Domestication was long-thought to have universally dulled the intelligence of animals.
Wolves were thought to be significantly more intelligent than domestic dogs.
Usually, someone will start talking about an experiment where a researcher found that wolves easily learned to open a gate and malamutes never figured it out. This experiment is essential cannon in the wolf literature.
It’s actually not an experiment.
It actually comes from a claim by the wolf research Harry Frank, who had a malamute that never figured out how to open a particular door. However, a wolfdog he was working with did figure out how to do it, and that a wolf that was being raised with the hybrid figured it out after watching the hybrid do it once.
I’ve always doubted that this claim is indicative of the superiority of lupine intelligence for a very simple reason. When I first read of that account, I had two golden retrievers that were adept at opening door. They had learned how to do this through observation, just as the wolf had. Further, Miley also figured out how to do this behavior and had to be trained not to.
So are golden retrievers smarter than malamutes?
Anecdote really doesn’t help us in this endeavor.
Some researchers have tried to use brain size as evidence that domestic animals are less intelligent than their wild ancestors. Playing around with brain size in this matter is little more than glorified phrenology, and as I have written about on this blog, the claims about brain size and domestic dogs are actually somewhat misleading.
One of the problems with trying to examine these issues is that there is an implied romanticism in a lot of ethology. This implied romanticism sees domestication as distorted and debasing the wild stock from which domestic animals are derived. Bits of this sort of thinking can be found in Konrad Lorenz’s work. Lorenz was a Nazi scientist, and the Nazis– and, really, a large number of other German nationalist groups– saw modern civilization as something quite destructive to the German people. They longed for a time in which their people could return to nature and thus return to their prior greatness.
Even though Nazi science has been discarded and researchers from a lot of national background have examined these issues, the tincture of the Nazi and Germanic nationalist origins in the foundations of a lot of this research has prevented an open examination of what domestication actually has meant.
We can think of domestication as outright enslavement.
But this is a childish view.
The truth is when the ancestors of modern dogs hooked up with humans, they became infinitely more successful than wolves would ever be.
And it’s only been in the past ten years or so that we’ve actually started to make comparisons of domestic and wild animal cognitive abilities.
What we’ve found is the notion that domestication means universal dulling is quite simplistic. At Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, there have been many studies that have compared the cognitive skills of wolves that have been raised by people and domestic dogs. They have found that domestic dogs have certain cognitive abilities that even hand-reared wolves lack. They respond to human gestures in ways that wolves simply do not. Further, more research out of the Max Planck Institute Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig found that dogs were better at responding to gestures than even great apes.
These same findings have been discovered in the Belyaev tame foxes.
But none have done as well as dogs.
Some researchers at Eotvos Lorand University compared the abilities of domestic ferrets, domestic dogs, and hybrids between wild mustelids and ferrets. Domestic ferrets can hybridize with European polecats (their likely wild ancestor), the steppe polecat (another possible ancestors), the European mink (which is not a close relative of the American mink), and the Siberian weasel (which is actually found over a broad swathe of Asia, not just Siberia). The researchers used specimens from all of these hybrids to represent a group of wild mustelids in the same way that wolves were used in the dog experiment. Like the wolves, these wild hybrids were socialized to people and were “tame.”
The researchers found that ferrets sought out and tolerated human contact in much the same way dogs did, and they were able to correctly go to the bowl of food containing the food through following human gestures.
And they could do as well as domestic dogs.
Now, this might make some sense.
Ferrets are the only other animal that has been domesticated to help humans hunt.
Ferreting is very similar to hunting with a flushing dog or a terrier.
The ferret goes where the quarry is and then it drives it out into a net or toward the gun.
And although people have tried to ferret with other species of mustelid, none has been as successful as the domestic ferret.
However, unlike dogs, ferrets were derived from solitary ancestors, not cooperative hunters.
But as they were domesticated to control rabbit and rat numbers, ferrets evolved some cognitive abilities that were similar to those of domestic dogs. These abilities may have arisen solely from selection for tameness, as is implied through the abilities of the Belyaev foxes.
Or they could have origins in selection for a greater cooperative nature through domestication for those purposes.
We really don’t understand how dogs or other animals have evolved these cognitive skills.
Some people like to rush for the neoteny explanation at this point, but virtually everything written about neoteny and social cognition of domestic animals, great apes, and humans is unusually speculative and may actually be incapable of being falsified.
But the discovery that ferrets might be able to respond to human gestures as well as domestic dogs is really remarkable find.
It also shows us that ferrets are fully domesticated animals.
They shouldn’t be treated as exotics or invasive species.
The North American mainland has exactly zero (0) populations of feral domestic ferrets running about, even though ferrets have been here since colonial times.
We can’t say the same about feral cats, which are definitely destructive to native species.
So our understanding of domestication and its effect upon intelligence is much more complex than it once was.
And it’s not just dogs who have these abilities.
Ferrets may have them, too.