Thy Servant, a Dog

When I was growing up, Kipling was a constant presence. The Jungle Books, ‘Kim’, ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ and ‘Stalky and Co.’ were regularly taken down behind the living room sofa, where, safely enwombed, I would spend hours turning the pages. Among my favourites were the dog stories, which I would alternate with pieces by James Thurber. I suspect that if I were to read them again today, I would find many of them maudlin, but at the time they gripped me and kept my head down.

Kipling, like all writers for children, anthropomorphized his beasts. Until recently, this was considered a sin on a par with the anthropologist’s guilty penchant for ethnocentrism. However, if we take Darwin at all seriously, then we should recognize a high degree of kinship with other mammals, at least, and that may well be a kinship that extends to the cognitive. To a greater or lesser degree, animals like apes, elephants, and dogs, think and reason in ways that we can empathize with.

Steven Mithen sees anthropomorphism as being typically human, one aspect of a cognitive revolution that occurred some 100,000 years ago. It gave our species an edge that enabled it to thrive while other hominids, and in particular the Neanthertal, died out. By projecting the capacity to reason onto our animal prey, we were able to mount more efficient hunting expeditions.

But Kipling’s anthropomorphism is, in a sense, secondary or double. For he does not simply project our own ‘belief-desire psychology’ (to use Mithen’s terms) onto other animals, but has his animals project it back onto us. His dogs attempt to understand their owners, and although their misreadings are often comic – as are my own often erroneous attempts to understand my peers – they nevertheless often work out.

But does this mark the point at which Kipling’s tales become nothing more than ‘Just-So Stories’? Well there are grounds for believing that dogs do, indeed, have pretty good theories of the human mind. While some animal psychologists such as Clive Wynne, remain skeptical, as A. Horowitz points out, their negative findings tell us more about the way that psychological research is carried out than they do about the way dogs think.  Others, such as Jozsef Topal , have noted that dogs show their intelligence in the context of close relationships with humans. Kipling’s dogs, with their constant attention to their beloved masters and mistresses, are the fruit of accurate observation.

As Raymond Coppinger suggests, it seems likely that dogs and humans chose each other, with the dog playing as active a part in domestication as the humans did. And probably some kind of canine theory of the human mind will have played a part. As one researcher, noting that jackals will hunt with leopards, starting the prey, and heading them towards where the cats are waiting, surmised, some particularly deviously minded wolves may have found in humans a useful ally.

And so it was that many thousands of years ago – some have estimated it at over a 100,000 years in the past – the dog may have been the first to put its mark upon the multi-species social contract. Perhaps even before we did ourselves.

Enhanced by Zemanta
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Thy Servant, a Dog

  1. Pingback: Negative ethnocentrism | Greatidaho