Upon learning the strange history of baboons herding goats in Nambia, this relationship began to make some sense to me:

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  • Scarleth White
Who can even miss the close bond between humans and dogs? But how did it come about? How over time was the bond able to overcome a variety of health risks posed to humans and also the considerable cost again posed to humans of maintaining an animal that's not consumed?

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The leading evolutionary explanation for this close bond is purely utilitarian: humans introduced dogs into their homes because the animal could detect possible danger before the human could see or hear it. Dogs were an alarm system. Their barking not only alerted its owner that someone (a stranger, a foe) was approaching the home, but also informed the stranger/foe that those in the home were aware of their presence. This practical use bonded the animals.


Though there must be some truth to this theory, it only explains a little of what is going on: humans want an alarm system, and dogs will provide it for shelter and food. But we know this does not at exhaust the deep relationship between the animals. The theory explains a very weak abstraction. (And there is no encounter, no bond, no relationship that does not involve abstraction.)


The theory I prefer is this: The bond between the two animals has more to do with (at least on the human side) an excess or abundance or overflow of that which makes humans the most successful primate: our sociality. What dogs are receiving (or benefiting from) is an overflow of the care, concern, other-regarding emotions, and technologies for reading mood, feelings, intent (Theory of Mind) that makes huge human organizations and large-scale cooperation possible. Dogs luxuriate in our innate socialism. (Capitalists exploit it.)


Now, about those goat-herding baboons in Namibia. I first learned about this practice in the book Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. In order to understand the substance of baboon sociality, the scientists, Dorothy L. Cheney, Robert M. Seyfarth, tell the story of a baboon named Ahla. It lived in Nambia, and what was most curious about its gift for herding is that it not only knew each goat individually but also each goat's relationship with other goats. If, say, a baby goat got lost, Ahla would take it back to its concerned or confused mother. The goats were constantly getting into a mess; the baboon was constantly putting all to rights. The baboon would also groom the goats.

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The reason why the baboon was very good at recognizing the relationships of the goats is because it came from a type of society that very much depended on the recognition of status and station for the maintenance of a rigidly hierarchical social order. In baboon society, it is important to know your rank and those who are in, below, and above that rank. That is the cement of their society. Also, because making and strengthening bonds of friendship is crucial to a baboon's success, it must spend a good amount of energy grooming other baboons.


The goats, which were getting groomed, herded, and kept in order, were benefiting from a surplus of baboon sociality. Similarly, dogs and other pets benefit from an overflow of human sociality.