Does Your Dog Have Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene?
Dogs cause us to release oxytocin and care for them; they express one selfish gene by manipulating humans, convincing us to provide them with food and shelter.
Dogs and oxytocin
An article published in a 2015 issue of Science revealed that when dogs stare at humans the gaze causes the humans to release oxytocin, a hormone that causes mammals to do several things, one of which is to care for their young. (This is the hormone released when mothers nurse their children.)
The oxytocin released into the human urine causes the dogs to release oxytocin too, making them care and stare at the humans even more, which makes us release more oxytocin….
And on it goes. A dog looking at me makes me care about him, which sounds like a good way to develop a solid dog-human bond.
A lot of authors have noticed that puppies have large eyes and round faces, similar to human infants, and their looks make us more likely to care about them. In fact most of you have probably felt this “need to adopt and care” when looking at a cute puppy, but it is not just those puppy eyes that do it! All dogs, whether or not they are bred to have those large eyes, are capable of staring at us and causing oxytocin release.
Okay, now that we know how they manipulate us, how do we know that they are always selfish about doing so?
In his first book on genetic manipulation, Richard Dawkins describes what the selfish gene is. The selfish gene is a gene that causes the organism (be it dog, human, or even an insect) to act in such a way that it will be able to survive and spread itself to the next generation.
(The selfish gene is not about being selfish—it is about survival. Dogs may be food aggressive or suffer from “resource guarding” but those things have nothing to do with manipulation.)
Do dogs use one of their genes in this way?
When a dog stares at us, and we are manipulated into caring about her and providing her with food and a home, this is the dog´s expression of the selfish gene. Dogs have become adapted through natural selection in such a way that we are likely to take care of them-the oxytocin released through the gazing is probably the mechanism by which this happens.
The numbers prove that this strategy is working. The dog population around the world is over 500 million, compared to the wolf population of about 200,000. Wolves do not stare at us and do not cause the same oxytocin release in us that dogs do.
Do dogs sometimes ignore their selfish gene?
There have been plenty of cases of dogs acting altruistically, and many people will argue that dogs do not always act in their best interests. In most of these cases of altruistic behavior, however, the dog risked her own life to save the lives of her human family.
This may be an expression of the selfish gene. When a dog rescues her family, how does the family respond? They protect her forever after, of course, and it is not unusual to hear “this is the best dog ever” before a family tells me that what they really want is to get some puppies from this dog.
Altruism may work in other ways. Wolves that act as “babysitters” for the pups belonging to the alpha pair are probably acting the same way. They are taking care of the puppies because they are genetically related.
A selfish gene strikes again.
- Why Does My Dog Stare and Look Into My Eyes?
There are some interesting new findings on why dogs stare at humans but of course there are those who disagree. This article discusses some of the theories about why a dog stares into my eyes.
What about my dog?
Some other species have developed genes to interact and manipulate other species. The cuckoo is one of the most famous. That bird lays her eggs in the nests built by other species and the “foster moms and dads” raise the cuckoo hatchlings as if they were their own. In fact, some of the foster parents take better care of the cuckoo hatchlings than their own chicks, and feed the cuckoo more often than their own children.
Eventually scientists will discover the chemical that young cuckoos use to manipulate their foster parents. Maybe they stimulate the parents to release endorphins and feel better about themselves?
Dogs have probably been perfecting this gene for over 20,000 years, and it may have arisen early in the history of dogs spending times among humans.
So does your dog have this selfish gene? Probably, and if she stares at you she is probably using it. Does my dog? Yes, I am sure she does.
Does it make me care about her any less?
Not at all. The gene must be working.
Miho Nagasawa, Shouhei Mitsui, Shiori En, Nobuyo Ohtani, Mitsuaki Ohta, Yasuo Sakuma, Tatsushi Onaka, Kazutaka Mogi, Takefumi Kikusui, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds Science 17 April 2015: Vol. 348 no. 6232 pp. 333-336
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976, 1989, 2006
Does your dog have the selfish gene?
© 2015 Dr Mark