Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Doggie deception

I used to have a dog who had a conscience.

Her name was Doolin, and she was half border collie and half bluetick coonhound, which are -- and by this I mean no disparagement of Doolin, who was an awesome dog -- two breeds that should never be allowed to become friendly with one another.  The two pieces of her ancestry were at constant war.  Her hound side made her get into all manner of trouble, and her collie side made her feel horribly guilty afterward.  Like the time I got home from work, opened the front door, and the first thing I heard was Doolin's feet pattering downstairs, running away from me.  This was highly un-Doolin-like behavior -- she was ordinarily affectionate to the point of being clingy -- so I knew she'd done something she shouldn't have.

Sure enough, she'd pushed the kitchen door open, dumped the trash, and scattered its contents all over the house -- including playing kill-the-squirrel with a used coffee filter.

I stood at the head of the stairs, and said in a stern voice, "DOOLIN.  GET UP HERE."  She came to the base of the staircase, and proceeded to drag herself up on her belly, step by step, all the time her tail wagging frantically, every fiber of her being radiating, "OMG, Dad, I'm SOOOOOOO sorry, I couldn't help myself..."

At that point, I started laughing, and she immediately knew she was off the hook.  She got up and trotted the rest of the way up the stairs as if she hadn't a care in the world.

Not all dogs have this understanding of morality and consequences, however.  Our current dog, Guinness, a big, galumphing American Staffordshire terrier mix, goes through life with a cheerful insouciance regardless whether he's doing what he's supposed to or not.  When he swiped a newly-opened block of expensive French brie off the counter and snarfed the whole thing down, he reacted with a canine shoulder-shrug when we yelled at him.

"What did you expect me to do?" he seemed to say.  "I'm a dog, guys."

But just because he's a dog doesn't mean he isn't a natty dresser.

The reason this comes up is because of a paper that came out this week in Animal Cognition entitled, "Deceptive-like Behavior in Dogs," by Marianne Heberlein, Marta Manser, and Dennis Turner, of the University of Z├╝rich.  They set up a fascinating task for dogs, where they interacted with two human partners, one of whom was cooperative (increasing the likelihood of any treats that showed up being shared) and the other competitive (who was likely to keep any treats for him/herself).  After a short training period, the dogs not only were able to tell who was cooperative and who was competitive -- they started using deceptive behavior to trick the competitive partner into losing out.

The authors write:

We investigated in a three-way choice task whether dogs are able to mislead a human competitor, i.e. if they are capable of tactical deception.  During training, dogs experienced the role of their owner, as always being cooperative, and two unfamiliar humans, one acting ‘cooperatively’ by giving food and the other being ‘competitive’ and keeping the food for themselves.  During the test, the dog had the options to lead one of these partners to one of the three potential food locations: one contained a favoured food item, the other a non-preferred food item and the third remained empty.  After having led one of the partners, the dog always had the possibility of leading its cooperative owner to one of the food locations.  Therefore, a dog would have a direct benefit from misleading the competitive partner since it would then get another chance to receive the preferred food from the owner.  On the first test day, the dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred food box more often than expected by chance and more often than the competitive partner.  On the second day, they led the competitive partner less often to the preferred food than expected by chance and more often to the empty box than the cooperative partner.  These results show that dogs distinguished between the cooperative and the competitive partner, and indicate the flexibility of dogs to adjust their behaviour and that they are able to use tactical deception.

Psychologist Stanley Coren, writing about the research in Psychology Today, explains why this response actually requires pretty sophisticated insight -- and a basic understanding of the concept of deception:

So now you can see what the dog's dilemma is: He has been trained to lead a person to a box containing food.  He knows that if he leads the generous person to the "best treat" he will get that treat.  He also knows that if he leads the selfish person to that treat, he will not get it.  However, there is an alternative: The dog could lie or deceive the selfish person by leading her to the less preferred treat, or even better, to the box with no treat at all in it — after all, she is mean and doesn't deserve a treat.  If the dog does that, then he knows that a short time later his owner is going to take him back and give him another opportunity to choose a box.  When that happens, if he chooses the box with the good treat, his owner will give it to him.  But this will happen only if he first deceives the selfish person so that the good treat is still in the box.

Most of the dogs they tested caught on to this really quickly -- explaining behavior like my friends' dog, who has been known to stare out of the window and bark like hell until my friend stands up to see what's out there, at which point his dog will immediately stop barking and jump up into the now-vacated, and still warm, recliner.

All of which shows that humans and dogs have been in close company long enough that our canine friends have come to understand human psychology, perhaps better than we understand theirs.  My guess, though, is that Guinness doesn't really care how much we intellectualize about his behavior.  He's more focused on waiting until we leave another block of cheese unguarded on the kitchen counter.


The advancement of technology has opened up ethical questions we've never had to face before, and one of the most difficult is how to handle our sudden ability to edit the genome.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a system for doing what amounts to cut-and-paste editing of DNA, and since its discovery by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the technique has been refined and given pinpoint precision.  (Charpentier and Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for their role in developing CRISPR.)

Of course, it generates a host of questions that can be summed up by Ian Malcolm's quote in Jurassic Park, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."  If it became possible, should CRISPR be used to treat devastating diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia?  Most people, I think, would say yes.  But what about disorders that are mere inconveniences -- like nearsightedness?  What about cosmetic traits like hair and eye color?

What about intelligence, behavior, personality?

None of that has been accomplished yet, but it bears keeping in mind that ten years ago, the whole CRISPR gene-editing protocol would have seemed like fringe-y science fiction.  We need to figure this stuff out now -- before it becomes reality.

This is the subject of bioethicist Henry Greely's new book, CRISPR People: The Science and Ethics of Editing Humans.  It considers the thorny questions surrounding not just what we can do, or what we might one day be able to do, but what we should do.

And given how fast science fiction has become reality, it's a book everyone should read... soon.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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