Evolutionary Theory
Posted by aogThursday, 05 December 2002 at 21:28 TrackBack Ping URL

Jonah Goldberg over at the Corner asks

From an evolutionary standpoint, why do dogs like the snow so much?
There are a couple of misapprehensions wrapped in this question which I will proceed to disect.

The basic flaw is the belief is that any trait (e.g. liking snow) of a creature is advantageous or it wouldn't have evolved that way. That's just not the case. There are several reasons for this. First, traits are judged across the entire creature, so traits that may on their face look bad can in fact convey indirect advantages, or has a negative cost (where a bad trait prevents something even worse - like sickle cell anemia). Secondly, traits only have to be "good enough" which may not be absolutely good. Evolution is competition, and once past the minimal survival requirements, all that matters is being better (or not as bad) as your competition. Finally, and most significantly, traits can be what computer geeks call "artifacts". These are traits that are not designed in or expect, but arise from the interaction of other traits, a serendipitous side effect of other things. A fine example is the photic sneeze reflex, where bright light makes people sneeze. Or that for most people, slapping your thigh when you feel a sneeze building will stop it. It's hard to believe that these are traits selected for by evolution or even designed in by a creator - they're almost certainly "artifacts" of how the nervous system is put together. Evolution isn't and can't be a totalizing system - there's simply too much noise in the process.

Dogs like to play in general because social mammals benefit from this - it promotes bonding in the pack and learning. Why snow? Probably for some reason particular to Cosmo. Why do little boys like cars? It's hard to think of some evolutionary reason for that. There was some research done recently that shows the boy chimps prefer cars while girl chimps prefer dolls. That looks like an artifact of a general propensity toward tool use and socializing.