CRITICAL THINKING IN DOGDOM
”Many theories have been advanced but there is a mass of confusion about social signaling among animals,” Dr. Weldon said. ”Mimicry of age, alarm calls and other characteristics, as well as sex, often cause misperceptions among observing researchers.”
Another SPARCS conference on the canine mind is being held in Rhode Island this weekend. Last year I was criticized for criticizing the conference proceedings based on an article I read rather than having attended myself. My main complaint is that canine research is putting the cart before the horse, trying to divine what dogs are thinking (apparently Dr Monique Udell does not fall into that broad trend) when complex behavior and learning is being studied. Here’s the question I would ask were I in attendance and which I would think would represent the first order of business in canine research; How did the social signals that according to modern theory regulate access to resources, and from which a social hierarchy is said to emerge, evolve? What’s the step-by-step progression from the fundamental first elements of a social signal (including its pre-social precursor, if any) to its full bodied, finely nuanced manifestation as can be observed between dogs, for example, the play bow?
One of my aims with this website is to help owners see the inherent contradiction at the heart of the Neo-Darwinian logic which currently informs all of dogdom. And it should be easy for an expert to point out where I’m going wrong simply by answering the above and tracing the evolution of the social signals from its crude incipient kernel to its most complex expression. This is how modern biology countered Intelligent Designs’ assertion that the human eye was too complex to have evolved via natural selection. Biologists provided a step-by-step sequence of adaptations, each being functional at its particular magnitude of development until ultimately the complex eye emerged. That’s what I’m asking for here. Canine Cognition Labs are testing for cognitive development in the experiments they design, but what about the step-by-step progression? That should come before one would conclude that dogs are informed by an innate apprehension of fairness.
In my understanding of Neo-Darwinism, individuals are said to vary in their genetic makeup. Then selective pressures from the environment and other organisms with which they are in competition cull from this pool by favoring certain genes over others until the most adaptive combinations gradually accrue to dominate a species’ genome. So there is a random degree of variability in the genetic makeup of organisms, there are random events in the environment that put survival pressures on organisms, there is competition for limited resources from other organisms, and natural selection is the non-directed result as to which genes prevail and which ones fall by the wayside. Social systems and their internal methods of communication are said to have emerged from this evolutionary dynamic.
However since in my view the animal mind is an energy system, any theory of animal behavior such as Neo-Darwinian logic that is not predicated on principles of energy, will either end up contradicting itself (because it is a personality theory, as in one self-contained agency of intelligence relative to another self-contained agency of intelligence) or inadvertently and unknowingly end up marshaling some aspect of an energy theory in order to sustain itself. For example, Roger Abrantes argues that it is a more efficient use of energy for individuals to work out a dominance hierarchy so that they don’t have to expend a lot of energy in fighting over resources each time the possession of a resource is open to question. A dominance hierarchy is a more cost effective means of resolving issues over the long haul.
RA: “If an animal resolves all inter-group conflicts with aggressive and fearful behavior, it will be exhausted when subsequently compelled to go and find food, a mating partner or a safe place to rest or take care of its progeny (all of which decrease the chances of its own survival and that of its genes). Thus, the alien and mate strategy originated and evolved. It is impossible to fight everybody all of the time, so a mate is confronted using energy-saving procedures.”
At this point if Mr. Abrantes were presenting at SPARCS I would raise my hand to ask if the alien and mate strategy evolved whole cloth from the social system? Below is what I presume he would answer based on his writings:
RA: “Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.”
That’s it. The entire edifice of thinking, as solid as the reasoning goes on to be, nevertheless is being hoisted upon extremely thin pins, ones which border on magical thinking. The necessary reflex just conjures up out of thin air without precedent. Just like that the needed reflex arrives and now the animal has a means of ritualistic displays that settle intramural disputes without violence and it is this way because it is more efficient. While energy is the ultimate standard of efficacy, yet there is no continuous series of steps running consistently from A to Z.
