Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dogs Are Not People

So if dogs “love” us, what kind of love is it? Never afraid to ask tough questions, Berns takes us with him on his fascinating pursuit. If he stops short of giving dogs and humans equal purchase on emotions such as love and attachment—leaving dog sentience at the level of a child’s—he nevertheless proves that dogs and humans share physiological mechanisms and coexist not only on an emotional but also on a cognitive level. Dogs might even be our best teachers. “Could it be that our dogs tell us more about our human relationships than we tell ourselves?” he asks. Dogs know us and attend to our desires. The most we can do is inhabit the reciprocal possession, the responsibilities and ties, the mutuality of adaptation that Berns calls for with such candor and wonder.

At a time when some animal rights advocates argue for the extermination of dogs rather than have them suffer the indignity of being pets, I thank Berns for his wit and grace, for his courage in writing so that the contradictions of human and dog relationships remain intact, in all their wayward, messy, ambiguous, and paradoxical effects. Instead of attempting to define how and where we draw the line between humans and dogs, Berns helps us to understand—sometimes in spite of himself—how, where, and why human beings, often arbitrarily, devise, formulate, and apply lines separating the human and animal—or deliberately blur those lines.

Now let’s go further. We need to think again about dogs, as Berns suggests, but as the ground for human sensibility and cognition, not the other way around. In such a terrain, even the word “love” can be redeemed. And, perhaps, even the notion of “human.”

- Colin Dayan reviews How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain by Gregory Berns

No comments: