Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Believe In Dog

Count me a major dog-lover. Growing up I always had one; now it's my son's luguvalab that gets my full affection. Anyhow, it's no surprise to me or to anyone who loves dogs that a study reveals the depth of their emotions, and their moral life. From a sidebar to the article:

RESEARCHER Marc Bekoff says there's a long list of observable emotional and ethical behavior of dogs. It will seem familiar to most people who have dogs:

• Dogs have a sense of fair play. They dislike cheaters. They experience joy in play. They delight in friends. Big dogs handicap themselves in games with little dogs.

• Dogs get jealous when a rival gets more or better treats or treatment. They are resentful, unnerved or saddened by unfair behavior. They are made anxious by suspense. They get afraid.

• They are embarrassed when they mess up or do something clumsy. They feel remorse or regret when they do something wrong. They seek justice. They remember the bad things done to them, but sometimes choose to forgive.

• Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend loved ones. They grieve their losses. They have hope.
They also laugh, evidently. Read the article.

I suppose some of this accounts for the unique relationship people have with dogs. Cats are admirable, of course, and provide companionship of a sort, and entertainment. But I'm guessing even those who think cats are way cooler than I do would agree their social skills leave something to be desired; not much on the above list applies. I say this as a person who tolerated the presence of a cat for fourteen recent years, and even got to like the little bastard and to enjoy (somewhat) the daily struggle for ownership of my recliner.

But here's the reason I mention it: among the most common arguments of theists is that you can't have morality or ethics absent belief in god or gods of some sort. How do you know right from wrong, they ask. And I've always answered that it's pretty obvious that there are behaviors that promote safety and community, both of which have clear evolutionary advantages. We are good to one another (except when, often under the influence of religious fervor, we're not) because it makes sense to do so, independent of belief in gods or heavenly reward or hellish punishment. That dogs exhibit "moral" behavior is, in my mind, confirmatory.

I grew up in the time before leash laws. Like everyone else in our neighborhood we let our dogs roam free. It could be that when they were absent from view they might have been gathering together to pray.

But I doubt it.


  1. In the comments to the article, I found this beautiful quatrain by "Fognozzle" of Vashon, Washington. We're bigtime cat people here at Chaos Manor, but I love this sentiment anyway:

    God wrought us, and looking down,
    Despair'd the scourge He'd made.
    So gave us dogs, where love abounds,
    To His own ways persuade.

  2. Cats are antisocial, right? Not in our family. All our feline companions act, well, just like dogs. They sleep and play together and with us, follow us around, show sympathy if we're sick. (We have some marvelous "nurse kitties" who stick with us through all illnesses.) They eat together from a big bowl, taking turns until everyone's full. They're also very enthusiastic about company; don't come here if you don't want a cat in your lap.

    I'm not sure exactly what we're doing to socialize them, but whatever it is, it makes them into affectionate members of a pack or pride led by Mr. Science. They were all rescue kittens from different locations; we have two sisters, a brother and sister, a mother and daughter. Since each pair is not related to any other, I doubt we're dealing with a genetic predisposition towards sociability.

    My experience does make me think, however, that the shared mammalian neural wiring that makes dogs so much like humans can also express itself in cats.

    Essentially we have dogs who walk themselves, don't smell, and keep the vermin population down. I just wish I'd accustomed them to being groomed with the vacuum cleaner when they were kittens; it's shedding season, and everything in the house is covered with cat fur.

  3. Fognozzle's quatrain was part of a sympathy letter to a friend. The letter can be found in its entirety here. Search the page for Fognozzle's name.

    It's both touching and wise.

  4. Thanks for the link, Leigh. It's a nice comment he/she left, and the poem is wise. Other than the fact that it takes it in a different direction from the way I went; and so, for that matter, did the other commenters. I don't see it as suggesting a "soul." Just the opposite: human moral and ethical behavior, like that of dogs evidently, is inborn and evolved as ways to survive. No holy book required.

    Which, of course, doesn't change the fact that dogs are wonderful beasts and I frequently think I ought to have one again. Maybe one already house trained.

  5. I was going to write a defense of cats, and still will, but I realized each of us has had an experience the other hasn't that skews our viewpoint considerably. I have, at various times in my life had A dog, but I've never had dogs. You had A cat, but never had cats.Much of what you describe I could never have seen, since it involves the ways the dogs interact with each other, and, again, vice versa.

    But I'm sorry, I still prefer the ways my cats interact with my wife and myself. Dogsa have always struck me as treating people the way the 'ideal Fundamentalist wife' is supposed to treat her husband, with worshipful respect, whatever he does, given his 'god-given' position as head of the household.

    I couldn't live with a woman, or man, who thought that way, I don't want an animal who acts out that (to me unpleasant) fantasy.

