Dogs? You say. Why, yes. In talking with some friends and trying to explain my view of where we are in understanding mind, I bemoaned the travesty of behaviorism, appreciated the revolution (or return to sanity) of cognitive psychology, presented as seminal the developments in evolutionary psychology and expressed my hope that we are now entering the affective revolution where researchers are appreciating and furthering the pioneering work of Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, Francisco Verala, Evan Thompson and others (see last previous post). Affect, or, better, feeling, is the grounding and motivation of cognitive operations, and that is to say the least. Now Susanne Langer was one of the first to espouse that humans were both biological, sharing our evolution with other animals and distinct, even special, saying that our symbolic capabilities constituted a great shift from being like other animals to being especially human. Our symbolic capabilities, she says, transformed our minds into something quite different from those of any other animals. How we feel is important here, Langer asserts, because our symbolic abilities are based upon our special feelings and have permeated our mind so that even our perceptions are influenced by symbolization. Further, we are driven to make meanings, to find and/or create significance incidentally and unconsciously, i.e., we cannot really stop doing so because symbolization begins so early on in our mind’s processes.
So yes, humans have evolved from and along with other animals and yes, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities which have transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world. And while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way. It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening as I discussed in my last post.
And now I see in a NYT science story that the affective revolution, so to speak, has also encompassed our study of dogs. Brian Hare has done good work on dog cognition (see post 10/7/14), but another group of researchers is looking at how dogs feel, especially their talent for bonding with another species and not just us humans but many others, e.g., sheep, goats, penguins(!), etc.: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/science/dogs-love-evolution.html.
This article covers a fair amount of ground so I will highlight some of its information:
- Compared to their ancestral wolves, dogs have succeeded evolutionarily bigtime, with 3000 dogs for every wolf in the world today.
- Spending 90 minutes a day in contact with another species prior to 14 weeks of age leads to strong bonding.
- Without human contact dogs grow up very wary of us. Recently friends returned from SE Asia where many dogs are wilder and not pets (and sometimes food).
- Their interspecies bonds are maintained throughout their life span.
- MRI studies show that dogs light up (meaning their neural pleasure centers do) upon hearing their owners’ voices, and they like praise as much as hot dogs and some even show a preference to owners over food. (These studies also show how dogs can be trained to lie still in the MRI donut while being tested, no small feat itself).
- Genetic studies of people with Williams-Beuren syndrome reveal certain genes that contribute to hypersociality, i.e., indiscriminate friendliness with strangers, etc., and studies of dogs show they share these genes.
So dogs experience intense pleasure with their owners (and their other bondees, e.g. sheep?). The researchers point out that another remarkable aspect of this is the ease of triggering such a response. Dogs really are talented at liking their humans and bonding with other species.
Now I am not sure what ‘liking’ means in this context. Pleasure at contact? Protective responses to perceived danger? Missing when absent (remember Greyfriar’s Bobby)? Feelings of identification? We (most of us anyways) like dogs back, and cats and fish and birds and trees and landscapes and the list goes on, in part because our symbolic capacity also serves to extend our ‘liking’ to almost anything. Indeed, I have started a book, Faces in Clouds: A New Theory of Religon, in which Stewart Guthrie examines in detail how our human propensity or talent for anthropomorphizing leads us to see human agency in almost anything, even never seen creatures we create in our own minds, thereby attributing a spiritual element to worldly things, and then we ‘see’ those creatures all around, e.g., angels. Feel a kinship with a crystal? Welcome to the anthropomorphic club. We humans seem driven to symbolize in this earthy way, and perhaps dogs are doing their own version of caninomorphism when they like us? More later on this, I am sure, but for now I will travel on.