Why you think your dog is cute. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Only 9 more shopping days until National Dog Day. (I know, it sneaks up on me, too.)
OK, I admit that this is what we call a contrived hook, meaning a reason to write about something today (as opposed to any other day).
Why do it? Because a science writer named Richard Pallardy asked to contribute to Understandably and told me about some research he'd read about how dogs evolved to become the kinds of creatures that humans would be drawn to.
Also because my daughter really wants a dog, and this gave us a reason to search for cute puppy pictures on stock photo sites.
Happy National Dog Day to all who celebrate. Here's Richard:
Cute dogs (and why)
by Richard Pallardy
Even if you don’t consider yourself a dog person, you probably see the appeal. There’s something about those puppy faces that strikes a deep chord in most people. The reasons for this profound connection have deep evolutionary roots.
Animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz speculated that humans were drawn to animals with juvenile features—round heads, short faces, large eyes—because they mirror the features of human infants. Indeed, later research has borne this out.
Looking at your dog elicits the production of oxytocin, the same “love hormone” that is produced when parents and infants interact. This hormone elicits a positive emotional state and facilitates bonding.
And dogs respond in kind—they also produce oxytocin when they interact with us. They have even developed a specialized muscle that is responsible for the sorrowful expression widely referred to as “puppy dog eyes,” further reinforcing our emotional response.
Dogs that make that expression are rehomed more quickly from shelters. And they make more expressions that we find appealing when we are paying attention to them. In a sense, they have hacked our innate desire to protect and nurture.
This speaks to the strength of this response within our own species—even an animal that bears a superficial resemblance to a baby triggers our brains in the same way. It makes intuitive sense that we would have evolved to have powerful responses to infants. Our young are uniquely vulnerable and require immediate and constant protection. The production of a hormone that encourages our attachment to them likely enhances their chances of survival.
Our subconscious response to cuteness in other species may have played a key role in the domestication of wild wolves. It is no longer believed that early humans simply adopted wild wolf puppies, which would have grown up to be aggressive and dangerous no matter how tenderly they were cared for.
Rather, it’s thought that over time, wolves that scavenged from human settlements became increasingly accustomed to their bipedal neighbors and began to self-domesticate.
Orphaned pups of these proto-dogs may then have been adopted by women who were drawn to their infantile features—an intriguing inversion of the notion that they have been man’s best friend throughout their history. They ultimately did become useful hunting companions to men before, over millennia, becoming companions and members of the family.
During this time, they were selected for ever-more puppyish features. Take the dingo, the New Guinea highland wild dog, and the pariah dogs of India. These canines have been interpreted as intermediate forms between wolves and dogs—they are similar in appearance to early domestic dogs. They still bear some resemblance to wolves but their muzzles are shorter and they have other features more typical of wolf puppies.
Many modern dog breeds even more closely resemble puppies, with floppy ears, curled tails, and large eyes. This is known as paedomorphosis or neoteny. In some cases it has been exaggerated to a pathological degree—certain breeds almost mimic fetal features, with snouts so flattened that it makes it difficult for them to breath and limbs so stubby that they cause joint problems. Think of pugs, bulldogs, and Japanese chins.
While our proclivity for eternal puppyhood has had some unintended consequences, it's been largely beneficial to our canine companions. We spend lavishly on their care and feeding and even memorialize them like humans, burying them in specialized cemeteries or cremating them as we do our human loved ones.
This is actually an ancient practice—archaeologists have excavated many human graves also containing dogs. A woman was buried in modern-day Israel some 12,000 years ago nestled up against her pup.
Today, some 85 percent of dog owners consider their pets to be members of the family. Many consider their pets to be akin to actual children. The increasing postponement of child-rearing—or the decision to not have children at all—may be influencing these trends. Childless people are turning their care-taking impulses toward non-human animals instead (though of course plenty of people who do have children also love their dogs).
So it is that cuteness which continues to shape one of our species’ most consequential relationships. The next time you find yourself distracted by a TikTok of a pile of puppies, don’t feel guilty. You’re simply following one of humanity’s defining instincts.
7 other things worth knowing today
Here's a list of some of the $10,000—or more—in climate tax breaks and rebates in the Inflation Reduction Act, and how to qualify for at least some of them. (CNBC)
More than 2 million MamaRoo swings and RockaRoo rockers are being recalled after the strangulation death of a 10-month-old and a close call involving another child. The products were sold by Thorley's 4moms line at BuyBuy Baby and Target stores nationwide, as well as online at 4moms.com and Amazon from January 2010 through August 2022. If you know a family with an infant, they quite likely have one of these; we sure did. (CPSC)
From Saigon to Kabul: Vietnam vets tell Afghanistan vets how to cope with anniversary of the Taliban’s victory. (Task & Purpose)
Adam Neumann, who was behind the thing that was WeWork and walked away a billionaire, has a new company. VCs are lining up again: $350 million from A16Z at a $1 billion valuation. (The Verge)
How candidates in swing states who deny election results and promise to do things differently in 2024 have a very real chance of taking over. (WashPost)
Puffy but interesting overview story of the next generation of supersonic passenger jets, 20 years after the last Concorde flight. (NY Post)
Two medical bill collectors had a change of heart and started a nonprofit that now buys random medical debt from U.S. creditors at pennies on the dollar and then forgives it. They're now at $6.7 billion. (NPR)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here. See you in the comments!