Monday, May 18, 2009
Tell it to those eyes.
NOT ALL DOGS ARE WHAT YOU'D CALL SMART. There's a fascinating little firestorm underway over at the Chicago Tribune, where columnist Eric Zorn had the temerity to suggest that dogs don't† "really" love their owners. Then Jonah Goldberg penned a rebuttal, which Zorn re-rebutted, and finally a torrent of commenters weighed in to offer their own opinions. The whole circus is worth reviewing, and while it may help set some latches for my own comments, it's not an absolute prerequisite for understanding this post.
I've had a lot of dogs, known many more, and I've also read some of the more durable analyses of their behavior, like Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog and Elizabeth Marshall's Hidden Life of Dogs. I routinely watch documentaries on the subject of dog evolution/husbandry and dog intelligence, and I watch the Dog Whisperer, usually sympathetically but sometimes skeptically. I know that sharing my reading in particular will be sufficient grounds for some of you to dismiss my thoughts out of hand, but since that's also part of my point, I'm sharing it anyway.
What was most interesting to me about the commenters was how readily they all leaped into a discusssion about dogs in general, whether their evidence was genetic, biochemical, behavioral, or broadly anecdotal. I think scientists tend to make this assumption as well, to their considerable detriment as experts. It's become an obstacle to their understanding of human beings, too, this notion that to understand the generic machine is synonymous with understanding (and frequently dismissing or derogating) the emergent properties of that machine, which are in reality so various, subtle, and abstract as to be quite beyond the reach of science.
I'm not suggesting scientists shouldn't do their best to use their tools in all the ways they can think of. What I am proposing is that they consider the possibility that there might be such a thing as a "Biological Uncertainty Principle," that the more closely you analyze an organism as a machine, the less clearly you can perceive the synthesis of the multifarious phenomena produced by that organism. Taking things apart is the opposite of putting them together and seeing the whole. It's an occupational hazard of scientists. They identify specific individual mechanisms, observe how they work, and even measure them to some degree. Then they publish or pronounce an answer, usually reductive in nature, which they believe to be the truth of the matter. It rarely is.
An electronics engineer can take apart every single piece of the technology involved in producing, transmitting, and receiving television signals, which can be valuable information, but that does not mean he can claim to be an omniscient expert on "television," which incorporates so much else that his technical skill set probably represents a positive hindrance to his perception of it. He looks at the screen and sees photons streaming at light speed, while someone else looks at the same screen and sees drama, humor, education, frequently powerful images, music, and words, and sometimes authentic human experience. Some, of course, may see both, but they typically handle the contradictions by seeing them as two separate subjects, which in the larger sense they simply cannot be. It is rather that one perspective is definable and measurable, and the other is so much less so as to seem almost insubstantial, though it clearly is not..
The dog debate is a beautiful place to see this principle in action. What I know for a fact is that there is no final answer on what dogs are and how they experience life. Just as is there no final answer on the human brain, human psychology, and human consciousness. There are only the newest tentative hypotheses, which should, always, be subtitled with a huge disclaimer in red: "WE DON'T KNOW. It's a mystery we keep working on. Pardon our pose of certainty. That's how we do things in this business."
The only relevant question about dog capacity for "love" pertains to their level of consciousness. How conscious are they? We don't know. Behavioralists are inclined to make a big deal out of things like the "mirror test," which shows only that dogs don't recognize themselves in the mirror while three-year-old children do. Meaning dogs don't possess the sense of "self" we associate with consciousness. But the mirror test proves nothing, except possibly that dogs don't isolate their sensory experiences in the same way we do. Or, more accurately, that the dogs they studied in their clinical laboratory experiments don't respond to them the way three-year-old children do. Have the scientists invented a "smell mirror" yet? Don't think so. But whereas sight is the number one sense in humans while smell is the number one sense in dogs, don't you think that's a distinction with a difference?
In point of fact, there's a whole range of problems with the scientific testing that's been done on animals, especially dogs. I'll mention just two. First, they probably don't give a rat's ass about what we're studying them for, and when we move them into a laboratory we take them away from the personal and environmental context in which they have amply, repeatedly, astonishingly proven themselves better at understanding our language than we have ever been at understanding theirs. Second, dogs are no more "all alike" than human beings are. There are genius dogs and idiot dogs, good dogs and bad dogs, talented dogs and go-to-hell jock dogs, etc. And the ones who are likely to be available as lab rats probably do not have the same experience of intense, loving human interaction that millennia of human experience should have demonstrated goes hand in hand (or is that hand in paw?) with the most extraordinary capabilities they have displayed in a variety of endeavors.
