26 January 2009

Dog days

Alexander Fiske-Harrison wishes The Philosopher and the Wolf had included a section on what it is like to be a wolf. Perhaps Temple Grandin is helpful. Consider, for example, this from an essay on consciousness in animals and people with autism:
Chimpanzees have self awareness. When they look at themselves in a mirror, they do not react to the image as if it was another animal, and if paint is applied to the chimps face, it will try to wipe it off. Because dogs are not able to do this, one should not jump to the conclusion that dogs are not self aware. Dogs may not be visually self aware, but are possibly smell self aware. A dog marking its territory is able to discriminate between its own urine and a strange dog's urine.
I am not a 'dog person' but I think I can understand what it is like to be one from observation, and from Pablo Neruda's A Dog Died (linked on right hand side of this page)


fiskeharrison said...

An interesting idea - I dealt very abruptly once before with the idea of dogs and self-awareness in some comments on a post on Prospect's blog, but it deserves more thought(http://blog.prospectblogs.com/2007/12/28/morality-and-mortality-our-views-of-animal-others/). However, I suspect that given the way smell works, it would be impossible to verify. The smell of a dog’s urine is a snapshot of its internal chemistry at a given moment in time. One cannot manipulate and register this in the same way you can anatomical position with the constant feedback of light from the mirror. I don’t doubt a dog can distinguish the smell of itself from that of another dog, but I do doubt they go on to attach that to a concept of self in the way an ape, bottlenose dolphin or elephant does.

It is interesting to hear Temple Grandin mentioned on this, someone who is not much known in the UK. The only reason I do is that a good friend is playing her in a forthcoming movie about her life. I hope she becomes better known as a result.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

(see The Last Arena - The World of the Spanish Bullfight: http://fiskeharrison.wordpress.com/)

Caspar Henderson said...

Thanks for the link to two such an interesting and thoughtful pieces. Your comment here regarding smell looks well made.

A reason that I find Temple Grandin's point striking is that she asks us to look beyond cues and behaviours in other animals with which many of us find easy to identify without effort, such as looking in a mirror or having fun with lipstick.

She may not be right in this particular case, but I appreciate the fact that she has gone out on a limb. I find myself at present wondering about the octopus, an "honorary vertebrate'' thanks to its intelligence which is not, so far as we know, a social animal.

I think we need to be cautious about judgments of intelligence and consciousness in 'wild animals' (where that term still has meaning). As Barry Lopez has put it, "to try to understand a [wild] animal apart from its background, except as an imaginative exercise, is to risk the collapse of both".

Dogs may or may not recognize themselves, but there is evidence they can read a good deal in human faces, gauging emotion in a similar way to us. (How pet dogs face up to your moods). It may be, too, that 'our inclination to invest dogs with human-like states of mind isn't as unscientific as it might appear.' (Dogs aren't stupid wolves; they are much smarter).

Grandin has a new book out in the U.S., Animals Make Us Human. This too looks interesting. Some people feel that her position is compromised by the legitimacy they think she lens to large-scale, industrialized meat production which, they argue, is environmentally damaging, among, other things (t produces very large amounts of greenhouse gases, for example).