Can Dogs Really Be Jealous?

Was Darwin Wrong? No! (Originally Published on July 27, 2014.) 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 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 last week, 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 humanlike thought processes (which I’ll discuss below), I see this as an opportunity to clear the air a little on what Darwin really thought about consciousness. Differences of Degree, not Kind On his blog on PsychologyToday.com., 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 the reader with a link to an essay he wrote about that subject in 2011. “Charles Darwin,” says Bekoff in that older piece, “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.” [emphases and ellipsis mine] Is this true? Not exactly. Here’s what Darwin actually 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, 101.) [emphasis mine] 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 human ability to reason. “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. Some apes, however, would probably declare that they could and did admire the beauty of the colored skin of their partners in marriage. They would admit, that though they could make other apes understand by cries some of their perceptions and simpler wants, the notion of expressing definite ideas by definite sounds had never crossed their minds. They might insist that they were ready to aid their fellow-apes of the same troop in many ways, to risk their lives for them, and to take charge of their orphans; but they would be forced to acknowledge that disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man, was quite beyond their comprehension.” That paints a very different picture than the one Bekoff presents because he seems determined to shrink the differences Darwin spoke of to an almost insignificant level. Simple vs. Complex Emotions Dr. Stanley Coren also wrote about the jealousy study, and is also a firm believer in the fallacy of degree-not-kind, meaning he’s afflicted with the same ideological blind spot affecting Marc Bekoff. 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) and 3) the ability to engage in an internal mental narrative (requiring the use of language).

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 men 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, as far as I can tell, in error. 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 emotive capacity, then other animals 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 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 than a scientist. Because it isn’t that “if we have certain cognitive capacities then animals have them too…” That would suggest that if we can read and write then animals have the same capacity, or if we can predict the motion of heavenly bodies with mathematical precision, or create medicines to heal the sick, then animals must have similar capacities. 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. 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 Darwin discusses the concept regarding “differences of degree not kind,” he 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 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 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 almost exactly alike in 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 most other animals (except some cetaceans), 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. Oh, one other thing. Darwin also believed that dogs could be jealous. But then, while he was one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, he wasn’t a dog trainer. And sometimes it’s the carpenter, the gardener, or the dog trainer who knows more about their particular field of study than anyone else (not always, but sometimes). LCK

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