Did We Evolve to Love Dogs?

Is part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts because we're predisposed to love them?

By Kristi Benson CTC
Special Correspondent

A woman and her German Shorthaired Pointer relaxing in a field
"...a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world." Photo: Paddlepooch (Shutterstock).

Biophilia means, simply put, a focus on life and living things. Some researchers would even say it’s a love of living things. It has been used to refer to a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world: our love of greenspace, of potted plants, of well-tended trees on city boulevards, and maybe even (did you guess where this was going?), our love of animals, wild and domestic alike.

Considering you are reading a blog dedicated to spreading welfare-boosting, scientifically valid information about companion animals, it will not come as a surprise to you that many people find animals to be irresistibly compelling. Naturalist E.O Wilson suggests that this biophilia, this love of living things, has evolutionary roots in humans. That is, he suggests that our long-ago ancestors who loved living things—or at least paid greater attention to them—were more likely to survive than those who did not. Survival means reproduction, so our animal-loving forebears were more likely to pass along their animal-keen genes than people who, due to life’s genetic lotto, were not similarly inclined. Although other biologists and philosophers have questioned the utility, correctness (and lack of falsifiability) of the construct, it is interesting to ponder the idea that we evolved to love living things, and that part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts is because we’re predisposed to love them.

When I went to school to become an archeologist in the 1990s, it was the vogue to say that everything we humans did, we learned to do from scratch during our lives. Children were considered to be born as blank slates, and learning and culture—and oh, what a fantastic adaptation culture is, when you think about it—explained the totality of our behaviour. We rolled our collective eyes at any inkling of a biological explanation for human behaviour (we had our reasons). As time, and science, (and ethics) have marched on, we have revised our models. There is now evidence that humans, like all the animals we share so much of our DNA with, have both learned and intrinsic behaviours. And it’s even much more richly complicated than that. Our genes provide the scaffolding upon which our life experiences (or even the life experiences of our parents) mould our adult behaviour. All behaviour is the product of complicated interactions between our genes and our experiences.

Did we evolve to love dogs? Thoughts on how much we love dogs
Photo:Stockwithme (Shutterstock).

As we would expect with a behaviour strengthened by evolutionary processes, interest in living things and animals is seen in many cultures and in many places around the globe, although it may look different in different places. In many areas, knowledge of the natural systems that support life continues to be vital to survival. I have been fortunate enough to work with Indigenous communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories, in particular the Gwich’in of Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic, for almost 15 years. Many of the projects I have worked on include recording and mapping information about animals and ecological systems. To say there is a breadth of knowledge about the natural world held by people who live close to it is an understatement. Gwich’in Elders even talk about a time, deep in the mythological past, when people and caribou shared the same language and could even change their animal forms.

The ability and desire to understand the natural world is, and has been, an enormous benefit to people who need to both comprehend and predict natural ecological cycles and animal behaviour. It makes good sense that a love of natural things could provide a survival boost. Both animals and people must be knowledgeable to ‘make a living in the world”.

At first, contemplating that our warm and fuzzy feelings towards dogs may be a product, or byproduct, of our evolutionary history (and even further, based on how useful this knowledge was to the survival of our ancestors) seems a bit… discombobulating. Doesn’t it feel like our affection towards our dogs should be in a special, different package? Certainly not in the same utilitarian category of “useful traits” as binocular eyesight or tool use or blinking or internal, air-breathing, lungs.

But I say, grasp firmly to the coolness of our evolution. How great is it that we even evolved? That we exist, unlike hadrosaurs and the passenger pigeon and all the trilobites? Humans, like dogs, cats, northern pig-tailed macaques, horseshoe crabs, and amoeba, are the product of our long evolutionary history. Without evolution there would be nothing human about us, just like without evolution and it’s human-directed best friend, domestication, there would be nothing dog about dogs. Evolution has tinkered both dogs and humans into existence.

And better yet: if dogs evolved or were domesticated to have a particular focus on humans, as some recent research on dog cognition suggests, then humans evolving to have a particular focus on living things like dogs could just be one more special thing we share. Like a spot on the couch, a love for leftover pizza, and snoozing after a long day.

Also by Kristi Benson: Digging into our common ground with dogs.

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