Are you a dog person or a cat person? The question is laden with meaning. I have never had a pet, but the cat versus dog distinction is one I can understand. It is not about which animal’s wet fur you would prefer to clean up off your couch, but which traits you value the most. Dogs are seen as fun-loving, enthusiastic, unconditionally affectionate, and demonstrative of that affection. Cats are seen as clever, mysterious, graceful, but also autonomous and aloof, and may or may not give a shit about you.
It’s easy to understand why dogs are “man’s best friend”: We have tailor bred them to suit ourselves. No wonder canine exceptionalism is so strong: we have created for ourselves imaginary friends that hang on to our every gesture, with the large innocent-looking eyes of human infants. I’m not saying everyone loves dogs—personally I find them annoying, but then again I also dislike the presence of babies and small children (and it is beyond the topic and scope of this article to judge whether I am dead inside).
Because dogs have been selected for to be “special,” scientists must give them special consideration when using them as subjects for research. Gregory Berns, professor of neuroeconomics at Emory and unabashed dog-lover, recently conducted a series of experiments meant to prove or disprove dogs’ personhood. Personhood is an extremely ill-defined concept but many works of neuroanthropology tie it to intelligence, which is the ability to mediate through your brain, with the help of memories of past experiences, the choice of what action to take (according to Harry J. Jerison’s “Paleoneurology and the Evolution of Mind”).
Berns gave a talk at the Ivy League Vegan conference at Princeton on February 8th. At this talk, he suggested that the criterion for personhood was in this case emotion. Starting with his own pet, Berns did functional-MRI studies on a group of dogs and showed that a region of their brains is analogous to the human brain region associated with positive emotions; this region was activated when the dogs were shown food or when someone they knew walked into a room. In an op-ed titled “Dogs are People Too,” Berns asked, “do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite.” The funny thing is that right under that article is Berns’ blurb, which mentions that he is the author of a book titled, more conclusively, “How Dogs Love Us.”
Berns admitted that he might be anthropomorphizing, but made the point that maybe we just wrongly consider these kinds of emotional faculties exclusively human. I think the real issue is that no matter how these kinds of studies define personhood, they are really just striving for their own foregone conclusion that dogs are special. Take rats, an extremely interesting and intelligent species. They are used so often in labs because they are sufficiently complex and intelligent and similar to humans in many ways. Dogs’ brains are just as similar to humans’ if not more, which would make them even more useful to science, but nobody experiments on them because their higher intelligence earns them protection under the Animal Welfare Act. One animal’s doom is another animal’s ticket to personhood. It’s in no way about the animal and in every way about what humans see in the animal.
This assignment of personhood is a two way street: people can identify their own personalities with dogs or cats. I have had thorny discussions with people about whether they, or I, or others, are dogs or cats. My brother is reserved, often terse, and almost never visibly excited: he’s a cat. My best friend from high school hugged people a lot, laughed, smiled, was expressive, and loved to please people: she’s a dog. It’s hard to describe exhaustively what a dog or a cat is, but easy to tell which category someone else fits into. It is, as always, harder to categorize yourself. One of my friends who has a pet dog unequivocally considers herself a dog, but is pretty much universally told she’s pure cat—something she can’t stand. This is one of the clearest signs that being a dog or a cat is about more than being a dog or a cat. It’s about a binary we see in human nature—we do love our binaries: good and evil, extrovert and introvert, Apollonian and Dionysian, yin and yang, manifesting that you care versus declining to show your cards, being a dog or a cat.
The problem is that for all we know, dogs display what we think of as the actions of love under impulses we don’t really know anything about. Certainly, dogs seem to be very good at picking up on our cues and this is part of why they are so sympathetic. But when a dog lavishes attention on its owner because it knows its owner likes to cuddle, that proves its personhood no more than an entity of artificial intelligence saying, “I love you.”
The Latin name for a dog is Canis lupus familiaris: it is a domesticated subspecies of gray wolf that belongs to the mammalian order Carnivora. Though dogs can be omnivorous, they are indeed predators. They are not toys. As Berns pointed out at the conference, the animals we most prize as our pets, our warm and fuzzy playthings, are predators. Perhaps it’s because predators have an ability to understand social cues that allows them to predate. Dogs are so good at understanding people, and thus in our eyes so lovable, for reasons that aren’t warm and fuzzy at all.