Hidden Histories: Humans, Cats and Dogs
The Secret Connection Between Our Favorite Pets and Human Psychology, Evolution, and Civilization
My interest in researching the connection between the co-evolutionary success in humans, cats and dogs is both personal and professional. I am an avid animal lover and have kept dogs and cats for much of my life, and these relationships have added untold hours of enjoyment and satisfaction to my life. I am also currently drafting a novel that contemplates some of these concepts that I lay out in this essay’s research. What lies ahead is my exploration of the relations of cats and dogs to human psychology, human evolution and the success of human civilization. I begin the journey by diving into the primary controversy at hand — why are dogs and cats important to us as humans?
Humans, as a species, are at a stage of evolution that is irreversibly bound to other species for their basic survival. On a local and intimate level, the bacterial flora that blossom in the human gut by the billions reveals an essential, yet unseen, relationship between the human organism and other species. Without these invisible companions, humans would be incapable of one of the most basic of life’s mechanisms — digestion.
But there is more to these bugs than what meets the eye. Research has shown that there is an observable link between the healthful functioning of these microscopic critters and the brain (Martone). While the organisms that have occupied the human digestive tract may have been intrinsic to the evolutionary success of our species, there are also evolutionary extrinsic roles and relationships that humans share with a myriad number of species. In the long, spiraling stretch of human evolution there are two peculiar mammals in the order of Carnivora that have come to define and shape modern domestic life. While the advent of the domestic cat and dog may not have the same indisputable evolutionary biological role in the initial appearance of Homo sapiens as intestinal bacteria, these furry companions can shed two very different lights on the success of humans colonizing this planet with their civilization.
The Psychological Connection
There is a popular conception in today’s society that innate psychological and behavioral traits can be assumed by identifying either as a cat person or a dog person. While it may be easy to cast aside these assumptions as unfounded, there are psychological studies that have wrestled with the issue and have produced some decided stake and clarity in this debate. In “Personalities of Self-Identified ‘Dog People’ and ‘Cat People’, a study that surveyed 4,565 people, definite psychological traits in humans emerge in relation to preferences between cats and dogs.
The statistics were gathered by an online questionnaire that employed the Big Five Inventory, a tool for classifying and measuring distinct personality dimensions that are standard in the field. The online survey gave participants a single-item measure to identify either as a cat person, dog person, both or neither. The researchers of this study analyzed the data in the light of previous researching by taking into account discrepancies based on gender and other factors. The findings were clear and statistically relevant. Dog people were found to identify with the traits of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness, while cat people were identified with neuroticism and openness (Gosling).
This research breaks ground in the relationships between domesticated species, pet owning humans and psychological profiles. It also may provide a clue to begin a deeper exploration of the roles these two animals have played in humanity’s collective history. Once I discovered there is a psychological profile that has been drawn from humans and their relationships with cats and dogs, I was forced to dig deeper.
Our Mutual Evolution
My research took me to scientific resources that seek to explain the early histories of all three species. What I found verified my assumption that the importance of cats and dogs, and their respective relationship to humans, is deeper than what meets the eye. These domesticated companion species inhabit a terrain stretching much further than what a psychological survey is capable of exploring. Both species are intrinsically linked to the story of human society and civilization. The turning point in both species towards domestication lies in a much more ancient time than what has been previously thought. As various disciplines continue to shed light on the complex web of evolutionary biology and its corollary histories, we are left with a clearer picture of what may have happened between humans and these two species. We are also left with more questions due to the murky depths of time that this subject will take us through. First, let’s look at how cats became such a prominent feature in domestic life.
Up until fairly recently, it was a widely held theory that the wild cat was adopted into the domestic fold sometime in the ancient Egyptian dynasties, roughly 5,000 years ago (Faure). An archaeological dig at the island of Cyprus questions this assumption with evidence of a man being ritualistically buried next to a cat 9,000 years ago (Pickrell). No felid species is native to that island, and thus the cat would have had to accompany the man as a traveler, and to some this had indicated potential domestication. It has also been supposed that the proximity of the cat’s body to the human’s at the burial site suggests that there was a familiar connection between the two beings. This, of course, is only speculation and is a deduction that can be drawn from the anthropological assumption that early burial sites hold clues indicating what was important to members of our species at that time.
There is also mitochondrial DNA evidence that connects all modern house cats to five distinct matrilineal origins, having roots somewhere in the Near East roughly 150,000 years ago (Driscoll et al). What this data reveals to us is there is no clear cut moment in time that we can look to and see when cats became important to humans. Even now, the house cat retains much of its wildness and independence from human subjugation.
But everybody knows that dogs are a different beast altogether. So how do the early histories of these two animals differ?
The friendly domesticated canine that we are familiar with today has been theorized to have descended from a single wolf mother some 30,000 – 150,000 years ago (Wade). This includes all dogs that lived in pre-Columbian Americas, as the hypothesis suggests they were brought over the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age. Other scientists give a more conservative estimate when the wolf began its descent to dog, saying that it likely occurred 15,000 years ago (Wade). Again, there is no clear cut consensus on the actual moment in time, but all the evidence point to the early Neolithic, Mesolithic, or Upper Paleolithic time frames.
With both of these early histories mapped out for the cat and dog, my research became better equipped to look at how these species related to early human development.
The Rise of Civilization
Suffice to say, a lot can happen in 15,000 years. In the past 60 years human civilization has outdone itself in technological advancements that continue unabated. But when did human civilization really begin as we know today? The answer to that question lies in the degeneration of semi-nomadic, non-hierarchical hunting and gathering social bodies in favor of agriculture and cities. This happened independently across a vast terrain that stretches from Baghdad to Beijing, Cairo to Karachi. These ancient societies all blossomed along similar lines of social hierarchy and organization. Temple-priests, scribes, royalty and their administration held the majority of power in these distant regimes, although the same hierarchies can be found in contemporary social life as well.
