Eye of the Dog
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.