treat the mirror with curiosity or as a possible window (they often try to look behind it to see what’s theree), 3rd) at about 13 months, children become troubled by their mirror image; they cry when they see their image, or avoid looking into the mirror at all, and 4th) starting at 14 – 20 months children show embarrassment, coy glances at the mirror, and exhibit silly, clowning behaviors.

Russian documentary film maker Viktor Kossakovsky filmed his 2-year old son Syto. Syto had been raised in a house with no mirrors. When he was shown a mirror for the first time he went through the 4 stages described by Dr. Amsterdam, all within a period of 45 minutes, caught on film in one continuous shot. 10 

“The drama that makes Kossakovsky’s movie particularly memorable, is the child’s portrayed struggle in coming to term with the fact that the mirror is not a transparent window or open door revealing a new playmate. This slow realization is clearly for Svyto a source of intense wariness toward his own specular image as an alienated object, including long bouts of agitation, rage, and the expression of poignant despair, that is eventually transformed into an intense display of narcissism and self-consciousness.” 11 

These are very complex and complicated behaviors, not seen in mirror tests done on chimps or other non-human animals. In fact, a chimp’s first response to seeing its reflection in a mirror is no different from species-specific behaviors of a dog or cat when confronted with their own image: play bows, threatening postures, vocalizations, etc. 12 

Daniel Povinelli of LSU’s Cognitive Science Lab has suggested that the behaviors Gallup observed in chimpanzees may be purely sensory in nature, and may not “reflect” higher cognitive functioning. 13 Many of the chimps’ exploratory behaviors involved bringing various body parts into contact with the mirrors’ surface, the way an infant will touch the glass. What they were exhibiting, though, may have been a simple perceptual understanding of the one-to-one relationship with the mirror image and the animals physical body, not one that’s necessarily conceptual. And they certainly don’t exhibit the kind of complex behaviors and emotions seen in Dr. Amsterdam’s studies on infants or in Kosakovsky’s documentary.

It seems to me that all of this movement by science toward blurring the distinctions between human and animal cognition derive from two things: ignoring Morgan’s canon,  and over-exaggerating the importance of something Charles Darwin wrote: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.”  

Yet a few sentences later Darwin opened the door to the possibility that he could be wrong about that statement: “If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc. are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are … results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.” 14 

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1) Daniel J. Povinelli, Folk Physics for Apes: The Chimpanzee’s Theory of How the World Works, Oxford University Press, 2000, 400 pp

2) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/2012/08/21/octopuses-gain-consciousness-according-to-scientists-declaration/ 

3) Prior H, Schwarz A, (2008) “Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of self-recognition.” PLoS Biol 

4.) Mitchell, R.W., 1993. “Mental models of mirror self-recognition: Two theories.” New Ideas in Psychology, 11(3), 295-325) 1993.

4) Medina, et al, “New Caledonian crows’ responses to mirrors,” Animal Behavior, July 22, 2011.)

5) Broesch, T., Callaghan, T., Henrich, J., Murphy, C., & Rochat, P. “Cultural variations in children’s mirror self-recognition.” Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology. 

6) Rochat & Zahavi, “The Uncanny Mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience,” Animal Cognition, 20 (2011) 204-213.

7) Amsterdam, B. K. (1968). Mirror behavior in children under two years of age doctoral dissertation, Univ. North Carolina. Order No. 6901569; University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI, 48106.

8) Amsterdam, B. (1972). Mirror self-image reactions before age two. Developmental Psychobiology, 5, 297–305.

9) Amsterdam, B. K., & Levitt, M. (1980). Consciousness of self and painful self-consciousness. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 35, 67–83.

10) Kosakovsky, V. (2005). Svyto: documentary film.

11) The Uncanny Mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience,” Philippe Rochat, Dan Zahavi, Consciousness and Cognition, 20 (2011) 204-213. 

12) Zazzo, R. (1982). The person: Objective approaches. In W. W. Hartup (Ed.). Review of child development research (Vol. 6, pp. 247–290). Chicago University Press. 

13) Povinelli, D. J., Rulf, A. R., Landau, K., & Bierschwale, D. T. (1993). Self-recognition in chimpanzees (pan troglodytes): Distribution, ontogeny, and patterns of emergence. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 107, 347–372.

14) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter 3, pgs. 100-101.