Baboons Keep Dogs as Pets?

Extract from ‘Animals Like Us’ (National Geographic).

I had a discussion in mind for the video above, but then I found out that Hal Herzog wrote it over a year ago.  Nothing like being behind the times…

If you don’t have time to watch or read either of the above, here’s the gist:  Hamadryas baboons in Saudi Arabia, according to a (now quite old) video, kidnap dogs as puppies and ‘raise them as pets’, treating them as family members and receiving their protection in return.  Hal is (rightly) a little skeptical; although we see, in the video, a male baboon ‘kidnapping’ a puppy, and a couple of adult dogs associating with baboons, we don’t actually see the interim stage (i.e. the ‘raising as pets’ part…)  The counter-argument is that  the male baboons might be ‘playing’ with the puppies (in their own rather rough way) and that the baboon-dog relationship is more mutualistic than hinted in the article; the dogs may not so much be ‘owned’ by the baboons as simply cohabiting with them.   Hamadryas Baboons & Canaan Dog, Saudi Arabia. Image: National Geographic

The clip is from a documentary called ‘Animals Like Us’.  Why the obsession with trying to determine how ‘like us’ other animals are?  For me, the interesting thing about this is the real relationship that exists between the baboons and the dogs, whatever that may be.  Sure, it’s extremely interesting if comparable to the human-pet relationship (which, it should be noted, is hardly set in stone as a concept), but it’s equally interesting if that’s not the case, not least because this may, in fact, be a unique association unlike anything observed elsewhere.

What appears to have gone unnoticed, in the sticky mirk of defining what does and does not constitute pet-keeping, is the fascinating parallel between this association and the afore-blogged research regarding the potential evolution of the domestic dog as a scavenger of the human waste dump.  Could it be that the baboons in this association provide an alternate, current model by which to study coevolution?  Could it be that waste-dumps, where scavenging is abundant, provide a solid ground for cooperative (or at least, barely competitive) interspecies associations?

As Hal notes, this definitely needs more research.  I think that research should take place not to demonstrate how ‘like us’ these ‘unlike us’ species may be, but simply to better understand them for what they are.




The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /

(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)


“Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.”
– E. O. Wilson

On Thursday night I started to write a post about eating meat.  It is still saved in my box of drafts, but it will remain there for the time being because I became mired in issues of morality I don’t think my fledgling blog can cope with at this stage.  Nevertheless, ever since that failed effort at writing clearly about a ethically sensitive issue, I have been thinking about why it was such a difficult piece to write.  The answer is two-fold, I think.  Firstly, it seems that morality is an area that demonstrates the extent and depth of variety in human understanding, belief and emotional responses in relation to an issue. Secondly, because we are what we are – a highly social, empathetic species – morality seeps into almost every aspect of our life.

What relevance does this have to a blog that claims to be about interactions between species?  Well, ethics are fairly well inescapable in any field of study (just ask any researcher who’s had to fill in an ‘ethical approval form’).  That aside, I think a consideration of morality in its fundamental form is informative in understanding any interaction, be it between species or just between individuals.

My understanding of ‘morality’ and ‘moral actions’ is that where social groups exist, there also exist rules and norms of social interaction which are built on a combination of emotion, experience and reasoned thought.   I see morality, at its simplest level, as the WD40 of society; we agree not to kill one another and things tend to go more smoothly.  I am not of the philosophy that morality exists outside of the social and interactive sphere (‘transcendentalism’): alone in a desert, it doesn’t matter what your morals are.  Although I am convinced that forms of morality and altruism exist within and between many species, I do not think there is one universal morality.  I will try and explain how I have reached this stance in this blog.

This, then, is where E. O. Wilson’s quote (above) comes into play.  When Wilson speaks of altruism, he is referring to an interaction in which one party ‘self-sacrifices’ for the other’s benefit.  As with all of these terms, there are various types of altruism.  ‘Kin altruism’ is self-sacrifice that benefits a relative, and is relatively common across a variety of species (including eusocial insects such as termites and ants, birds like the chestnut-crowned babbler, meerkats, wolves and, of course, humans)Particularly noteworthy for this blog is ‘reciprocal altruism’: essentially mutualism in the short term.   This is an interaction in which everyone benefits, in the long run, from their sacrifice;  the classic example of this is the principle of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Mutually Grooming New Forest Ponies.  Photo Credit: Jim ChampionIn some cases, the benefit may not be immediately apparent, but it is normally there somewhere.  There are occasions or associations in which ‘true altruism’ is demonstrated – self-sacrifice with no benefit, or even negative consequences, for the altruist.  This is fairly rare, however, even in the highly morally-conscious human (the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” is a nice demonstration of how hard it is to find a truly selfless act).

