Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 22 issue 4

Praise Dog!

David Koepsell

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 4 (Winter 2006/2007).

Seven years ago, Buttercup came into my life as an eight-week-old puppy. He is a basset hound, and at the time he was all ears and paws. He has since taught me a great deal. In some ways, everything I need to know I have learned from my dog, as the cliché goes. We have grown together and along the way had many adventures. In fact, I think of Buttercup as a wonderful human, and it is worth pondering some of the more general lessons we can learn from dogs and other animals—things that, if considered by more people, would cause them to question the anthropocentric view and dogmatic (no pun intended) rules of many religions and appreciate that ethical, moral and social behaviors arise from much deeper roots. Neither should humanists ignore the lessons from the animal world. Let us consider the conclusions of recent scientific studies on animal communities as they may apply to naturalistic theories of ethics.

Religions teach that mankind is special, that humankind is specially designed by a creator to be separate and apart from the rest of the natural world (but with stewardship over it) and to function as the divine’s representative on earth. Of course, humanists may sometimes be tempted to hold an anthropocentric view as well, given both humanism’s origins and the development of some of its intellectual strands. We feel strongly that reason and science, and perhaps secular humanist philosophy, are the paths to the betterment of human life here on earth, and perhaps this is true relative to the alternatives. However, both reason and science offer us a view of our proper place on this planet and in this universe—we are nothing very special, and in some respects our presence only complicates matters.

But more of that in a bit. Those of you with dogs will recognize many of the moral lessons I will now relay that have come to me from Buttercup, philosopher and humanist.

Love Your Neighbor (Or at Least Politely Tolerate Him or Her)

Contrary to popular belief, humans did not dream up this ethical principle, nor did any god. It, or some permutation of it, is part of nearly every religious and philosophical system of ethics—including the often-stated maxim to “treat others as you would have them treat you.”

The origin of this ethic is evolutionary, and it makes a lot of sense. If you live in a group, and everyone in that group is competing for resources, then it makes sense to cooperate a bit with them all, just in case. Simply put, sometimes the other dog will do better in the hunt than you, and you are going to want a taste of the spoils. So, when your hunt is successful, you should share a bit of your kill. Dogs do this in wild packs, working together during the hunt, sharing with the rest of the pack, and feeding to the extent they can others in the pack who are not even necessarily adept at hunting. Contrary to popular notions of social Darwinism, the natural world is not a “war of all against all,” especially with others of the same species. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, given that genes must propagate and strength is almost never the only measure of evolutionary fitness (Why else would humans be so physically weak yet superior mentally to other animals?)

Dogs are not vicious with one another, except under very special circumstances. Mind you, domesticated dogs are less violent than wild ones, but even wild dog packs thrive and grow. There is some internal competition but no outright murder. Yes, male dogs vie for superiority with one another, but becoming the leader generally does not depend on murder or warfare. The same is true for other social animals, and most animals are social to some degree. Social misfits become outcasts. They are punished and banished or chided harshly, but they are very rarely killed.

Many evolutionary psychologists have studied ape societies and shown that ethical behaviors are genetically encoded, or at least a necessary part of animal cultures. Scientific American recently published a lengthy article on this subject. Cooperation and empathy are simply evolutionary advantages, and we as humans decided at some point to claim those characteristics as special to us.

Another interesting fact is that dogs and humans actually seem to communicate with one another better than humans and chimps. Scientists theorize that dogs evolved in such close contact with humans for the past 30,000 years that those who could better display their intents and needs were selected for and bred more. Perhaps humans have been undergoing a sort of simultaneous synergistic evolution with dogs as well. After all, if you can’t read your dog when taking him woolly mammoth hunting, you or he might get stomped, or worse.

In fact, the odd thing about humans is that we do such a lousy job at cooperating, perhaps simply due to the fact that we have overpopulated. Whatever the root cause, we sometimes cooperate so poorly that we have wars and genocides. Sometimes, those conflicts are caused by unsupported beliefs about gods who have supposedly also “given” us this command to cooperate. Conveniently, the dogmatic (rather than naturalistic) precept to cooperate often extends only to those within one’s tribe. Witness the biblical command to not kill extends only to the other members of your tribe (followers of the God of the Israelites). Dogs generally don’t even kill members of other packs, and murder among monkeys is very rare.

