My first instinct was to purr with approval when I saw the headline, Dogs Are People, Too, earlier this month in the New York Times. The claim in the headline is allegedly now backed by science, but I quickly became alarmed over what I believe is an erroneous line of thought.
Related story: Good boy! Dogs know what you’re saying, study suggests
The author is a neuroscientist who trained dogs to sit inside an MRI machine long enough to get a brain scan. He concluded that dog brains respond to emotional cues much the same way human brains do.
“Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. ….In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money.”
In the machine, this brain region, the caudate, functioned similarly in dogs and humans.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
But there’s a danger in this line of reasoning.
Wasn’t it enough that dogs show numerous signs of living highly emotional lives, full of love and affection? Shouldn’t that alone lead you to treat dogs with respect? Why such reliance on this machine and the anatomical features of the brain?
It is obvious to all who know me that I am capable of giving and receiving abundant love. I take enormous pleasure in sharing love and affection with my human friends. But what if cat brains just happened to be put together differently? Or what if we just can’t be trained to sit still in a frightening, noisy machine? Would we not be worthy of respect? To borrow a line from Shakespeare:
I am a cat. Hath not a cat eyes? Hath not a cat organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a human is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?
Okay, if you tickle us we don’t literally laugh, but we turn over on our backs the way dogs do, and they’re people, so you say. You get the point. The original line was uttered by a Shylock, a character in the Merchant of Venice, and he was suggesting that because he was a Jew (a minority group in that place and time), that people treated him as if he were not a real human. This quote has such a powerful impact because humans tend to oppress other humans for various reasons. They draw arbitrary lines to determine who deserves respect and fair treatment. So now a scientist is saying dogs deserve respect because they are people too – because they fall on the correct side of a new and IMHO arbitrary line.
This neuroscientist is making the erroneous assumption that traits and abilities that are most valued in your species must be the ones that make you unique. But being capable of love is not unique to humans. He could just as easily have titled his piece, People are Dogs Too.
On a more serious note, he bases his argument on the assumption that a creature must light up an MRI machine to qualify for respect. This notion may prove wonderful for dogs but poses a terrible danger to other animals if humans assume that it’s okay to harm, or kill or even drive to extinction a creature that doesn’t have the right kind of caudate nucleus or light up the machine just the right way.
Thank you for letting me express my thoughts – Higgs.May I have some love and affection now?
Full article: New York Times, Dogs Are People, Too