Thursday, 7 January 2010

Horizon: A Return To Form?

The Secret Life of Dogs

Last night's Horizon programme on BBC2 was a pleasant surprise.

As someone who doesn't need words like "history" or "phenomenology" to be erased from a title, or replaced by the now ubiquitous "secret life", I thought I'd more or less stopped watching this once brilliant documentary series, following its embarrassing dalliance in co-productions with The Discovery Channel, the consequent and inevitable "dumbing-down" (incidentally, an ugly and contemptible Americanism; what has this to do with speech impairment?), and the stripping out of any vestige of science, to be replaced by sensationalist, physically incorrect graphics, and equally inaccurate drone overs.

But having recently lost my super smart (so sue me!) Border Collie, I was irresistibly drawn in by yesterday's preview footage of "Betsy", the Austrian BC who knows over 340 words:

Betsy (photo copyright © BBC 2009)

She can fetch any object in her repertoire by name. She can also fetch it when shown a different, smaller version of it. Or even a photograph, or a drawing of it. None of this, of course, came as any surprise to the Border Collie lovers in this house! But it did make the evening's Horizon compulsory viewing.

Return of the Couch Potato

Pass those Doritos, baby! What was great about this documentary? I could sit watching TV for an hour, and feel that I'd learned at least a good half dozen things I hadn't known.

For example, dogs read human faces exactly as we do, viz. with right side bias. Dogs do not read other dogs in this way; it's an adaptation geared exclusively around interpreting their human owners' expressions. Dogs can also respond correctly to pointing, something that even our nearest relatives in the primate group do not learn. In fact, they can respond correctly to only a glance in a particular direction, just as if it were a direct command.

Barking is another revelation, once you're reminded that wild dogs, and the grey wolves they're descended from, don't actually bark very much at all. In fact, domesticated dogs seem to use some half dozen or more quite distinct barks as an inter special language to communicate various messages to us, and we correctly interpret these (e.g. from audio recordings) as "Get off of my lawn", "Great to see you", "So throw the bloody ball then", and so on.

Using blood samples from both, petting is found to be correlated with oxytocin releases in dog and owner, leading to reductions in their heart rates and blood pressures, and ultimately, stress levels.

Dogs are also now thought to have had an indispensable role to play in our species' transition from hunting and gathering, to animal husbandry and agriculture. Recent research suggests they may have started to cohabit and co-evolve with us much earlier than previously thought, perhaps up to 100,000 years ago.

Most of these "discoveries" are between one and many years old, and are of course multiply reported elsewhere. The health benefits of animal petting, for example, have been recognised by health care professionals for some time.

But what Horizon has done so brilliantly in the past, and so memorably, in areas such as standard model physics, or the microprocessor revolution, and what it now seems capable of doing once again, is this: drawing together the threads of recent research in an interdisciplinary and international context, throwing into focus a startling image of the current state of our knowledge in some area of science or technology. Like this week's...

Special Guest Star: Genetics

Domestication, and not socialization, emerges as the key to our unique relationship with dogs. In other words, nature and not nurture; the selected genetic blueprint, and not experience. This was proved in well-designed experiments to socialize wolf cubs, which regardless of their environment, reverted inexorably to aggression as they matured.

We saw the famous large scale fox breeding programme in Siberia, where in 1959, Soviet scientists began their attempts to domesticate silver foxes, selected from local fur farms. Those experiments continue to this day, but one of their earliest and most striking results was that within three generations (three years) of selecting that one percent of foxes who exhibited neither fear nor aggression, and successively allowing these to interbreed, the resultant population emerged as almost uniformly tame, fear and aggression having been all but eliminated. Within eight generations, as soon as they opened their eyes and began to crawl, these foxes sought out contact with humans, showing affection to them. And just as with the wolf cubs, cross-fostering, giving aggressive cubs to tame mothers and vice-versa, has no effect; aggressive cubs retain their aggression, and tame ones their tameness. In fact, even embryo transplant fails to break this genetic disposition.

The programme featured Cornell geneticist Dr Anna Kukekova, who has travelled over 5000 miles to study these foxes, discussing a "biology of tameness", but there was no sensationalist, tabloid attempt to leap to unwarranted conclusions about other species. There is, we are told, "not one gene, but a complex orchestra of them" at work here.

We saw the curious secondary juvenile characteristics that selection for tameness brings out: varied coat colours and patterns, floppy ears, shorter curly tails, shorter limbs. "What this shows, is that when you select against aggression, you get almost all the same suite of changes that you see when you compare dogs to wolves" - Duke University anthropologist Prof Brian Hare, another visitor to the Siberian breeding programme.

The programme ended with a survey of gene mutation research into diseases common between people and dogs. The comparatively narrow gene pool within a particular dog breed, combined with the known map of the dog genome (in 2005), makes the pinpointing of such mutations far easier to achieve, and even to automate in a genotyping machine, than in human populations.

Welcome back, Horizon. More of this quality please.

Available on iPlayer until 7th April 2010:

1 comment:

  1. Yawn.. So much more boring than "When Animals Attack" on Channel 5.