Nature or nurture? It’s a long-running debate: do our genes matter more than our environment? Is ancestry more important than upbringing?

The politically-correct answer, currently, is nurture, all the way.

After all, pretending that we’re anything other than a tabula rasa at birth raises some alarming possibilities for your right-on types. For instance, that some people are just “born that way”, but not in ways that the PC brigade wants to admit. After all, if you concede that certain traits notably associated with some groups might actually be inherent, what then? Start thinking like that, and you might start thinking that such statistically undeniable traits like higher aggression and lower intelligence really are inborn.

The truth suggested by evidence is in fact mixed. As Steve Sailer points out, twin studies suggest that it’s not at all clear-cut. More importantly, he argues, twin studies are limited by studying twins across space, but not time. Yet the zeitgeist clearly has at least some influence on us.

Yet humans are, after all, just another animal in many important ways. Studying other animals, especially those who’ve spent the last few hundred thousand years evolving ever-closer to us, suggests that nature is a lot more powerful than many would like to admit.

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that dogs’ social skills emerge early in development and are under strong genetic control.

“There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways,” said Dr. Emily Bray, a postdoctoral researcher in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona and the Canine Companions for Independence.

This is important, because, I would argue, dogs are far more cognitively like us humans than our closer genetic cousins, the great apes. Even chimpanzees are separated by millions of years of divergent evolution — a period when our two species have had virtually nothing to do with each other.

On the other hand, while the history of dogs and humans is much shorter, it is marked by extraordinarily convergent evolution. For instance, dogs are able to digest starch (a predominantly human food), where wolves cannot.

Most notably, dogs clearly understand humans far better than any other animal. That appears to be in-born.

To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, Dr. Bray and colleagues looked at how 375 eight-week-old service dogs performed on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication skills.

Because the researchers knew each puppy’s pedigree, they were also able to look at whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ abilities.

Genetics explained more than 40% of the variation in puppies’ abilities to follow human pointing gestures, as well as variation in how long they engaged in eye contact with humans during a task designed to measure their interest in people.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said Dr. Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona.

“We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

Philosopher Mark Rowlands details his life with his wolf companion, Brenin, in The Philosopher and the Wolf. As Rowlands says, wolves think very differently to dogs. The concept of “fetch” means nothing to a wolf. On the other hand, dogs are, as Rowlands puts it, “comfortable with magic”. That is, they are happy for humans to “magically” solve problems that baffle them.

“In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves,” Dr. Bray said.

“Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help.”

“In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn’t really seem to be part of their repertoire yet[…]they are understanding what is being socially conveyed to them.”

Sci News

In other words, it’s not all nature.

So, in the long-running debate, the answer seems to be “a bit of both”. Not all behaviours and preferences are genetically-determined. We’re not completely “born that way”.

But neither are we blank slates. Like it or not, our ancestry has a lot to say about they way we are and how we can be.

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Dogs: It’s in Their Nature

Lushington D. Brady

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In last decade or...