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The great irony of lolcats - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The great irony of lolcats [Dec. 12th, 2007|03:01 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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[Current Mood |amusedamused]

One of the reasons lolcats are so funny is that we revel in the certitude that the cats are just cute little furries going about their cute business with no idea how much fun we're having with their pictures. But is that really true? Ludicrous as it might sound, read on.
Wild cat and house cat
Wild cat and house cat.

In the book The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock argues that it's very puzzling from an evolutionary standpoint that humans should become attached to their pets. Sure, the relationship is mutually beneficial, but we are perfectly capable of breeding, taming and using animals without showing much affection (as with cows and chickens). On the other hand, attachment has many clear disadvantages that Alcock lists, such as our reluctance to eat the pets when food is scarce and survival depends on it. Or consider this:
In another example of the Egyptian's devotion to their cats, Herodotus relates that when a fire broke out in Egypt, the men would stand in a line to prevent harm to the cats, thinking more of that than extinguishing the fire.
A possible clue into this strange behavior comes from the fact that we react to cats and dogs just as we do to children, including the tendency to indulge in "baby talk", which makes no sense at all. Could it be the case, then, is that it wasn't humans that evolved affection to pets, but rather that the furries evolved to imitate the behavior of human infants, in order to elicit feelings of affection?

It's a most intriguing hypothesis. If tested and proven true, it would mean that at the genetic level the cats know exactly what they are doing. To the extent that the lolcat phenomenon improves human treatment of cats and the cat family, it's a home run for the collective feline gene pool.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: annamaryse
2007-12-12 09:21 am (UTC)
If you investigate living stoneage tribes in Africa and the Amazon, even they keep pets. It's completely intrinsic human behavior. Cats (and dogs) do know what they're doing. They are sentient beings who enjoy our company as much as we do theirs.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-12 09:27 am (UTC)
yeah, the question is how the intrinsic behavior evolved. the science of sociobiology involves the notion that most social behavior is somewhat (often largely) evolutionary. it's a notion that most people find abhorrent, just like they did the notion that we descended from the trees. that's okay, but it's still a valid scientific question. in evolutionary terms, saying that some creature enjoys something does not answer much, you have to explain why such enjoyment leads eventually to increased genetic fitness for the species.
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From: kupamanduka
2007-12-12 03:19 pm (UTC)
Couldn't it be attributed to human partiality ( when it comes to feeding, nursing etc. ) in favour of the more cherubic looking of the lot? You might remember the dog and the cat at the Narmada hostel. During summer/December when the vacation mess was in Krishna, as these started starving, "Narmad junta" started feeding the cat with biscuits, but none paid any attention to the dog. I guess the dog had to start eating grass because it had nothing to eat, and the cat had to start eating grass because the excess of biscuits screwed up its stomach!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-12 04:20 pm (UTC)
cows are way, way chubbier than either cats or dogs.
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From: kupamanduka
2007-12-13 02:24 pm (UTC)
I didn't get the objection. Cows are chubby but not cute. Humans don't prefer to feed cute-looking cows because cows' USP is milk, not looks. They may prefer *plump*, not cherubic, cows as those might yield more milk/meat. These are all domesticated as opposed to wild animals, so breeding occurs as per human choice, which depends on parameters that matter to humans.
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[User Picture]From: annamaryse
2007-12-12 03:50 pm (UTC)
Understood. If I think of it in those terms, our pets dependence on us is no different than that of the little birds that scurry around on the backs of hippopotami in Africa.

But OTOH I see all kinds of human behavior that many believe is intellectual as actually being instinctual - stuff that heads right back to our animal underpinnings.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-14 04:27 am (UTC)
hippopotami! i'm adding that to my list of favorite words :)
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From: eightbit
2007-12-12 04:30 pm (UTC)
It seems beneficial to be attached to a dog because the dog will help you hunt, and a close relationship with the dog will help you hunt more efficiently and diminish the chance that the dog will leave you.

Armchair evobio!

In case you don't read the blog This Week in Evolution, you may enjoy it. They recently looked at the question of why some animals, like bees, will give up any chance at reproducing and instead work to help another animal (i.e. queen bee) reproduce. There are reasonable arguments for several neat explanations.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-12 06:16 pm (UTC)
interesting blog, thanks.

there needs to be a trend towards more scientists covering science papers rather than journalists who have no clue what they're talking about (not their fault, science is hard.)
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[User Picture]From: mmk
2007-12-12 05:41 pm (UTC)

small bodies large eyes

If you've seen Shrek - with Puss in the Boots going for the

... awwwww....

effect. Yeah, it's known...
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