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What Our New Dog Is Teaching Us About Life

Lesson 5 — A good explanation may not be the right explanation.

This is the last of the lessons our new dog Emma has taught us since she joined our family on November 3, 2020. For the most part, these lessons have been inspired by what we have seen happening at her end of the leash, so to speak. But they are really about life at our end more than at hers. Before concluding this five-part Emma series at The Human Animal, therefore, I want to say a few things about being human.

Our human weaknesses

Unknown author / National Printing & Engraving Company, Chicago / edited by Papa Lima Whiskey / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Unknown author / National Printing & Engraving Company, Chicago / edited by Papa Lima Whiskey / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let's face it, we humans think we can act like God. We not only play with fire, but also try to bend reality to suit not just our needs, but also our whims and fancies. Sometimes we can get away with this, but not always.

As the poet Alexander Pope famously wrote at the beginning of the eighteenth century: A little learning is a dangerous thing. History shows that it is easy for those of us who are human to assume we know more than we actually do.

This is the main reason why I am convinced Emma's Lesson no. 4 about life may be by far the most challenging one. I am convinced it is hard for many of us — I'd even be willing to go out on a limb and say most of us — to accept that a good explanation may not be the right explanation.

A good explanation

A prominent and obviously inherited behavior trait in humans is our ability to put 2+2 together and come up with 4. We are champions, in fact, at constructing arguments either out of whole cloth or when given only a few tantalizing clues and pieces of possible evidence. Philosophers and therapists call this kind of brain work "behaving rationally." In truth, however, this very same behavior is at the heart of what is also called "rationalizing," "making things up," "excusing," "wishful thinking," "believing," and let's not forget the twisted logic of conspiracy theories.

Rory112233, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Rory112233, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Soon after Emma's arrival last November, we began to realize we had to question, and finally abandon, much of what we had heard or read about dogs that look like her. But we also realized we were learning unexpected things not just about American Pit Bull Terriers, but about all dogs.

  1. If you want to talk about the behavior of dogs, especially if you want to claim that what they do is not simply because they can do it, but because "it's in their genes," then you have got to be specific and down-to-earth about what is the behavior you have in mind. You are not going to get anywhere with "behaviors" as vaguely labeled as "friendly," "aggressive," "good-natured," and "intelligent."
  2. Saying so is currently fashionable due to the wide availability of modern brain-imagining technologies such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), but don't make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion that what dogs are doing is necessarily "caused" by something directly hardwired into their brains. What I call "brain blaming" may be popular, but believing something a dog does (or a person, for that matter) is genetically inherited and hardwired into the brain may not be the right explanation. Until proven to be so, you cannot rule out that such an explanation may be just an advanced case of "rationalizing," "wishful thinking," "making things up," "excusing," and the list goes on.
  3. Just because you think you have correctly put 2+2 together — to say this simply — does not mean you also know why they add up to 4. Even when a particular dog breed appears to do something — herding sheep, say — more often than other breeds, you need to spell out why you believe other breeds couldn't do just as well at the same task if encouraged ("trained") to do so.
  4. We don't really need the 360+ dog breeds now more or less officially recognized by this or that canine-focused organization out there in the world trying to keep track of them all. Most of these breeds, however, are literally just for show. Almost everything they are capable of doing, therefore, is going to be simply what dogs are capable of doing as the species Canis lupus familiaris. Trying to pin down distinctive behaviors for each and every one of these fanciful breeds would be a fool's errand.

The right explanation

Emma has shown us that all too often how we think about dogs is determined by two things: (1) what they look like, and (2) what we have read or heard from others about them. It is not just about dogs that we are inclined to think about things in such a cavalier way. We are also given to judging our fellow human beings and how they behave just as carelessly.

In Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, Bronwen Dickey notes that "how we think about breed and how we think about race inform each other, even though we may not always realize it" (page 56). As she adds, the very word "race" comes from the world of dogs and dog breeding. In medieval times and for centuries thereafter, history tells us that what we now refer to as "breeds" were instead called "races."

James McCabe / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
"A Dog Fight at Kit Burn’s" (Kit Burns's Saloon, New York) by Edward Winslow Martin (James D. McCabe) 1868
Source: James McCabe / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, it would be easy also to assume there is something about life today — and our growing reliance on modern social media for our news & views — that, like racism, is making conspiracy theories an increasing threat to human civility and co-existence. Not so!

Dickey has carefully documented how the recent demonizing of pit bulls as devil dogs and dangerous creatures is by no means the first and only time that humans have turned against animals for absurd and fallacious reasons. This has happened repeatedly down through history. In the 1690s, for instance:

Puritan villagers put several dogs to death for acting as the "familiars" (diabolical agents) of suspected witches. One was shot and killed in 1692 after a young girl alleged that it had "bewitched" her. When the dog fell dead (rather than doing something supernatural), the Puritan minister Cotton Mather declared it innocent and pardoned it posthumously — not that it did the dog any good. (147-148).

I don't think it makes any sense to claim that racism and conspiracy theories — however typical of our species these failings may be — are actually genetically inherited human behavior traits. Instead, if you asked me to boil down the lessons Emma is teaching us about life into a single take-home message, this homily would be:

When you are absolutely, positively sure you must be right, it's more than likely you are wrong.


Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, Karla J. Larson, , and Lisa M. Stringer have contributed to this commentary.