Dogs and Love, Part 1


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April 9, 2007

I am continually amazed at the dog's ability to love so unconditionally and without ambivalence. ~ Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson [1]


Q: To turn a friendly puppy into a vicious guard dog, what must you do to it?

A: Restrict its movement and beat it often.

~ Jordan Riak

In Feeling, Emotion, Intellect, I used dogs in general, and my own small dog Zoomer in particular, to help describe emotional consciousness. I want to expand on that, and to examine some of what dogs can teach us about love and freedom, and about the human condition generally.

Dogs love with a completeness and vividness that pleases, warms, and often startles their human companions. As intellects, dogs are almost too faint to see, but as feeling and emotional beings, they show more power and intensity than do most humans, and love is a big part of that.

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Yet – and here I must apologize for being direct – despite the often-celebrated ability of dogs to love deeply and unconditionally, dogs are equally complete and vivid in their role as cold-hearted killing machines.

I find this combination almost overwhelming sometimes, especially as it mirrors the greater character of the world as a whole. "Predator and prey" describes something so fundamental to life, and yet so horrifying, that humans simply hide from it for the most part. One of civilization's many virtues is that it facilitates this hiding; "nature, red in tooth and claw" seems very far away in our high-tech world.

My idea of "original sin" – to the extent such a concept could have any meaning for me – would be the evolutionary discovery that killing and eating another organism is an efficient way to obtain nutrients. From that point on, millions of species have evolved with murder of other animals as their primary or only means of obtaining food. Think, for a moment, what that actually means: hundreds of millions of years (so far) of horrifying, bloody murder as the essential basis for much of the life on this Earth.

Add parasites and disease, and you have a perfect trifecta of horror: life as a vision of hell. (Not to mention starvation, thirst, freezing cold, aging, and other hardships, but those do not involve one life murdering or tormenting another.) The one proof I find truly persuasive against an omnipotent, loving god (or against intelligent design, by anything but a race of alien sociopaths) is this widespread, basic use of murder to obtain food. One can easily imagine designing an ecology where murder of anything sentient is genetically forbidden, and where all life forms are either vegetarians, scavengers, or capable of photosynthesis or some other process that enables life without requiring murder. One could also imagine an ecology where parasites and disease are missing or at least more often benign. Yet carnivores, parasites, and disease organisms are extremely well-represented among Earthly species. A loving, all-powerful being would simply not create such a nightmare. Evolution by natural selection absolutely would create this situation, however. Evolution cares nothing about pain or violence or anything else, because (as many have pointed out) evolution does not "care" at all. A species either lives and reproduces successfully, or it does not. Species that do survive change occasionally by mutation and the resulting slightly-new forms must survive the same test: live and reproduce, or die out.

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Imagine such a world – and shudder. Predators, parasites, disease: one life feeding on the suffering body of another; torture and murder as the basis for life, or at least for much of life. Every animal as prey, and many as predators of one type or another.

Eventually, after millions of centuries, something else came into being; something that evolved from, perhaps, protective parental instincts which had long given eggs and newborns of various species better odds for survival. Gradually, with infinite slowness, such instincts – embedded within brains and bodies that were adding function and complexity over time – became the first, faint glimmers of a New Thing in the world. [2]

This New Thing was love, and it was dramatically and completely opposed to the ancient and fundamentally murderous nature so common in life.

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Nietzsche wrote that "without music, life would be a mistake." That may be true (for humans, at least; dogs and most other animals don't seem to care), but it is love that truly fits Nietzsche's maxim. Love is, among other things, compensation and counterbalance for everything ugly and painful in the world. Without love, life really would be a mistake.

Furthermore, love serves as an increasingly-needed guideline for the blossoming power of intelligence. As I have pointed out before, a healthy, loving world may be the only world compatible with a human future.

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We don't normally think of it this way, but personality is software, running on the hardware of our brains and bodies. Your conscious self is software (or, if you prefer, the result of software). Science-fiction and increasingly science itself both declare as much, but it goes against the be-all centrality of one's own consciousness to see our inner selves as no different, in principle, than other types of software.

Living with a dog makes the software-based nature of personality highly visible, because different programs [3] in the software create dramatically different personalities within the same animal, and the change is often lightning-quick. It is this ability to move between programs or subroutines that makes modern computers so versatile, and the same basic ability is an important tool for life itself. A wolf hunts and kills prey using the tool of its hunting/killing software to properly activate and control the physical tools of legs running and teeth biting, and so on. Returning to its young in the den, the wolf shifts to a program that includes love and other instincts, feelings, and behaviors that enhance survival by protecting the young and cooperating in defined ways with other adults. Trotting up to her cub after a successful hunt, the wolf is a very different being than she was only minutes ago when she sank her fangs into a terrified rabbit, crushing bones and internal organs, while snapping her head back and forth to break the rabbit's neck.

The two personalities are not mutually exclusive in every circumstance. A wolf protecting her cub uses her killing software in the service of love to scare away, disable, or kill the attacker. The cub is thus saved and life continues. Modern humans rely on this same basic emotional choreography in dogs for protection of their own families; dogs will often attack someone threatening or hurting a family member and even a tiny dog can at least alert one to an intruder by the small-dog trademark of "barking like a lunatic."

