Sometimes I wonder how people come up with ideas for scientific research. Some of them are downright bizarre and pointless, and some, are actually quite good. I was reading about a study today that was looking at whether or not dogs could perceive kindness. What they did was put too people in a room at a table with a bowl of cereal and sausages between them. The dog was brought in and sat at a distance and watched as one person asked the other for some of the cereal. Sometimes the person would say “no!” immediately and sometimes they immediately offered the bowl to the other person. When the dog was permitted to approach the people, they would invariably go to the person who offered the food immediately.
What was said was unimportant, but the tone was very important. When only hand gestures were used, the dogs did not approach either person.
What all this proved was that dogs watch us and assess whether we are kind in nature or selfish. They make judgments about the generosity of our character based upon the tones of our voice. To date, the only other species known to do this are chimpanzees and some larger fish that approach smaller, cleaner fish for help.
“To show how good dogs are at studying humans, Marshall-Pescini and her colleagues had them observe how readily two actors shared small cereal and sausage bits with another person who came to beg them for some morsels. After the beggar had either been shooed away with a harsh gesture and a firm “No!” or received a tasty tidbit along with some words of kindness, the dogs were given the choice of approaching one or the other actor.
In two-thirds of all trials the dogs went straight for the generous person. This wasn’t merely a preference for a friendlier voice: if the “beggar” wasn’t present and the dogs couldn’t work out who was most generous, they were no more likely to approach a kind-voiced actor than a harsh-voiced one.
Nevertheless it seemed to be the tone of voice that the dogs used to make their judgement, because when the actors used only gestures, the dogs had much more trouble picking out the generous guy. “We were surprised that the voice had more impact than the gestures,” says Marshall-Pescini, arguing that much work so far has pointed to dogs being more talented observers than listeners.”
(Nora Schultz, Short Sharp Science)
It reminds me of another study I also read (I was procrastinating today) about an area in Africa where the trees were being decimated by giraffes over feeding. The trees responded to this by producing leaves with high levels of tannin, which made them taste bitter to the giraffes. Scientists discovered (how, I have no clue) that the trees had somehow communicated to each other via an exchange of gasses. I wonder though, which trees started it all.
It is interesting to me, as I read these things, to then drop back and read some of the plans of the Presidential Candidates that involve the environment or animals. Needless to say, the concept of their being a sentient being there would never cross their minds.
Then again, there is not much I really understand of late about what is going on especially with the Republican candidates beyond the simple fact that not one of them is on the up and up. Voting records don’t match rhetoric and none of it matches historical records of their speeches, books, actions and newsletters. Ron Paul fascinates me because the Democrats seem to view him as a dangerous, ultra-conservative Libertarian and the Republicans view him as a dangerous, ultra-liberal, left winger. God bless him, looking at his record he could very well be both. But it amazes me how there seems to be little hanging back and assessing someone’s nature by observing them with others. It amazes me that in this age of great, global internet communication – there is so much misinformation.
Somehow, we have lost the eloquence of trees.
Somehow, we have stopped looking for who is generous and kind and instead run to the first person with the treat.
New Year’s is tomorrow and I am oddly excited.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.