Cats and Dogs
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Do dogs like attractive faces?

Do Animals Recognize Beauty?

We have all admired the spectacular, crazy mating dances of birds of paradise, and been startled by their neon coloration. We are moved by the power and grace of a galloping horse or a cougar as it stalks its prey (when seen on TV! I don’t recommend it in person). Why are animals so beautiful? Some claim that it’s because animals choose beautiful mates, that they recognize and appreciate beauty.

I contend that it is much more likely that they choose mates based on physical traits, independent of their beauty. They are wired to appreciate difference, not aesthetics. The traits they choose to respond to could be beautiful or dull. Or even artificial. Here’s an experiment: give a peahen the choice between an ugly colorful picture of a peacock and a beautiful one (remember: beauty means proportion, depth, harmony, richness, and elegance) and see which picture she prefers.

An Abstract Concept

This is only partly tongue in cheek. One must separate beauty from mate choice in order to tell if animals recognize beauty. Beauty is an abstract concept, one of the transcendentals. It is not tied to functionality or usefulness, safety or health. Dangerous things can be beautiful, as can nonfunctional things. Mate choice can depend on random things having nothing to do with beauty or health.

In 1982 Nancy Burley, now at the University of California, Irvine, received some new zebra finches in her lab. She attached leg bands to them to identify the birds. Not long after, she noticed that the birds had developed a preference for particular leg bands. Males preferred females with black and pink bands, and females preferred males with red bands. This choice was completely arbitrary, spontaneous, and independent of fitness. Not particularly correlated with beauty either.

What a Zebra Finch Wants

It seems zebra finches are naturally inclined to value certain signals. This seems peculiar, because unlike the signals encoded in a peacock’s tail, the coloured bands were essentially meaningless.

Burley’s work implies that there is something almost random about the traits that animals evolve to find beautiful. Before her findings, it had been suggested that these traits began as something with a function, and then got exaggerated.

For instance, you might imagine that peacocks first evolved large tails to help stabilise themselves in flight, and that the tails then got bigger and bigger under the influence of females. But it could be that peahens simply liked big tails.

Like humans, Burley’s zebra finches could be made to look more beautiful to their mates by manipulating their appearances. According to Burley, that suggests there are preferences for certain traits or colours hard-wired into their brains. [Emphasis added.]

Just to point out what should be obvious, Hogenboom is anthropomorphizing those finches. Do the finches find some finches beautiful because of their beautiful leg bands? Or rather, do they find some finches more attractive, meaning desirable as a mate, because of their distinctive leg bands? Their admiration is not transferrable to other beautiful things. The finches aren’t going to start admiring sunsets, or Monet. They don’t care about red breasted robins or emerald breasted hummingbirds, either, unless they disturb the domestic peace.

A Link to Sexual Selection?

Our admiration of beauty cannot be linked to sexual selection either. Human beauty transcends waist to hip measurements and symmetrical faces. In the lab, when asked to score pictures of faces for their beauty, people will prefer symmetry. But things are more complicated in real life. Choosing a mate is multi-dimensional, or it should be.

Our appreciation for beauty expands well beyond sexuality. To reiterate, beauty has its roots in proportion, balance, richness, harmony, and elegance, and it is always a gift. Natural beauty of all kinds surrounds us, even if it is just the curl of a baby’s hair on her cheek as she sleeps, or the adoring brown eyes of your Shih Tzu. Our desire for beauty flows into the objects we make, and the homes we inhabit.

So the next time you see a beautiful bird, or an elegant cat, don’t think sexual selection. Think gratitude.

Photo: Zebra finches, by Keith Gerstung from McHenry, IL, United States (Niagara Falls AviaryUploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ann Gauger

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture Dr. Ann Gauger is Director of Science Communication and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, and Senior Research Scientist at the Biologic Institute in Seattle, Washington. She received her Bachelor’s degree from MIT and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington Department of Zoology. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where her work was on the molecular motor kinesin. Follow Ann Profile

Study: Dogs Prefer Happy Human Faces — Thanks to Hormone Oxytocin

Oxytocin, a powerful hormone produced by all mammals, including canines, is a key factor in the interaction between dogs and humans, according to a new study led by University of Helsinki researchers.

Happy faces are attractive to dogs. Image credit: Sanni Somppi.

Happy faces are attractive to dogs. Image credit: Sanni Somppi.

“It seems that oxytocin influences what the dog sees and how it experiences the thing it sees,” said lead author Sanni Somppi, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki.

In the study, 43 domestic dogs were presented with pictures of unfamiliar male human faces displaying either a happy or an angry expression.

Each dog was tested twice: once under the influence of oxytocin, which was administered as part of the test, and once without oxytocin.

The dog’s gaze on the images and pupil size were measured with an eye-tracking device.

Emotions and attentiveness guide the gaze and regulate pupil size, making eye tracking a window into the dogs’ minds.

“Dogs typically focus on the most remarkable aspect of each situation, such as threatening stimuli in a frightening situation. Recognizing and interpreting threats quickly is important for survival,” Somppi and co-authors explained.

“Dogs under the influence of oxytocin were more interested in smiling faces than they were in angry ones.”

“In addition, oxytocin also influenced the dogs’ emotional states, which was evident in their pupil size.”

Without oxytocin, the dogs’ pupils were at their largest when they looked at angry faces. This indicated that the angry faces caused the most powerful emotional reaction in the dogs.

Under the influence of oxytocin, however, images of smiling faces enhanced the dogs’ emotional state more than angry ones.

This is to say that oxytocin probably made the angry faces seem less threatening and the smiling faces more appealing.

“Both effects promote dog-human communication and the development of affectionate relations,” said study senior author Professor Outi Vainio, also from the University of Helsinki.

“Further studies are needed to determine whether the results we report are typical only for domestic dogs due their human-tunedness in their communicative skills, or, whether a similar phenomenon exists in other mammalian species,” the scientists said.

“Moreover, in our study dogs were presented with unfamiliar human faces, thus, at present we do not know whether familiarity would modulate the observed effect of oxytocin on emotional face processing.”

“In future studies, the effects of the dogs’ breed, sex and personality traits should also be taken into account, as the impact of oxytocin are not uniform across all individuals.”

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Sanni Somppi et al. Nasal Oxytocin Treatment Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response toward Positive Human Facial Expressions. Front. Psychol, published online October 17, 2017; doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01854

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