When Zoomer is asleep in another room and I walk by, he sometimes wakes up and is apparently certain that my footsteps signal a four-alarm intrusion by, well, something that threatens the pack. Zoomer will then bolt towards the door and confront me, barking at full voice and with his entire body engaged in the process, but of course he immediately sees it is me and not the Bad Thing he was expecting, and he instantly starts showing pleasure at my presence: his tail begins wagging, the wagging includes the start of wriggles along his body, the hint of a smile appears on his face, and so on. The barking continues a few moments longer, however, as the two pieces of software collide within him. He sorts things out quickly but the overlap is, in technical language, hilarious.

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Living with a dog is a constant reminder of the pleasures of love and affection. The healthy nature and power of love and of relationship are shown by the health benefits conferred on humans who live with a dog (or a cat, or other pet).

Dogs are not only loving; they are hugely demonstrative. Zoomer sleeps in bed with us, and when we wake in the morning, he begins a display of affection that dwarfs anything I have ever seen from a human. Zoomer (who, thankfully, weighs only about 8 or 9 pounds) jumps on my chest and licks my face, wagging his tail and almost vibrating with obvious affection. I eventually push him away from my face; Zoomer then licks my hand or arm or moves over to my wife and licks her face, hand, and arm. After awhile, he starts rolling on his back between us, legs in the air, wriggling his body energetically in a typically canine expression of joy. He will pause for a few moments, laying on his back or side, and then resume. Zoomer will sometimes start nuzzling my leg (or my wife's) through the covers; pushing his head against me or her as if to somehow get closer than he already is. Then perhaps he will decide to play-fight with my hand, smiling and biting and wrestling as I wrestle back. Eventually – after maybe five minutes or so of megawatt affection and play – Zoomer will dash off (running at full speed the entire way) to find one of his flavored hard-cornstarch chews and come back to gnaw on it contentedly as my wife and I talk and get ready to rise for the day.

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Despite the objective benefits of both love and freedom, in the end, the preference for love and freedom is exactly that: a preference. I want a world with more love and freedom, first and foremost because love and freedom feel right, while their lack feels horrible. I write to encourage others to examine their own preferences for the human condition, and am convinced that every person has the need and desire for love and freedom; as with needs for air, water, and food, the need and thus the desire for love and freedom are genetically built-in. My hope is that if more of us take seriously our own preferences for a healthy world (which is what a world of love and freedom would be) that our views and actions will change in such a way that movement towards a healthy world will become inevitable.

The experience of love in our daily lives is more than a health-enhancing pleasure: it is a reminder of how important love really is, and, looking outward and ahead, of how important is the creation of a healthy world.

A well-treated dog is already there, living in a world of love and (given the dog's innate social rules) freedom. The human lucky enough to live with an emotionally-healthy dog is, in turn, blessed with daily reminders of the power and importance of love. At a time when more love is a life-and-death issue for the human race, dogs thus, once again, earn their reputation as "man's best friend."

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Part 2 of this essay will appear in a few weeks.

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[1] From Masson's Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs, in a chapter titled "Love: The Master Emotion of Dogs", page 39

[2] It is not possible to know exactly when love came into the world, in part because the precise definitions of both "love" and "consciousness" are elusive. The fine shadings in development of love and consciousness make their starting points inherently vague. Did the social instinct of some early dinosaurs include (and their level of consciousness allow for) anything one might reasonably call love? How about early fishes or other animals? I have seen and heard of many examples of mammals showing compassion and affection to their own kind and to others (dolphins saving a drowning person, for instance), but cannot recall any such examples among reptiles, amphibians, or insects. My belief is that mammals in general, and more advanced mammals especially, are uniquely equipped to feel and to express what we call "love" but I have no way to prove that belief, beyond the apparent strong development of the limbic system in mammals as opposed to earlier species. On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that the limbic system was well-developed far earlier than had been assumed. I would be interested to hear from readers about any evidence pointing to the first emergence of something we might reasonably describe as conscious, meaningful love.

[3] One might also call these programs "subroutines" or other names. And clearly, the software involved in the brain, like that utilized by DNA, is different in many ways from the software running on a modern digital computer. Regardless of the platform and programming language involved, coded information, including stored data and/or instructions for various actions, is the essence of software. Examples of software in this broad sense include music on an analog 33 rpm record; the same music digitally encoded on a CD or DVD; the word-processing program I am writing this with; and the data file I am creating with the word-processor. Even a printed book with paper pages is a form of software. It is neither the form of storage nor the language used for encoding that defines something as software. Note that the purpose of software is ultimately to create an action or an experience; software itself (like the hardware it runs on) is not the essence of what is wanted when software is created. Software, as opposed to its physical manifestation on (say) a hard drive, has no location in space and cannot be seen, touched, heard, or otherwise detected directly; like the mental image of a flower, software is in essence conceptual, not physical. The ineffable nature of software is similar to the nature of consciousness – difficult to describe or define because, once again, consciousness is merely a specific effect of the software within a living creature such as a human being – or perhaps, at some point, within a machine. There are dozens of excellent books on consciousness from widely different perspectives. For those interested in the topic, four starting points I can suggest are Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (mostly for its startling discussion of the many things we can do without consciousness, such as driving a car while daydreaming), Daniel C. Dennett's classic Consciousness Explained, Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop, and (especially for its discussion of the three levels of consciousness) Arthur Janov's The Biology of Love.

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Glen Allport's picture
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Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.