    Our cats have always treated my wife and I as equals, more or less. They don't think of us as 'two-legged cats' any more than they think of us as Gods, but they accept us for who we are. They are very affectionate, they share our beds and our meals, but they have rules, and they expect us to live up to them as well as they expect each other to.

    (I've had two different cats that would tell me when my bedtime was and be very insistent that I shut down -- and not for their own benefit, since they would spend the rest of the night up. I've had one cat who woukd stand on my wife's bed when we got arguing -- we are both 'yellers' -- and tell us to shut up and grow up -- and we deserved it. One cat has a particular ritual. If my wife is playing a word gqame on the computer and his milk plate is empty he gets between her and the screen -- and he won't just accept his milk being pored, I have to get on the bed behind her so he can come over and get petted, and then I have to fill his milk or change it. He won't accept it if I do it first, and -- then only -- he won't accept my wife's petting him. ("You are supposed to call Jim, not pet me!")

    As for the rules at meal-times, they seem to be more complex than an Orthodox interpretaion of kashruth -- not Jewish, but live in an area that is -- and once our then-senior cat started the rule of 'pre-meal swatsies' where she'd get up on her hind legs and take a swing at the nearest other cat, usually the youngest at the time -- which she carried on until she was twenty and feeble, and even then would stuill take the occasional swing -- any cat that really got annoyed could have carried her in his paws by then. The then youngest cat -- now our senior co-resident has followed her tradition, and Tiki started the rule that she only enjoys food she can steal, so she will leave a filled plate to go to an almost empty one, even if it means shoving the senior one away -- and he lets her, even though he weighs three times as much.

    Believe me, they too hacve moral codes and rules without the acknowledgement of any Superior Being.

    But it is a shame that you've never seen that, because you've only had A cat, and that I've never really known dogs because I've only had A dog.

  6. Sorry for the typos, my cats were distracting me, reminding me it was time for their third meal.

  7. His theism didn't appear to involve a holy book or religious rules, Sid. It was as generic as it gets: he appears to use the word God as a literary device. And I'm not sure he even believes in a soul; he does say, "this fleeting time was all you ever had".

    Rather, I took him to mean that we should embrace and emulate the way dogs spend their time on earth, in devotion and selflessness, and in that way make our brief lives meaningful.

    I'm not sure that all the talk about souls had any real religious import. It seems to me that the folks who commented were mostly trying to say that dogs are people, too. It's as if "having a soul" is their shorthand for "dogs are people, in a way, and we have much in common with them".

    I think recognizing and respecting the signs of sentience in other species is a real step forward for us.

    (Freaky. My word verification is "godwaved". Does this software do editorial comment?)

  8. "Just the opposite: human moral and ethical behavior, like that of dogs evidently, is inborn and evolved as ways to survive."

    I'm in complete agreement, of course! I believe there is a God, as you know, but the science strongly supports your comment. Altruism is a very successful evolutionary adaptation.

  9. Leigh said, "I think recognizing and respecting the signs of sentience in other species is a real step forward for us."

    Yes! It seems to me that we've been hearing a lot more about sentience in animals more in the past few years than ever before. And I'm glad.

    Now y'all can talk about cats and dogs all you want -- but they've got nothing on parrots. Parrots assume they are far smarter than humans (and they often are), they speak in our language with meaning and in context (no, not mimicking), and they also show sympathy when you're sick or sad, and joy when you're happy. They too play games and initiate games with their humans, and they are aware of cheating, which they don't like (unless they're doing the cheating and then it's okay). They rarely love unconditionally, but once you've proven yourself worthy of them they will love and defend you to the death.

    I love all kinds of animals, but there ain't nothing like a parrot. ;-)

  10. These are all great comments.

    Prup: actually I've known a few great cats, but have had only one. He did win me over, and I knew I was giving him and his race short shrift here. Nor do I dispute your point about fawning behavior. My serious point, of course, was about social behavior and the evolution thereof. But as to pet-preference -- I guess it's more about who we are than who they are.

    BP: I used to work with a nurse who had parrots and heard many a story of their intelligence and use of language. I was convinced!

  11. I like Dogs too, Dobies or German Shepherds, trained in the original German... Cats are cool too, especially white ones that'll sit in your lap while you stroak their fur Dr. Evil style...
    But can we agree on One Thing...

    People who like SNAKES are just creepy... I don't care what their Politics are... Neighbor of mine's got a Python... walks around the yard with the damn thing on his shoulders...
    Yeah, I know, they keep the rodent population in check...
    I've got a Hoe with his name on it...


  12. In my Mormon religion, we are all born with the light of God in us: the atheists, the theists, the whateverists. We will judge ourselves later in the presence of the absolute love radiating from God, because we will feel ourselves befriended--because we befriended and served others to the best of our ability, no matter our station or beliefs during life--or afraid, because we lived in a way that turned away from others.

    I'm sitting here picturing every patient who ever felt cared about as well as cared for by you, circled around you as you move into that Light. The thought gives me great joy.


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