Oh, but science insists on excluding anecdotal evidence in the presumptuous attempt to (dis)prove what cannot be proven in scientific terms -- that dogs are conscious beings with sophisticated emotions and responses. It's been said by, yes, some maverick scientists, that there's more proof of reincarnation than of black holes, but the reincarnation evidence is all anecdotal, which is, essentially, all it can be. The same is true of canine consciousness.
My personal theory based on a lifetime of close interactions with dogs? Not all dogs are conscious, but some are. I have exactly the same theory about human beings. Not all human beings are capable of love, either. But some are. And, significantly, the only proofs we have of human love are purely -- TA DA -- anecdotal. It just happens to be a kind of anecdotal experience we can accept because we ourselves may be part of the body of anecdotal evidence.
Now I'm going to justify the use of anecdotal evidence by individual people on the subject of dogs. All you scientists can leave the room. (You're making the dogs nervous anyway.) I have some questions you can ask about your own experience. Have you ever had a dog who engaged in deception? Have you ever had a dog who had a sense of humor -- a joke he played on you, a silly game he invented and initiates at his own choosing, an instance when he was laughing at you? Have you ever had a dog who, for reasons of his own, not yours, was evidently embarrassed? I suggest that these are all indications of self-awareness, of a self with an interior mental life of some sort. I am asking you to be rigorous about it. Try to explain every instance away.
But if you can't explain it away, one instance is all you need. If one dog is self-aware, any might be. And if dogs have an interior life, they can also be aware of the otherness of others, and so capable of deep emotional relations with those others.
The "one instance" rule is critical. As it is with humans. If Einstein could imagine the space-time fabric of the entire universe, that is a human capability. The same applies to dog intelligence. If the best border collie in the world can take out a herd of sheep, put them in their grazing ground, and bring them all safely back home at night, making hundreds of individual decisions along the way without human intervention, then "the dog" has that capability. If a single mutt can find his way back home from a hundred miles away and persist in that effort until he returns to his family, then "the dog" has that capability. There is, for example a dog featured on the "Dog Geniuses" show who took to arranging a staggering number of stuffed toys into patterns, incuding lines and circles, in his back yard, which is by any measure a conceptual feat of some magnitude. That, too, is "a dog" capability. So, by the way, is genuine canine-to-human love.
The scientists don't like the "one instance" rule, but they have no conceivable grounds for rejecting it except ignoring the evidence. Otherwise, their reflexive bias toward generalizations about average test subjects would also persuade them that no human being can run a mile in less than four minutes, sculpt the tactile perfection of the Pieta, perform 'impossible' calendar computations as fast as a computer, or dream up the theory of relativity.
Scientists love the deterministic nonsense of their assertion that enough monkeys randomly typing on typewriters would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.† But they hate the implications for their methods of a corollary question: Just how many college drop-out patent clerks would you have to study in a laboratory to discover that human beings were capable of the works of Einstein?
You think about your dogs while they think about that.
UPDATE. Rand Simberg of Trans-Terrestrial Musings has checked in with a comment and a link to his own take on the matter, "A Canine Turing Test," which is, as these things always are, slightly different from mine. If you're interested in the subject, read him, too. I especially liked his daring in bringing cats into the discussion:
I would say that the old saying about ducks contains multitudes of wisdom, and if it walks and quacks like a loving dog, Occam would suggest that we assume that Fido (or in his case, Cosmo) loves us, in his own dog-like way. And while Iím sure that Jonah would be appalled at the notion, Iím sure it applies to cats as well (again, in their own way). Jessica sleeps on us, she nuzzles us, she gently taps my cheek when she wants to be fed, she never deliberately scratches me, even when Iím doing something she doesnít like (like giving her a bath).
I was instantly reminded of this critter, my Bengal, who is in many respects a wild animal subject to the evening crazies, climbing straight up doorjambs, UFC-style takedowns of our urbane 20-lb feral Mickey, and so incredibly strong at just 7 lbs that it was all I could do to get her into the cat carrier for her last checkup at the vet. She fought like hell for five minutes continuously, determined not to go gently into that black vinyl night, no matter what. Except that she never scratched me once. Not even by accident.
Good point, Mr. Simberg. And another that I didn't have a place for in my essay: dogs come to us from wolves, the second most successful land predator on Planet Earth. To this day there are wolf packs which have successfully defended and retained ownership of den territories for thousands of years, longer than any single feudal human kingdom in history. On what basis do we trivialize either their intelligence or their capacity to understand the experience of living in complex societies?
UPDATE 2. Thanks to Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online for the link. I suspect he's summoned a whole horde of Furies at his back he little dreamed were there.