This all happened roughly 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is a ponderous fact that the rise of these societies correlates to the time when humans’ two beloved companion species began the evolutionary metamorphosis from wild cat and wolf. If there is any causal link between the dominant rise of humans on this planet and the proliferation of the domesticated cat and dog, our gaze must turn to the first interactions our species had with these two carnivores. It was here that I sought out resources that would thoroughly plumb the depths of our collective histories and shed light on these animals’ importance in the advent of human civilization. And ultimately I wanted to find answers to the reasons why there is evidence of psychological differences between cat and dog people. Part of me wanted to prove to the world that our pets are greater than we currently think, too.
As stated above, all breeds of dog are genetically tied to the wolf. As a carnivore that derives most of its calories from hunting, the Neolithic human and wolf were competitors in a landscape that was wilder and more uncertain than our modern sensibilities can comprehend. In a very serious way, wolves endangered humans in their quest for survival by competing for available game. But this is where it gets tricky. Both species hunted and reproduced on the same wind swept and frigid terrains, competing for coveted land and resources. But more importantly, both species traveled and hunted in packs, supporting each other in the hunt, in defense, and in caring for young.
And at a certain point, both species dropped their defenses and started to see each other as a friend rather than a foe. The implication of this relational shift is profound for both species, and in a way I think it begins to explain why humans that are “dog people” are associated with extraversion and agreeableness. It has been theorized that certain wolves were given preferential treatment based on their willingness to approach and socialize with human groups. The more friendly, less fearful wolves got more food from the human hand and the act of passing food to the wolf, with all its gestures and signs, has become the defining mark of our relationship with dogs.
Over many generations the recessive, almost juvenile, puppy like traits began to creep into the wolf’s genetics. In the fossil record it is seen that the recessive, non-dominant wolves became favored by these human groups as the jaws begin to shrink indicating a less aggressive and more submissive animal (Hare). Using that fact, a strong case could be built that friendly, outgoing types prefer dogs because of their willingness to adapt to human needs. There is also a theory that humans benefited from the recessive drift of wolves by freeing up time given to hunting, and thus allowing for more time to socialize, chat and develop symbolic culture (Haraway, 31-32). This is an important claim that will be researched more in later essays, and it’s an amazing insight into the evolution of social relations between humans with the help of dogs. A tentative conclusion could be reached that humans have depended on canine labor and socialization for the pursuit of our own symbolic culture and civilization. Both species evolved in a mutually friendly and beneficial way.
The history of the domestication of cats isn’t as easily reductive or obvious, but it is possibly more integral to the success of humans and the spread of their civilization. As stated above the domestic house cat hasn’t truly been rid of its wildness. The animal appears to lack neotenous characteristics that are typical of other domesticated species (Driscoll et al), meaning that their domestication has not resulted in juvenile or recessive traits. Their initial interactions with humans were not based in a preexisting potential for social cohesion, like wolves and humans and their respective packs and tribes. At a quick glance, there is no compelling reason for human to desire the presence of cats as they do not provide food nor reduce the exertion of labor, and as opposed to the canine, felines hardly care to please humans in social interaction. This could be the reason why cat people are psychologically profiled as introverted and neurotic.
But cats did provide an essential service to early agricultural societies, and that was pest control (Faure). The behemoth granaries of Sumer needed cats to keep the disease carrying rats and other vermin at bay, and the hungry, wide-eyed feline was willing to do the dirty work as more granaries meant more vermin, and that meant more food for the cat. Without the feline presence, disease would have been more wide-spread in ancient society, which would have limited the potential for its grown and conquest (Lehr). Through the millennia cats have accompanied humans to nearly every continent, following them to their farmhouses and barnyards and storehouses of grain. It is possible that our success in easily colonizing the world is due to our friendly furry feline companion. Certainly a theory could be developed that says humans’ acceptance of an incredibly independent, inessential species that provided little material benefit other than pest control also relates to the psychological train of openness and acceptance of others that are different and non-utilitarian to oneself.
There is no simple conclusion to draw here. Both cats and dogs have their own caps of people who prefer one over the other. Even to this day, there are social assumptions that project certain psychological traits onto each species, and these may be rooted in our collective early development with these companions. Some people see the dog as the most loyal and loving friend, or even child, that a person could ask for. It is impossible to definitively conclude what one has the upper hand in the important history of our own evolution, as the deed has been done and we are living with the result of these complicated and enigmatic evolutionary histories. And while there are definite differences in these two animals and our relationships with them, any animal lover could agree that human life would not be the same without these two species.
Driscoll, C.A., et al, “The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication.” Science 317.5837 (2007): 519-23
Faure, Eric, and Andrew C. Kitchener, “An Archaeological and Historical Review of the Relationships between Felids and People.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals 22.3 (2009): 221-38
Gosling, Samuel D., Carson J. Sandy, and Jeff Potter, “Personalities of Self-Identified Dog People and Cat People.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals 23.3 (2010): 213-22
Haraway, Donna Jeanne, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness
Hare, Brian and Michael Tomasello, “Human like Social Skills in Dogs?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9.9 (2005):439-44
Lehr, Lisa J, “Cats, People, and the Black Plague – Those who kept Cats Survived”, Ezine Articles 2006
Martone, Robert, “The Neuroscience of the Gut: Scientific American” Science News. Articles and Information
Pickrell, John, “Oldest Known Pet Cat? 9500 Year Old Burial Found on Cyprus.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society