Domestication of Psychology:
It is easy to hypothesize but difficult to test which selection pressure(s) cause a species' psychology to evolve. Domesticated animals offer an unmatched opportunity to understand the effect of emotional evolution on the problem solving skills of animals. Experiments have demonstrated that selection against aggression in mammals leads to the domestication syndrome and that this selection also effects social problem solving abilities (e.g. dogs but not wolves are skilled at spontaneously using human social cues). Moreover, selection on aggression effecting morphology, physiology, behavior and cognition is thought to target developmental pathways in producing the suite of observed changes. Thus, selection on systems mediating emotions responsible for aggression may be a major target of selection that then has effects on social cognitive abilities across species. Given that humans are thought to have become more cooperative and tolerant during our species evolution, there may have also been selection on our species aggressive tendencies as well that in part might explain our cognitive evolution. Studying the comparative development of emotions and cognition can help test this hypothesis.
We are studying how emotional reactivity and social problem solving are related by testing 1) how dogs form trusting relationships with humans and how individual variance in how dogs bond may correlate with other behavioral and physiological parameters, 2) we are comparing how the less aggressive bonobo and the more aggressive chimpanzee react behaviorally and physiologically to novel objects and social conflicts and 3) we are comparing the development of the behavior, physiology and psychology of bonobos, chimpanzees and humans. We have also been working with geneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to link our behavioral work to the comparison of the bonobo and chimpanzee genome. Understanding how animals form trusting relationships, how they respond to conflict, and how human development differs from that of other apes will help us test the relationship between emotion and cognition while pointing to the selection pressure that may have shaped our species during human evolution.
Also visit the Duke Canine Cognition Center for our related work with dogs.