Bear in mind that Abrantes’ formulation would require that both sides of the communicative equation, two diametrically opposed randomly occurring reflexes, have to have emerged at exactly the same time so that the signal is received in a way that is coherent to the other party. Not only that, but it is a signal which is multi-tiered in its capacity to convey meaning at each step in a back and forth exchange; by which I mean that the signal the “submissive” emits in response to a “dominant’s” display of dominance must also in turn be recognizable by the dominant, and then the submissive has to be able to next recognize that its signal of submission has been heard loud and clear by the dominant so that it’s safe for it to remain submissive. Meanwhile, the dominant has to be assured that the submissive is acting genuinely and not as a ruse so that once its guard is down it won’t become vulnerable to being blind sided, especially given that two rivals willing to contest a resource are likely to be extremely closely matched (remember Neo-Darwinian logic depends on but the slightest degrees of variation).
In order for the evolution of social signals to occur, it’s immediately vital that on the very first instance a submissive does not get torn apart or unmercifully traumatized by a dominant that hasn’t yet evolved to recognize its signal of submission. Also, a dominant dealing with another potential dominant, one who in this case is not so inclined to submit, must be able to soft shoe its aggressive approach so as to not push a dominant wannabe over the edge by being too aggressive in its dominance. It has to assert itself, but not so much that it takes the submissive option off the table for the other contestant. Both the dominant and the submissive must be able to perceive and apprehend the finest detail in their rival so as to tailor their response to make the counterbalancing option possible in the mind of the other party. “I’ll show weakness, but not too much so you don’t finish me.”—relative to—–“I’ll show strength but not too much so that you’re not forced to defend yourself.” This highly complex system of an elaborating parlay must be fully developed on the very first encounter. There’s no half way measure, or even 99.99% correlation of transmission and reception between parties. There can’t be an incremental increase of submission and dominance that eventually evolves into the full throated ballet between interactants. On the very first instance it has to work for both parties 100% so that both signals could continue to evolve in tandem toward its highest expressions and thus come to occupy the majority of the genome and be exhibited in all members of a species. Additionally this so called reflex must work across the full spectra of contexts being plastic enough to be applicable from one scenario to another even though the tactical realities may be dramatically different.
This is where Neo-Darwinism must quickly resort to the Theory of Mind proposition because obviously the only way such a back and forth unfolding of constantly changing tactical and strategic realities can work, is to require both parties to have a highly developed cognitive wherewithal to recognize that an intended signal is being received in the spirit in which it is being broadcast, and that this level of comprehension must hold true at every step of its many levels of elaboration. Interactants must trust that the messaging system justifies forgoing an immediate advantage for a deferred benefit and I think this is a lot to ask of a randomly occurring pair of reflexes.
We additionally have to remind ourselves that a central tenet of Neo-Darwinian logic is that evolution requires a very long term gradual accrual of any given trait within a genome. However in this case, the reality is that the cold hard brutal logic of an immediate payoff has to be confronted on that miraculous day when two diametrically but complementary involuntary reflexes magically appeared in two contentious individuals headed for conflict. As I’ve intimated above, Neo-Darwinian logic would make a far stronger case as to why such signals could NOT have evolved. Once a submissive exposes a vulnerable body part, why wouldn’t a dominant take full advantage of an opening so that his rival is subdued resoundingly never to challenge him again? The individual who presses such an unexpected advantage (remember he is supposedly prepared to fight over a resource) would be more likely to propagate its genes than one who hesitated.
Perhaps Abrantes might counter that dominance and submissive displays are a constrained pantomime of an actual fight, like martial artists performing a Kata routine rather than actually sparring with a real opponent. This would represent an adaptive conservation of energy, rendering a bloodless verdict as opposed to physically re-litigating the same conflicts every time some new issue comes up and would presumably fall below the level of ToM. But where then do these fighting reflexes come from? Do these evolve whole cloth within the species and at random? And again does this address the central question as to how both sides of the “conversation” evolved step-by-step so that the original suite of reflexes that became “signals” would be recognized by both partners at every step of elaboration?
