Eye of the Dog

by Translation Guy on May 25, 2012

Eye contact puts the soul in what we say.

In the TI biz, the lack of eye contact with telephone interpreters affects our bottom line, since so  many forgo the friendly voices of 1-800-Translate for the eye-to-eye contact of an onsite linguist whenever they can scrape one up. So I considered it my fiduciary responsibility to get to the bottom of this bias.

I have discovered that the human fetish for eye contact  may be the very thing that made us human, or may prove that Homo sapiens have gone to the dogs. Or both.

Our eyes are meant to see, and be seen. Among all primates, human eyes are the most conspicuous, with those big baby blue and brown irises afloat in a sea of shiny white, and bull’s eyed with black pupils, much showier than any other primate and almost all other mammals.

Some scientists say that this distinctive look highlighting our eyes evolved to allow us to follow each others gazes for better communication. This theory is called the cooperative eye hypothesis.

UCLA anthropologist Kevin Haley took at gander at how well young apes and humans followed a gaze and discovered that “human infants and children both infer cooperative intentions in others and display cooperative intentions themselves” in a way those other apes could not begin to fathom.

So back when all was tooth and claw, such distinctive eyes may have been handy when it came to making a date in the back of the cave, but they would have put ancient hunters at a disadvantage out in the field, where prey could easily spot those distinctive human peepers, making it harder for hunters to sneak up on a dinner or worse, end up as dinner themselves.

Anthropologist Pat Shipman has proposed that this unique trait emerged once humans teamed up with dogs to become a kick-ass predatory team about 30 thousand years ago.

This because the only other animals that can follow a gaze are dogs. In a study conducted at Central European University, Shipman notes, “dogs performed as well as human infants at following the gaze of a speaker in tests in which the speaker’s head is held still.”

Shipman thinks that man and man’s best friend may have evolved that trait together in a virtuous circle of communication. “This feature could have enhanced human-dog communication and promoted domestication,” he says.

Our canine companions got a big evolutionary leg up when they learned that trick. Being man’s best friend has a lot of natural selection perks, as the rapid evolution of domestic dogs attests. So if the ability for dogs to follow a human gaze had such an obvious selective benefit for dogs, it might have had the same radical benefit for big-eyed humans too. Cross-species symbiosis is usually a two-way street.

At first glance, minor coloring changes to eyeballs seems like a small thing compared to the difference between a wolf and a Bichon Frise, But the effects of this genetic tweak were far reaching, and may have opened wide a new window for human communication and cooperation. That dogs might have given us the means to share so much in the depths of our eyes is a wonder, and a great gift.


  1. Warren says:

    Has it occurred to you that dogs may have developed this capability a million years ago as an aid in cooperative hunting and then taught it to humans much later when the two species started hanging out together?

    • Terri says:

      Warren, I think that the post is trying to say that its unclear as to who taught this capability, as it was a symbiotic relationship and was basically co-developed.

      • Warren says:

        Terri –

        I GET that the post is saying that we developed this symbiotically. What I am saying is that it MAY not have been symbiotic. It COULD be that dogs developed this long before humans ever interacted with them. Most humans tend to think that the world evolved for no other reason to make a place for humans and that we are the center of the universe AND that we are the absolute peak of evolution. I don’t agree.

        Having said all this, however, if domesticated dogs HAVE this ability and wild dogs (wolves?) do not, I would be willing to concede that it probably evolved symbiotically. The post was unclear on wolves and a quick search of the internet did not answer the question as regards wolves or other canines.

  2. Man’s best friend indeed…

  3. Carolann says:

    So the question is, can this ability be taught to other animals as both dogs and humans seem to have taught themselves?

  4. Jennifer says:

    This is so true, sometimes all I have to do is give my dog a look and he just knows. My wife doesn’t belive me but thank you for proving me right.

  5. Jim Mckerley says:

    Are human looking eyes really that rare in nature?

  6. Is this something unique to domestic dogs, or is it an attribute of all canines? It would be interesting to compare wolves or wild dogs with domesticated dogs and see the level of competency inside the species.

  7. I wonder if this is somehow a genetic trait and if it could be isolated?

  8. Adrienne says:

    Its kind of crazy that even infants have developed this kind of advanced communication ability without any kind of training or understanding. This is actually one of the more interesting factoids I’ve run across in the last little while, thanks for the post.

  9. I’m pretty sure my cat understands me, it just doesn’t ccare to listen or obey.

    • Ken says:

      Eye of the tiger.

  10. Richard says:

    This is a really interesting area of inquiry, but I wonder if maybe there aren’t more animals that could display this trait that we don’t know about. Either way great post.

    • Ken says:

      There’s a link on one of these comments that suggests just that.

  11. John Okosun says:

    I caertainly think there is something to this, especially considering how it relates to communication without eye contact. I spent years when I was younger working telemarketing and telephone sales jobs while in school, and now work in sales where i meet clients face to face. The level of effectivness when eye contact is brought into it skyrockets, but also facial ticks and cues. I don’t envy you having to work in a telephone based business, but your a braver man then I.

  12. Cathy says:

    So monkeys and dolphins can’t do this? My fears are allievated about mankind being vulnerable to a takeover by animals to smart for their own good.

    • Ken says:

      So far I think we are the only animals too smart for our own good.

  13. angielskim says:

    This is for sure one of the best science articles that I have read today. Ours eyes evolve for millions of years and now we can be happy that we see some colors :)

    • Ken says:

      Birds see more colors. I wonder what it’s like.

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