YouTube as Newton’s Apple


“I’m not going to show you the cat part,” he said, a bit disdainfully.

Clive Wynne is a dog person, clearly. The psychology professor spoke at the ScienceWriters2013 conference in Gainseville, Fla., yesterday, where he gave an entertaining talk on dog evolution. Long evolutionary story short, he thinks most of the theories out there (that early humans snagged wolf pups to train as hunters’ assistants, that dogs have uncommon skill in reading humans) are bunk.

“That’s the standard line,” he said. “I’m here to tell you, none of it is right.”

If that sounds a bit puckish, it should. Wynne stalked the stage and used his British accent to full effect. He was there to provoke and entertain. I got the feeling he was auditioning for a TED Talk. And why not?

His contrary theory posits a transformative mutation that produced a scavenging wolf that was highly sociable with humans — but maybe a bit too weird for other wolves to want to hang around with. Most interestingly, this flight of speculation was inspired by…a YouTube clip. This one, to be precise.

If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a (pretty spot-on) illustration of the social differences between cats and dogs. Less stiffly stated, a couple of dudes act like asshole cats or disturbingly friendly dogs. Seeing a human do it, it’s pretty hilarious. Watch the “cat” stalk over its owner’s lap. Witness the “dog’s” pure joy at the mere sight of its human’s face.

I’ve seen this video before. And when I watched it, I thought: “Haha. Cats. Haha. Dogs.” Wynne saw it, and linked up dog evolution to a rare human genetic condition known as Williams Syndrome. This is why he gets to give talks, and I don’t. The syndrome, among other things, imparts what Wynne called a “cocktail personality.” That is, children with the condition LOVE meeting new people and hearing all about them; they show great empathy for others.

Wynne then showed a clip of some kids with the syndrome, culled from a TV report on the condition, and…well, it did resemble the stupid dude-as-a-friendly-dog YouTube clip quite a bit.

I appreciate that at this informal science talk, Wynne felt comfortable sharing this odd spark for his insight/speculation. He could, of course, have just been playing up the YouTube part to maximize the entertainment value for us writers, so easily roped into a good story. But I prefer to believe it was an honest comment about the wide range of places scientific insight can originate.

Maybe the dude-as-a-dog actor can wrangle co-author credit on the paper.


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