At its intellectual bedrock, Neo-Darwinism is almost veering into an energy theory when it appeals to a mathematical justification, specifically the benefits of reciprocity via game theory. Mathematically over the long term deferring from a short term gain works out for the individual. However this merely belays the cost/benefit analysis to the statistical weight of vast numbers of genes doing the number crunching and doesn’t speak to what is going on within the individual which is why Neo-Darwinism will always have to revert to a high cognitive ToM capacity in order to account for the plasticity of the social hierarchy. Here again we require a mind capable of a complex analysis, a mind that would be also capable of considering the cost of submission, the proverbial give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, not to mention the downside of losing face in front of other observers who an otherwise dominant individual is counting on to be submissive over other stuff in the future. And then all of this intellectual gymnastics has to fall under the heading of instinct. Somehow all this social calculus is embedded in the genome as the statistical aggregate of what gets passed on and what doesn’t, and somehow all this activity is going on within the brain but it cannot be, as Panksepp teaches, of a verbal nature and even Neo-Darwinists aren’t saying that deep in the brain is a math module running gaming algorithms.
If Loretta Graziano Bruening were at SPARCS, she might argue as she writes in “I, Mammal”—that this flexible dynamic of which I quest is the neurochemical dimension of the mind. Animals are always seeking to maximize the pleasurable neurochemical mix its mind is bathed in while avoiding the neurochemicals that make it feel bad. The resolution of this neurochemical fine tuning is a dominance hierarchy because being cast out of the group feels worse than having access to a particular resource denied by a rival. But again to make the neurochemical formula work we still require an individual to be capable of cognition in that it must be able to compare its status to another and in terms of its past experiences.
“A mammal draws on its past experience when it compares itself to others.”
Breuning, Loretta Graziano (2011-02-17). I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness (p. 37). System Integrity Press. Kindle Edition.
I agree with LGB that neurochemicals are vital, but in my view they are just an effecting agency, they are not the operative dynamic. Something deeper is going on and it is only after this dynamic shifts do the neurochemicals kick in to execute the urge into action.
Another big problem with seeing dominance and submissive displays as social signals that are conveying control over access to resources, a communicative system that supports a dominance hierarchy, is that if this were true, in other words if it evolved within that social system without a natural precedent, as Abrantes says a random reflex that then incidentally finds its way into a new kind of functional service, we would not therefore expect these signals to be recognized between species but only within a species. We would not expect to see wolves displaying “submission” as they approach a group of bison in a fenced compound at Wolf Park Indiana. Sharks and those who “play” with sharks should not be able to recognize what each are up to (See 60 minutes http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8296628 ) as they cavort in bloody chummed up waters. And then we should also consider that this capacity to defer from serious aggression or predator prey-making isn’t likely to be the result of the social system, but rather it would far more likely be the basis upon which a social system becomes possible, which returns us to the question, where would a fully formed communicative system have evolved from?
We always have to return to the notion of energy to make sense of why animals do what they do. I particularly like how Loretta Graziano Bruening formulates a hierarchy in terms of energy in “I, Mammal.”
“Animals can’t do much to improve their future survival prospects. They can’t eat more today to protect themselves from future food shortages because the excess weight would slow them down when running from predators. They can’t store extra food because it spoils or gets stolen (with rare exceptions). The main thing a mammal can do today to improve its security for tomorrow is to convert surplus food energy into social power. If food becomes scarce in the future, the mammal who has built up strength and dominance is likely to get more of it.”
Breuning, Loretta Graziano (2011-02-17). I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness (p. 102). System Integrity Press. Kindle Edition.
Social status is an energy battery. Well said. But we need to add that every rung on the ladder is likewise an energy battery. Being connected to the group at any “rank” saves energy both in dealing with predators and securing food. This is why it’s vital for an individual to remain connected at all costs because as LGB notes working together confers a degree of protection or commands a resource not otherwise available through singular action.
