Two-year-olds and dogs share more similar patterns in social intelligence than do children and their close relatives, chimpanzees, according to a new study from University of Arizona. The findings could help scientists better understand how humans evolved socially.

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, and his colleagues looked at how two-year-olds, dogs, and chimpanzees performed on comparable batteries of tests designed to measure various types of cognition.

Although chimps performed well on tests involving their physical environment and spatial reasoning, they did not do as good when it came to tests of cooperative communication skills, such as the ability to follow a pointing finger or human gaze.

Dogs and children similarly outperformed chimps on cooperative communication tasks, and researchers observed similar patterns of variation in performance between individual dogs and between individual children.

Human Social Skills

A growing body of research in the last decade looks at what makes human psychology special. Scientists say that the basic social communication skills that begin to develop around nine months are what first seem to set humans apart from other species, says MacLean, assistant professor in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“There’s been a lot of research showing that you don’t really find those same social skills in chimpanzees, but you do find them in dogs, so that suggested something superficially similar between dogs and kids,” MacLean says. “The bigger, deeper question we wanted to explore is if that really is a superficial similarity or if there is a distinct kind of social intelligence that we see in both species.

What we found is that there’s this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that’s the same thing you find in kids, but you don’t find it in chimpanzees.”

Survival Of The Friendliest

One explanation for the similarities between dogs and humans is that the two species may have evolved under similar pressures that favored “survival of the friendliest,” with benefits and rewards for more cooperative social behavior.

“Our working hypothesis is that dogs and humans probably evolved some of these skills as a result of similar evolutionary processes, so probably some things that happened in human evolution were very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication,” MacLean says. “So, potentially, by studying dogs and domestication we can learn something about human evolution.”

The research could even have the potential to help researchers better understand human disabilities, such as autism, that may involve deficits in social skills, MacLean says.

Evan L. MacLean, et al Individual differences in cooperative communicative skills are more similar between dogs and humans than chimpanzees Animal Behaviour Volume 126, April 2017, Pages 41–51

Image: monicasecas/Flickr

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