Why do dogs have floppy ears?

Last week, I installed the latest version of OS X on my Mac: Lion.

Bear with me, this will make sense. Eventually.

This update has upset some power users, because it introduces features intended to make your computer easier to use, some aimed at novice users, some aimed at all users. These include a system that automatically saves documents, in a way that is transparent to the user and no longer requires them to remember to save every five minutes, and eliminates the danger of accidentally pressing “don’t save” and losing all of your work. Basically, it works just like your iPod Touch – leave an app at any time you like, and don’t worry about losing your data or the state of the app: it’ll still be there when you come back.

Though this doesn’t hurt power users at all (in fact, this will make their lives much better, too), and makes computers much less intimidating for normal people, tech-savvy people sometimes still get upset about this – computers aren’t supposed to be easy, and people who don’t understand how their computers work are just idiots! Yes, sadly, this kind of contempt for non-enthusiasts and for ease-of-use runs strong in some segments of the technologically inclined; I remember, as a kid in the 90’s having arguments with my Windows-using friends, with a major point against the Macintosh being that it was “too easy to use.”

Incidentally, that was the same argument that some nut job at one of my high school jobs used against the metric system.

But anyway, the point here is not to rag on technology enthusiasts, but to observe that this is actually a common thread running through communities of experts and enthusiasts – contempt, or at least disregard for, the needs or abilities of the non-expert. For example, car enthusiasts who don’t understand why anyone would want to drive an automatic instead of a manual car (or, for that matter, why someone wouldn’t even know how to drive a manual car), or how someone could not know how to change their own oil or rotate their own tires. That last one led to an interesting conversation when I was trying to sell my manual car a few months back – when I mentioned to the guy I was showing it to that I was planning to replace it with an automatic, he said that I was “turning in my man card.” Gender essentialism and sexism aside, he was clearly making different calculations about what he wanted from a car.

I experience this feeling too, as an evolutionary biologist, when evolution is discussed in popular culture. From my position as – compared to any lay person – an expert on evolution, the misconceptions and just plain wrong-headed ways that people think about evolution are enough to make me crazy at times. It takes some effort to step back and at least be grateful that people are accepting of the theory of evolution at all, but when their misconceptions are used to justify sexist, racist, homophobic and just plain stupid ideas, it starts to grate again.

There are a number of common misconceptions that I could put under the microscope here, but let’s focus on a common one: teleology.

In evolutionary biology, teleological thinking is, essentially, the belief that every feature of an organism must have a purpose, and therefore must have been selected for by evolution. For example, why do dogs have floppy ears? A teleological explanation accepts as its premise that floppy ears must have an evolutionary advantage over non-floppy ears, and attempt from there to explain what this advantage is. This is a relatively intuitive and understandable lay view of evolution; every first-year biology student is a teleologist. So too, unfortunately, are many experienced cell and molecular biologists. It’s understandable because it took about one hundred years after the publication of Origin of Species for even evolutionary biologists to mostly abandon teleological thinking. But it still sets my teeth on edge.

As it turns out, we do have a pretty good idea about why dogs have floppy ears: because it comes with the behavioral traits associated with domestication. You may have heard of the long-running domestication experiment on the Siberian silver fox, in which researchers selected for non-aggression and other domestic traits over many generations, from a population of silver foxes originally taken from the wild. Eventually, as you would expect, these foxes became much like domestic dogs in their behavior and dispositions. Surprisingly, though, they also took on much of the appearance and traits of domestic dogs – floppy ears, multi-colored coats, wagging tails and so on. For some reason, these traits are inextricably linked with domesticated behaviors.

Of course, people don’t need to interact with evolutionary biology in the same way that they must interact with cars or computers to get things done, and there’s no way to make any advanced science less complicated for a lay person. But the point is that we can’t know everything about everything, or indeed, everything about anything. We all need to rely on experts for subjects about which we don’t have perfect knowledge, be it computer science, climate science or how to replace a fuel pump. That’s as it should be, and often times we experts need to just get out of the way, or better yet, find some ways to make the parts of people’s lives where they interact with the objects of our expertise easy and even enlightening, rather than frustrating.