However just because a trait confers an advantage doesn’t address the question as to how it evolved, just as it doesn’t specify the dynamic. How does an animal recognize that a potential dividend can be realized not only by holding back, but by holding back a powerful reflex that normally demands immediate action? Is it cognition, or is there a precedent, a natural context wherein both sides of the dialogue could have naturally evolved without relying on any party in the interaction evolving a cognitive Theory of Mind so as to compare its status to others? (Which as I noted above is unlikely precisely because of Neo-Darwinian logic) The dynamic must not be of a verbal, narrative nature, must be energy efficient and must manifest signals recognizable by all species of animals since we see that this kind of communication transpires across species lines.
As I mentioned earlier, dominance and submission look like constrained fighting behaviors; so where do the reflexes that animals use to fight their conspecifics, which would also be linked to courting displays which is where most inter-species conflict arises, come from? In other words, if energy efficiency is the gold standard for the evolution of adaptive traits as we all agree it should be, we might ask how do animals acquire energy, and in counterbalance, how do they avoid becoming another animals’ source of energy? I propose this is where we should turn to understand the side-by-side evolution of communicative signals.
One of the hallmarks of evolution is the conservation of information. If the fighting reflexes in ritualized form are precursors to social signals of “dominance” and “submission,” it makes sense that these these didn’t evolve whole cloth out of a smattering of random reflexes but rather arose from a coherent system of inter-species dealings—-specifically, from how an animal would attack its prey, and how an animal would defend itself from a predator. Since solitary animals evolved before social animals, with every nuance of the prey/predator interaction sculpted by the sharp-edge scythe of energy efficiency, the prey-making and predator-shaking strategies would become the basis of social systems as the most likely evolutionary route as opposed to communicative systems having suddenly and spontaneously emerged on their own after social systems evolved into being.
The mechanics of making a living (and in counterbalance the capacity to avoid or survive predation) is predicated on manifesting physical leverage over one’s center mass vis a vis the target’s capacity to resist and remain upright. One half of the energetic equation is the projection and leveraging of force, the other half is the absorption and resistance of force. So if social signals evolved from constrained fighting reflexes, then the precursors to social systems have to do with making prey and avoiding being made into prey, which itself boils down to the projection and absorption of force, all of which revolves around configuring the body around its center-of-gravity.
Not only is the prey/predator relationship far deeper than social, but it’s also not at all by random because leveraging one individual’s center-of-gravity to degrade the integrity of another’s equilibrium is the basis of all such interactions, and therefore relative positions of physical center masses would prove to be the basis of social signals.
So far so good but the essence of a social signal is a capacity to control an impulse, to hold back a normally overpowering compulsion in order to defer an immediate gratification for a future potential benefit. And as mentioned earlier, to date this capacity has been attributed to higher cognitive faculties. We should therefore ask what primordial physiological/neurological systems require impulse control, and are linked autonomically to the same impulse to go forward so that they can evolve side-by-side and be conserved, as a pair, in the genetic makeup of all mammals as its means of grasping that there is a potential benefit inherent in deferring from an immediate gratification? Since bringing down another being, or keeping oneself from being brought down, revolves around the issue of preserving or degrading the integrity of the body’s physical center-of-gravity, we can see that these two balance conditions are the perfect counterbalance to each other and have evolved for millions of years to complement each other in inter-species interactions. Both sides of the transmission/reception equation would have co-evolved into a highly refined state of synchronicity, perfectly matched because all organisms are highly attuned not only to their own physical integrity, but also to their physical integrity relative to the leveraging capacity of others to degrade their physical equilibrium.
A predator sees a prey and lays down before it can be spotted. Settling back onto its hindquarters, it gathers its force for a strike. Not only is it holding back, it is concentrating force in an opposite direction equal to the amount of acceleration it will experience when it springs forward. Two diametrically opposed impulses are yet their equal. Holding back is inextricably affiliated with getting to an object of attraction. We can next imagine how the entire stalk sequence evolved from this holding back impulse, a paralytic style of running while in a crouched position. Holding back in the short term gains more energy over the long term because to rush forward impulsively causes the prey to take flight prematurely. Is this a cognitive Theory of Mind construct in the predator’s mind about what’s going on in the prey’s mind, or can this lead us even deeper to the core auto-tuning/feedback dynamic that’s running both their minds?
