Before I be your dog

February 19, 2010

My dog is a formidably clueless creature.  No matter where I am, or want to go, he blocks  the way ahead – all 80 pounds of him.  When I want to sleep late, he’d rather bark – a thunderous noise – at the passing scene.  When guests arrive, he simply can’t contain his excitement, and makes blood-curdling noises.  He loves to eat  paper products.  He just has no idea.

If I were to rate him as a moral agent, I’d have to say he’s pretty shallow.  He can beg, but he’ll never pray.  He can feel a kind of shame – mostly, when caught eating paper products – but never remorse.  I don’t expect introspection from him, or a new year’s resolution to reform his character.  (There’s not much there to reform.)

The best that can be said is that, due to the magic of unnatural selection, he knows we like it that he likes us.  Thus he bumps his enormous head against one’s knee to be petted – most people seem to find this charming.  And I admit that, when I arrive home after a long business trip, my wife seems exhausted, my kids are indifferent, and only the clueless dog looks really, really happy.

Despite their genetic need to love us, dogs haven’t gotten a good press in the great moral systems of the world.  Owls, which eat rodents, are supposed to be wise.  Lions, which eat people, we consider regal.  But dogs attract the attention of moralists chiefly by their disgusting behavior.

In medieval art, dogs stood for lechery.  The book of proverbs in the bible vividly informs us, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”  (Biblical dogs were clearly different from mine, who’d rather let his beloved humans clean up the mess.)  According to wikipedia, most Muslim jurists hold dogs to be ritually unclean – I take that to mean they respect their carpets more than we do ours.

My favorite dog insult, because it inverts their one solitary virtue, comes from the blues.  The last thing a blues singer wants to be is a dog to his lady.  He’ll never look happy when she comes home after a long trip.

So it’s surprising to read this account in Scientific American Mind (via A&L) about the “keen sense of right and wrong” found in the “ethical dog.”  According to the authors, the social behavior of canids – the family that includes domesticated dogs but also wolves and coyotes – resembles that of our human ancestors, particularly when it comes to morality and fair play.

Canids, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society, which is necessary to ensure the survival of each individual. Basic rules of fairness guide social play, and similar rules are the foundation for fairness among adults. This moral intelligence, so evident in both wild canines and in domesticated dogs, probably closely resembles that of our early human ancestors. And it may have been just this sense of right and wrong that allowed human societies to flourish and spread across the world.

For the sake of what’s left of human dignity, I really hope not.  But I am now seized by this vision of a remote ancestor, lost in the mists of time, always standing in people’s way and desperate to find a paper napkin to chew on.