Essentially, altruism is rarely advantageous in an individualistic or competitive society; if everyone is out for themselves except you, you will lose out.  Because the natural world is so often seen as “red in tooth and claw” (thanks for that one, Tennyson), it has become ‘common knowledge’ that selfishness and competitive success is the key to evolution.  Indeed, this often holds true; it is clear that, for example, the winning male in a fight between bull elephants is more likely to mate with females and pass on his genes.   Similarly, kleptoparasitism – the stealing of food, as seen in a number of spiders, cuckoos, coots and hyenas – is demonstrably a successful strategy for survival.  However, ‘the Selfish Gene’, as Richard Dawkins famously refers to it, is also likely to be the foundation of altruism – and of morality.

If you have a moment, please take the time to watch this 15-minute presentation by one of my heroes, primatologist Frans de Waal.  It shows some great examples of how the basics of morality can form in social species and how it can be evolutionary beneficial to be beneficent.

“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.”  – Frans de Waal

The suggestion – and one that makes me less dispirited about the nature of the world in general – is that morality is itself adaptive, just a different way of doing things.  We can be just as successful if we work together and demonstrate cooperation and  compassion than we can through competition.

Of course, normally animals (humans included, most of the time) are not thinking about the long term evolutionary advantage of cooperation and compassion when we act in this way.  It has not been suggested that we are, rather, that we have evolved a tendency towards developing positive social behaviours which benefit others and ourselves.  As ever, we are not alone in this: this video, released this week, is a touching example of compassionate behaviour in dolphins.  Many primate species have complex rules governing their interactions that can take years for infants to learn.   This sort of cooperative behaviour doesn’t even require a big brain; recent studies suggest that rats demonstrate empathy-driven behaviour too (should we try this with the Masked Bandits?)

Humans, with our extensive demonstrations of communication, cultural transmission and cognition, have then hit the snag of disagreeing amongst ourselves about which moral system is the ‘right’ one and what types of behaviours are acceptable in our societies.  We generalise, too, which means that we apply our own moral values outside of our immediate (human) group to other species and choose the level of moral consideration we think they should receive; note that the animals that receive the most human protection are often those ones considered most similar to humans (something I’ve done a bit of research on).   Sometimes, in our generalising, we attribute moral behaviour to animals who may not have the same values as we do; how often have you heard a fox called ‘wasteful’ for killing a cage full of chickens, or a pig ‘filthy’ for bathing in mud?

The upside (or another downside, depending on your moral stance…) is, of course, that many of us widen our compassion and our moral sphere to include nonhumans and even whole ecosystems, so much value do we place on being ‘good’.

However, conflicts between individuals, between societies, between species and between the opposing evolutionary powers of selfishness and altruism make the moral world, in every sense, a dangerous one to walk through.

Nb. If you’re interested in this topic, Prof Marc Bekoff often blogs about morality in animals in his Psychology Today blog.

“Dog evolved ‘on the waste dump'” – ?

This BBC article by Jonathan Amos tells us that new evidence appears to support the ‘dogs as scavengers’ hypothesis (i.e., that the human-dog relationship evolved through a process of assimilation; dogs hung around the food generated by human settlements, so hung around human settlements and moved from a commensal to a mutualistic relationship with humans by gradually involving themselves in human existence.  The most docile and cooperative would be more successful and may therefore have benefited from additional human benefaction.

The ‘opposing’ hypothesis is that we humans were the agents in the interaction; some humans adopted wolves (as puppies, it is often suggested, which allowed them to be more easily tamed) and began to use them for hunting or possibly security, selecting for traits that served the humans best. Photo Credit: Przykuta

If I had to pick one, I would go for the scavenger hypothesis; not just because of this recent evidence, which is interesting, but also because in some cultures dogs still are, essentially, commensals.  They hang around villages, not owned and not wanted, and scavenge.  Genetically, these dogs are as closely related to wolves as they are domestic dogs; the researchers think this indicates that they have been more ‘naturally selected’ than other domestic dogs, with less human input into their evolutionary development. (This suggests, though, that human involvement in an association automatically makes the result ‘unnatural’, a line of thought I don’t tend to agree with – more on that another time).

The human preferences in question have led, it is thought, to ‘neoteny’ in dogs. This means they appear to have evolved into permanent wolf-pups, with many youthful characteristics, (that would in wolves be ‘grown out of’) preserved into adulthood.  Examples are obedience, docility, flatter faces and floppy ears, though this obviously varies between breeds and individuals.

Personally, I don’t think the two theories are necessarily mutually-exclusive; if I remember rightly, there is also evidence to suggest that wolves were domesticated almost concurrently in multiple cultures; this being the case, there’s no reason why different processes could have prevailed in different areas.  There’s also nothing to say that humans chose to feed, raise and employ certain individuals from the local scavenger pack, which could have accelerated a symbiotic process.

Acknowledging, then, that the dog is not a chosen domesticate or companion everywhere, for those cultures (like mine) which have an enduring and generally positive relationship with them, I prefer to think in terms of ‘co-evolution’: we didn’t pin them down and force them to associate with us and they didn’t coerce us into it…. I like to think we chose one another.