Meanwhile a prey would evolve the equal/opposite behavior of getting low to the ground to avoid detection; my father once reported seeing a buck crawling through a gully to avoid detection by hunters who were positioned in the field above. He so admired its strategy he couldn’t bring himself to shoot. So this is another example of holding back to increase energy; in this case holding back the urge to bolt from abject fright, self-constraint that increases the buck’s safety. And this too has to do with an animal positioning its center-of-gravity relative to an external object in its perceptual field. Furthermore this primordial system can morph from context to context in order to deal with all manner of terrain, buffeting forces and interactions with other individuals operating from their own balance agendas, a behavioral malleability operating far below the level of social discourse and not requiring a Theory of Mind.
With this natural precedent of the balance agenda and relative positioning of respective centers of gravity, we can help Abrantes move his language from “probably JUST a reflex” to a much more precise logical framework wherein a natural capacity to hold oneself back in the interest of a deferred benefit can serve as the substrate for a complex social signaling network, and it would have evolved from the locomotive impulse which itself is comprised of complementary mechanics, holding back to increase a potential energy yield, holding back to increase safety.
What this means is that the locomotive rhythm, the physical mechanics that moves the body as fast and as efficiently as possible from point A to point B, toward that which the animal desires, or away from that the animal fears, is the basis of our A-to-Z evolutionary progression. The emotional capacity to map the locomotive rhythm onto complex objects-of-attraction (objects-of-resistance) is at the heart of the social signal systems. It is non-verbal, trans-species, energy efficient, energy efficacious, and most importantly, it has nothing to do with a cognitive entertainment of a Theory of Mind. In other words, the animal mind processes emotion
—–> (+) (-) —–>
feeling a pull toward that which is attractive and feeling a push away from that which is repulsive, the same way the body processes motion.
The only dynamic, pre-existing in all animals eons before there were social groups, that is preverbal and confers an awareness of efficacy and efficiency running consistently from the short term through the long term, that enhances safety and increases the rate of reward through the holding back of raw primordial impulses, and has in its operational module the holding-back-impulse in equal counteracting measure to the going-forward-impulse, and which is dynamically attuned to context, is to be found in the physical mechanics of motion, the maintaining of equilibrium and the directing, and the exerting and leveraging of force relative to objects of resistance. This is the simple, primordial mechanics, universal across the animal kingdom and by which all animals maintain their safety and also how they make their living effectively and efficiently. I’m arguing that the absolute rock bottom of deferred gratification, the core to any system of social signaling is to be found in the physical mechanics of the body perched and teetering on the cusp of a precipice; a locomotive dynamic that is then mapped onto any state of perception. A state of perception is governed by a primal auto-tuning/feedback dynamic, not a Theory of Mind or other higher cognitive framework.
The mistake, in my view, that thinkers on the animal mind are making, is that they assume that social signals involve the communication of intention. They are not. Rather, signals are a communication of capacity: the capacity to project force, the capacity to absorb force. This internal locomotive rhythm is an internal metric of success and well-being and would be mapped onto an external construct of reality if in an animal’s mind physical and emotional equilibrium were synonymous. This is what my reading of canine behavior has demonstrated to me.
If cognition is the basis of social signaling, and given that sociability is the capacity to control the most violent impulses, then dogs would be the least likely candidate for being so adaptable to human society given that our primate first cousins are mentally far more evolved. But what makes dogs so adaptable is a high emotional capacity, the capacity to map the locomotive rhythm, in other words the fine line between the omnipresent urge to move smoothly—relative to the ever present fear of falling—-onto a state of perception. In the animal mind, objects of emotional relevance (and these are the only ones which are present in an animal’s mind) either absorb and conduct the individual’s emotional momentum, or they do not. The dog’s capacity to deconstruct complex stimuli to their prime elements (+) (-) allows the dog to thereby integrate its sense of self via a projection of its physical center of gravity, into its perception of this external being and perceive it as an extension of its “self.” This is why dogs are so social.