Can Dogs Really Be Jealous?

July 27, 2014

Marc Bekoff & the Fallacy of Degree-Not-Kind

Was Darwin Wrong? No!
A new study on dogs has been touted as proof that they can be jealous when their owners pay attention to another dog, even a make-believe, stuffed dog. The researchers are careful to say this is not the same thing as human jealousy, it’s more like a genetic pre-cursor.

They begin by citing an earlier paper where dog owners were asked to recount specific cases of emotion, including jealousy in their dogs. That study found that “when the owners gave attention and affection to another person or animal, the dogs seemed to engage in attention-seeking behaviors (pushing against the owner or in between the owner and the rival, barking/growling/whining) and ... aggression.”

I’ve seen this behavior a lot in my training practice in New York. It’s really just a simple attachment disorder, one that’s usually found in dogs who’ve been given too much “positive” attention by their owners. [1]

However, I’m not really interested in the jealousy study as much as I am in the take that evolutionary biologist Mark Bekoff and psychological researcher Stanley Coren have on it. That’s because they both wrote about it, and they both share what I think (and hopefully will show) is a mistaken idea about Darwin’s thoughts on the differences in consciousness between humans and animals. And since real jealousy requires high-level human-like thought processes (which I’ll discuss below), I see this as an opportunity to clear the air on what Darwin really thought about consciousness in animals. 

Differences of Degree, not Kind 
On his blog at Psychology Today, Marc Bekoff writes about jealousy in dogs, but takes the researchers of this recent study to task for making a distinction between human and animal emotions.

 

“The idea that dog jealousy is a ‘primordial form’ of jealousy doesn't sit well with me,” he writes. Then he invokes the concept of “evolutionary continuity” and provides a link to an essay he wrote about that subject in 2011. “Charles Darwin,” says Bekoff, “stressed that variations among species are differences in degree rather than kind. … so if we have something ‘they’ (other animals) have it too. This is called evolutionary continuity.”

Is this true? 

Not exactly. Here’s what Darwin said: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” (The Descent of Man, 1871, p. 101.)

That’s a strong statement. Yet in the section just before it Darwin was discussing how apes are similar to human beings in their ability to form emotional bonds and make familial attachments, while pointing out that they still lack the ability to reason, which is a very important distinction.

“There can be no doubt” writes Darwin, “that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. An anthropomorphous ape, if he could take a dispassionate view of his own case, would admit that though he could form an artful ploy to plunder a garden—though he could use stones for fighting or for breaking open nuts, yet that the thought of fashioning a stone into a tool was quite beyond his scope. Still less, as he would admit, could he follow out a train of metaphysical reasoning, or solve a mathematical problem, or reflect on God, or admire a grand natural scene.”

Here Darwin paints a very different picture than the one Bekoff presents because Bekoff seems determined to shrink the differences Darwin spoke of to an almost insignificant level. “If we have mental abilities then animals must have them too.” And that’s not the case.

Simple vs. Complex Emotions 
Dr. Stanley Coren also wrote about the jealousy study, and is also a firm believer in the degree-not-kind fallacy.

Remember, as a dog trainer, I would classify the behavior these researchers call a primordial form of jealousy as an attachment disorder. For it to be true jealousy there would have to be an ongoing set of recursive thought processes involving three very distinct cognitive abilities that dogs clearly don’t have but that humans do: 

 

1) the capacity to see oneself as being separate and apart from others (requiring a sense of self and a Theory of Mind),

2) the ability to entertain thoughts about enjoyable past experiences with the object of one’s affections, and fears about possible future events impairing or ending that relationship (requiring mental time travel and hypothetical thinking),

3) all of which require the ability to engage in an internal mental narrative (requiring the use of language). 

 

4) jealousy is a complex emotion that involves thoughts and feelings ranging from fear of abandonment to rage and humiliation, and while dogs definitely have feelings, they don’t have thoughts.

