The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” Of course, Wittgenstein could talk and write but I could never really understand what he was saying either (and he even wrote in his journals that his entire life’s work was dedicated to explaining what a sentence does). Anyway, noted science writer Stephen Budiansky says that “if a lion could talk we probably could understand him. He just would not be a lion anymore; or rather, his mind would no longer be a lion’s mind.” Now, I part company with both of these guys. If a lion could talk, he’d probably say, “Hot damn, zebra tastes good!”
Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about animals lately because I just got one. Last week the fair Jessica and I finally adopted a dog from the Washington, D.C., animal shelter (buying fissile uranium takes less time). He’s a fine boy — broadly speaking, considering they surgically Hillaried him. His name is Cosmo. When we got him he was too shy and scared from abuse to even walk; we had to carry him into the house. As longtime readers know, I am particularly fond of Basset Hounds, largely because they are the noblest of breeds. Alas, Cosmo is not a Basset, which I cannot hold against him. The people at the pound say he’s an Australian Cattle Dog-Labrador mix. I say he is destined to be the greatest frisbee dog in world history, and I don’t care that his lineage is as shrouded in mystery as Bill Clinton’s.
Anyway, Stephen Budiansky, the author of If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, disagrees with the idea that dogs are loyal, brave, and true. The leader of a school of thought that says dogs are simply very successful moochers, Budiansky wrote in The Atlantic that “biologists, if they weren’t victims of the same blindness that afflicts us all, wouldn’t hesitate to classify dogs as social parasites.” He argues that humans tend to anthropomorphize dogs and their actions. They don’t really love us at all. Instead, evolution has trained dogs into being con men — they act loyal and affectionate because that’s what gets unfurry talking apes like me to open that damn can of Alpo. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, he says, dogs have evolved into creatures that simply know how to push our buttons. Budiansky attempts to debunk all sorts of things we think are noble about dogs by saying they are simply genetically programmed responses.
Now, I’ve always been fascinated by dog genetics (I know that sounds like the kind of thing a guy says to a really hot dog-geneticist he meets at a singles bar, but it’s true). Currently there’s this thing called the Dog Genome Project, which is doing precisely what you’d think something called the Dog Genome Project does. One of its big products is to identify breed-specific genetic behaviors. For example, border collies will instinctively herd anything that moves, Newfoundlands will pull people out of the water, pointers point, and Basset Hounds will ignore frisbees — all without ever being taught how to do it. It’s in their genes.
I had a slight taste of such reactions when I first started writing about dogs. In an article I wrote for Slate, I argued it’s not “racist” — as some dog advocates were alleging — to call some dog breeds bad for kids. Among the hundreds of reader e-mails, I received dozens calling me a racist or a eugenicist. My favorites were from people saying, “Quite frankly, I am shocked and outraged that a Jew would write such things.” I kid you not.
Anyway, these days the Right has as much trouble accepting genetics as the Left, though usually for different reasons. We can get into that argument another time. But what I find annoying about Budiansky’s argument is the same thing I find annoying about a lot of people who tout the importance of genes and with people who deny genes mean anything at all. Both sides get blinded by the false choice of free will versus determinism.
Budiansky says that dogs don’t really miss their owners when they leave the house and they aren’t really happy to see us or protect us when we come home, it’s just a genetic response. Cosmo isn’t whining because he misses me, he’s whining because his genes tell him that’s the best way to get a desired response from the fat guy heading out the door. We’re simply imagining that he has a human emotion.
Well, I don’t buy it. We humans are prodded by genetic motivations for all of our emotions. My genes may tell me to, say, love my parents or hate blue cheese, but I don’t “feel” my genes saying that and I can’t blame my genes for the actions I take based on my emotions. The average guy may scope out chicks at a bar and say things like, “I’ve always been fascinated by dog genetics” or “You know what they say about guys with big feet?” because his genes tell him to, but he’s not conscious of his genes telling him anything. Sure, dogs may be social parasites, but I sincerely doubt Cosmo is “faking” his affection for me any more than I’m faking mine for him. Our genes may be selfish, instructing us to do things that will pass them on to the next generationo — but we don’t “hear” them telling us.
We may have emotions because they give us an evolutionary advantage — you’re more likely to mate if you feel love or lust than if you don’t feel anything at all — but the only reason emotions work is that they feel real to us. If we knew we were being duped into buying engagement rings or home liposuction kits by our genes it would be that much easier to ignore them. The same thing is going on with dogs, as anyone who’s had a dog will tell you. They may love us because their genes tell them to — because teaming up with humans is a great evolutionary strategy — but that doesn’t mean they feel the love any less. If Cosmo could talk, he probably wouldn’t say, “I love you man” — but buds never talk to each other that way. In fact, just looking in his eyes right now, I can tell you what he would say: “Hey fat guy! Stop poking at that keyboard thing. Can’t you see I’ve got a tennis ball in my mouth! Good grief, where are your priorities, man?”