I have been reading a fascinating book called The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.
Over the years I have often been irritated by pundits asserting that whereas chimpanzees can follow the direction in which a human being points their finger a dog can do no such thing, but can only locate the end of the finger. This of course is nonsense. All the dogs that I have ever known could easily follow the direction in which one points. With pointers, indeed, pointing is integral to what they do; the clue there is in the name.
If challenged (and it is often difficult to challenge when the pundit is on television, except by the undignified method of shouting at the screen) they will respond first that one’s experience doesn’t count, since it is not part of a controlled scientific experiment, and secondly that dogs don’t count; they have been domesticated for so long that their abilities and responses are in some way invalid. And they return with a superior sigh to their chimps.
Brian Hare has more gumption than I do. (Although the book is credited to him and his wife, Vanessa Woods, he is the first person narrator in the book so I will continue to refer to him.) He is one of those eternally young, optimistic and intrepid American scientists. He conducted a series of rigorously controlled experiments and identified the things that dogs are very good at. These go far beyond following a pointing finger. They include more general interaction with human beings and anticipating their desires. He also identified things at which dogs are not much good, like reversing around a tree when on their lead. Having assembled his data he drew some conclusions. These are the ones that particularly interested me, and I hope that I am not distorting what he says.
The theory that early human beings domesticated some wolves and over the centuries bred a new species – dogs – is unlikely. How would you go about domesticating a wolf, which is an intransigent and vicious pack animal? And why? It’s more probable that some wolves took the initiative and decided on their own terms to get closer to human settlements, trading giving warning against enemies and predators for scraps of food and warmth.
Packs of wolves behave in a way that we regard as typically Darwinian, with the alpha male enforcing its will against the others by superior strength and fierceness. Dogs, however, when they act in a pack have a leader that is not the most vicious or strong but the most sociable, the one with the best network, the one the others like most. Brian Hare engagingly calls this ‘the survival of the friendliest’.
Thirdly, given dogs’ supreme social skills and the importance to our own race of acting in a coordinated way (whether joining together to bring down a much stronger woolly mammoth or contriving to get through Monday morning rush hour without killing someone) maybe it was not we who domesticated dogs but dogs that house-trained us.
As I say, it is a wonderful book, I thoroughly recommend it and if I have traduced its conclusions no harm is done because you will find out yourself when you read it.
It set me thinking about the apparently Darwinist orthodoxy that we all now adopt, particularly since the age of Lady Thatcher, who of course set her face against the survival of the friendliest.
(Now that she has died, incidentally, can we please go back to calling her ‘Mrs Thatcher’ rather than ‘Lady Thatcher’, just as we don’t refer to Disraeli as ‘Lord Beaconsfield’ or Macmillan as ‘Lord Stockton’? It was as Mrs Thatcher that she did what she did.)
I had an epiphanic moment during the 1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was in her pomp. I observed my friend Tony trying to cross a busy road: High Holborn as it happens. Tony was not an important Thatcherite but he was a believer. He was standing by a crossing, where pedestrians were encouraged to press a button and in due course a red light would stop the traffic and let them over. Tony disdained the button and would instead make sudden sallies into the traffic, only to be beaten back. As a result, getting to the other side took him a long time.
I explained to him that the beauty of the crossing system was that we – pedestrians and motorists – took turns; sometimes one category had priority, then the other; it was socialism in action.
Pft, Tony said.
Mrs Thatcher at that time would rarely have had to cross a road by herself. She famously considered that anyone who rode on a bus after the age of thirty was a loser and she disdained the trains and undoubtedly the Tube as well. She believed in the freedom of the motor car and one can imagine her being ferried down the fast lane of the motorway glaring at her boxes while her chauffeur ignored the speed limit, which applied to little people. At each end there would be minders to shoo the little people out of the way.
And today motorways still feature self-satisfied idiots in Ferraris who burn down the fast lane ignoring the speed limit, which applies to little people, and carving people up, and self-satisfied idiots in Toyotas who drive at sixty-five miles an hour in the central lane because it’s their right. The business world is constructed on the basis that to be a winner you have to be a self-satisfied idiot who burns down the fast lane ignoring the speed limit; and these days the rest of the world is constructed on the assumption that the business world is the only one that counts.
The really sad thing about the self-satisfied idiots in Ferraris is that they think that they’re helping.
It would be nice from a Darwinian point of view to be able to say that the considerate drivers get there just as quickly. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t; what is certain is that if traffic is to flow at all we can only stand so many self-satisfied idiots.
It is the same at a political level. Maybe by 1979 the survival of the friendliest needed a shake-up. Anyone who met some of the trade union bosses of that era, as I was privileged to do, can testify that more than anything else they too resembled self-satisfied idiots in Ferraris.
But a little goes a long way and it doesn’t affect the basic rule, which is that if everyone pushes at once the roads will be gridlocked and no one will be able to get on the trains or indeed anywhere else.
Or to put it another way, dogs are a better guide than wolves.
Mrs Thatcher tragically died alone in a flop-house. In the months before her death her main recreation was to be taken by a policeman to look at other people’s children in a park. Her obsequies were marred by recrimination, crocodile tears and the promiscuous expenditure of other people’s money. Our dog, on the other hand, died surrounded by his family, loved, respected and mourned by all his acquaintance. He never closed down a mine and he devoted his life to making his family and friends and even, at the end, the postman that little bit happier. If I had a gun carriage I know who I’d put on it.