 

Getting Back to Darwin 
I have struggled with this issue of the differences between human and animal consciousness for years, starting from when I first read about the “differences in degree, not kind” concept in Stanley Coren’s first book on dogs. After all, Coren and Bekoff are trained scientists. In fact, Dr. Bekoff is an evolutionary biologist! To me this meant that despite whatever thoughts or feelings I might have had on the subject I must have been missing something that these esteemed scientists knew and I didn’t. It was only after I actually read Darwin’s original statements that I realized my gut feelings had been right all along, and that Coren and Bekoff were wrong about this.

Here’s how Dr. Coren interpreted evolutionary continuity in his 1992 book, The Intelligence of Dogs: “Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, that the only difference between the intelligence of humans and that of most of their lower mammalian cousins ‘is one of degree and not of kind.’” (43.)

Here Coren says Darwin was discussing intelligence, which is only one aspect of the mind, human or animal. He’s also paraphrasing Darwin in a way that may suggest something other than what Darwin—who spoke specifically of “higher animals” not “lower mammalian cousins”—intended.

Remember, Bekoff tells us that “evolutionary continuity” means that if humans have a certain cognitive or emotional capacity, then other animals must have it too. But I don’t think that’s what Darwin was saying. I think he was saying that if animals have certain primal instincts and emotions then we have probably retained them as part of our evolutionary history, so that our minds are locked in a “struggle between our higher and lower impulses.” (The Descent of Man, 100)

I’m happy to admit that I may be offering a much, much leaner interpretation of Darwin, as skeptics are said to do (and are supposed to do). Yet it seems to me that Bekoff may be framing his argument in a richer way, perhaps doing so more as an animal lover rather than a scientist. Because it isn’t, “if we have certain cognitive capacities then animals have them too…” That would suggest that if we can read and write then animals have a similar capacity, which is clearly not true.

 

I think that what evolutionary continuity really means is that we inherited earlier, evolutionary pre-cursors to the kinds of emotional and cognitive thought processes that have created an immense, almost immeasurable difference between the lowest man and the highest animal. [3]

One Final Problem 
The final problem is that Bekoff and Coren have, I think, engaged in a selective interpretation of Darwin. Because a few sentences after he discusses the concept regarding “differences of degree not kind,” Darwin says: “If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.”

Bekoff says that we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions. Emotion is one thing. It’s still a bit slippery for some scientists, but thanks to researchers like Jaak Panksepp we know that there are some simple emotions that do exist, in both dogs and humans, and that they’re located (or can be stimulated electrically) from within the limbic system. 

However, consciousness is another matter. Bekoff doesn’t say exactly what it is, or what parts of the brain he believes we share with lower animals that gives us both consciousness (or whether his definition of consciousness means actual self-awareness), but while I would agree that the older parts of the brains found in mammals (the reptilian complex and the limbic system) are quite similar between humans and other species, and are even roughly the same size (when accounting for body size), the human neo-cortex is far bigger, far more developed, and far more complex. And there are also far more bits of neurological architecture that make us very, very different from other animals, and most of these bits have to do with the development of language, or are supported in some way by our linguistic abilities. Together they constitute a very clear difference of kind, which—remember—Darwin said might turn out to be the case.

LCK  
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”


Footnotes: 

1) The kind of attention usually given these dogs actually prevents them from feeling bonded with the owner. That’s because dogs are designed to work for a living, not to be an object of affection (or at least not just that). So what happens is that when the owner’s attention is drawn elsewhere—particularly toward another dog, a family member, or, in some cases, something as simple as a phone call—, the dog may go into a very real panic state and start barking furiously until the owner either scolds the dog (which, while negative, is still a form of attention), or consoles the dog with hugs and kisses.

2) One way to determine if an animal has self awareness is the mirror test. It’s not a very good one, but no dog has ever passed it.

Another way to find out if an animal has self awareness is to look for von Economo neurons in the brain. These spindle cells (called VENs) are found in more abundance in persons with psychiatric disorders where the patient exhibits an exaggerated or hyper sense of self-awareness, and in lesser numbers in persons whose disorders involve a lack of self-awareness.

3) Darwin’s ideas were instrumental in shaping Freud’s view of psychology because he realized, as did Darwin, that many of the psychological ills that humans suffer from are the result of unresolved energy created, in part, by ancient, primal emotions.

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