Reductively reducing animals and inflating ourselves

There’s a new slew of dog psychology books out there now. Here are some reviews, from Adam Gropnik in the New Yorker and from the Economist. It’s all a big race to explain to us that dogs don’t have human emotions, again, and they are responding to us, and they don’t have complex intelligence as those sentimental dog owners ascribe to them, etc. Which might have been gleaned from the fact that dogs have yet to invent, let alone operate, the personal computer.

What rubs me the wrong way about people like Gropnik who write about dogs is less their desire to intellectually put down sentimentalism about animals. I could care less what anybody thinks about my likes and dislikes or what I get attached to. It also doesn’t annoy me that people want to debunk the idea that dogs (or other animals) have complex emotions.

It’s that they assume that humans do have complex emotions by contrast, and I’m not convinced that ours are really that all-fired evolved. We have a lot of language about emotions, and a lot of stories But having a lot of words to describe something doesn’t mean the differences between the objects described are all that real.

So, supposedly, dogs don’t feel jealousy. They just feel their needs, what they want. So I have a dog that routinely hip-checks the other one out of the way when there is affection being handed out. That’s not jealousy according to this thinking, that’s, supposedly, want–a want for affection. The other dog is just incidental. But what is jealousy at all if not want? I’m jealous that a colleague of mine receives constant praise and attention from the senior faculty. But it’s less about the other person and more about just plain wanting a word of praise now and then, which I suppose reflects poorly on me but strikes me as–in a 100 percent honest world–perfectly natural to want to be told you’re doing a good job once in awhile.

What is grief but want, really–the searing pain of a loss of somebody or something wanted?

I keep dogs because they are cute and fuzzy and make me laugh. It’s a need for diversion. They give me something to think about other than myself, and they are less complicated than the super-geniuses I’m surrounded by on a daily basis.