We could learn a lot about how to behave by observing our dogs a bit even at the dog park. Dog-park playtime is a miniaturized society, pared down to brief encounters and full of drama, fun, and love. Dogs mingle, argue, wrestle, and generally play well with one another even when they are all strangers. Which brings us to the next great canine lesson.

Play Often, with Vigor

Play is an integral part of life. Those of us who get wrapped up in the life of the mind can sometimes forget this. But play teaches us how to live, how to get along with others, how to settle disputes, and how not only to win but to lose. People who don’t learn these lessons often do not succeed in life, even if they appear to do so. As far as we can tell, animals enjoy regular play. Play seems to be an important vehicle for socializing members of the pack and affords those at the bottom of the pecking order the opportunity to smack those in charge in a controlled circumstance and to a point. During play, nondominant members can assert themselves, and dominant members may become submissive. The standard hierarchies reemerge during the hunt or during mating, but play affords all members of the pack some time to de-stress. It may also be an important tool to teach the general rules of society and to unleash aggression without any real harm.

A good balance of work and play contributes to the good life, and dogs know balance. If your dog is like mine, at a certain point, the walk has gone on long enough, and it’s time to head home for a good long nap, maybe hours long. Then it’s time to play, and, sometimes, take care of some minor chores. Well, bassets don’t do chores, but working dogs do abound. They seem to thrive on doing their work, whether it be herding sheep, helping their disabled person, or doing any number of other tasks many dogs do. In the wild, dog work consists of contributing to the hunt and ensuring the survival of the pack. When the work is done, it’s time to play or nap. Us overachieving, caffeinated, stressed-out children of the twenty-first century might learn a thing or two from our dogs’ sense of a balanced life.

Dogs aren’t worried about the clock either—they follow their instincts and do what their bodies and senses tell them to do when they need to. They are in tune with their needs and desires and can even suppress them at our urging.

Stop looking at the clock, spend some time playing, and balance out your life. These are good lessons from our dogs, the humanists.

Be Affectionate

It isn’t enough to think and be brilliant, to engage in high-minded debate or pedagogy. Nor is it sufficient to only play and laugh, or even cooperate. Sometimes, we need love. Dogs know this. They will sense when you need love, and they expect you to sense when they need it. After a difficult day at the office, or lounging on the furniture, a good cuddle can fix nearly anything, diffuse anger, alleviate a foul mood. A daily allotment of sincere affection between loved ones, friends, and sometimes even strangers can brighten an otherwise sullen day and can make all the difference in a person’s or dog’s life.

Buttercup, my basset, know this well. When walking down the street, he will stop for that person who clearly needs him, letting his chin be chucked and offering a doggie kiss before moving on. It is the most rudimentary and natural form of touch therapy, and other species do this as well. Horses will scratch each others’ necks and backs; apes and chimps groom each other. There is a basic, natural need for touch. Again, our modern technological, mediated culture gets in the way of fulfilling this need, and we often forget to reach out to one another, as our natures require. Bruce Wexler’s recent work in neuroscience confirms the role of touch in brain development, showing that it stimulates brain development in children and may play an important role in developing and sustaining “mirroring” neurons, which seem to be responsible for human and animals’ ability to empathize.

Be Humble

Dogs have much to teach us, if we let them. No, they aren’t great intellectuals, and nor are they brilliant artists, thinkers, scientists, or engineers. But dogs have been along for the ride for at least 30,000 years, following us, leading us, teaching and guiding us, and trying, it seems desperately at times, to be human. All the while, they took a back seat and let us think we are great, needed, noble, and wise, even as we did the most inhuman things. Despite human cruelty, mocking, pettiness, and other human foibles, dogs will be there, to forgive, to seek affection and give it, without judgment or superiority. We could learn a lot from their humility.

While some believe that displays of condescension and arrogance and flaunting personal successes define the truly accomplished human being, I suggest that the dog has more to teach by its humility and its success in integrating itself with us in this brilliant symbiotic relationship we share. As for those who feel superior to the majority of mankind—perhaps they’re paying too much attention to their cats.*

*Please spare the hate mail from cat-lovers. I too love cats. This is just a joke that Buttercup made me tell.

David Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. 
He is currently a Donaghue Initiative Visiting Scholar in Research Ethics at Yale University.

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