The Minds of Dogs and How Pointing Evolved

Recent research sug­gests that domest­ic dogs seem cap­able of dis­play­ing a rudi­ment­ary “the­ory of mind” — a very human char­ac­ter­ist­ic whereby you are able to attrib­ute men­tal states to oth­ers that do not neces­sar­ily coin­cide with your own (in a nut­shell). Stray domest­ic dogs, mean­while, do not dis­play this trait, sug­gest­ing that such men­tal attrib­utes are developed through close con­tact with humans. That’s inter­est­ing, but not the main reas­on I’m shar­ing this inform­a­tion with you.

This cog­nit­ive dif­fer­ence between stray domest­ic dogs and their house­bound brethren was uncovered by test­ing wheth­er or not they under­stood the very human action of point­ing (y’know, with your index fin­ger). What struck me most in this dis­cus­sion was this brief the­ory of how the action of point­ing evolved:

Go ahead, let your wrist go limp and look at your hand from the side, or if you’re too insec­ure in your own sexu­al­ity, just pic­ture Adam’s limp wrist at the moment of cre­ation in Michelan­gelo’s mas­ter­piece on the Sis­tine Chapel’s ceil­ing. See how even in this relaxed state the index fin­ger is slightly exten­ded? By con­trast, when chimps do this […] their index fin­ger falls nat­ur­ally in line with their oth­er fin­gers. Pov­inelli and Dav­is reas­on that this subtle evol­u­tion­ary change in the mor­pho­logy of our hands, which occurred after humans and chim­pan­zees last shared a com­mon ancest­or five mil­lion to sev­en mil­lion years ago, is at least par­tially respons­ible for the fact that human point­ing with the index fin­ger is so cul­tur­ally ubi­quit­ous today.

The argu­ment goes some­thing like this. When young infants begin reach­ing for objects just out of their range, adults are most likely to respond to those reach­ing attempts and to retrieve the item for the baby when the lat­ter­’s index fin­ger is more prom­in­ently exten­ded. That is to say, ini­tially, the adult mis­takenly reads into the child’s reach­ing attempt as a com­mu­nic­at­ive ges­ture on the part of the child. Over time, this dynam­ic between the child and adult serves to fur­ther “pull out” the index fin­ger because the child impli­citly learns the beha­vi­or­al asso­ci­ation, so that it slowly becomes a genu­ine point­ing ges­ture.