"Jealous Dogs, Marc Bekoff & the Fallacy of Degree-Not-Kind."

Was Darwin Wrong? No!

Can Dogs Really Be Jealous? 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 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. Darwin and Differences of Degree, not Kind On his blog at 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 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 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 (though it may not). 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 at all. 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 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 new 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. [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.” [emphasis mine.] 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 at least they 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 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 “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin!

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.


  1. Lee Charles Kelley July 29, 2014 at 7:35 AM Kevin Behan has made some great comments (see link below) about the jealous study. One of them is that we wouldn't react with jealousy if the object of our affections were suddenly enamored with an inanimate, stuffed version of a human being, the way the dogs in this study reacted to a stuffed doggie. We would fear for that person's sanity. Do Dogs Feel Jealousy?

  2. Lee Charles Kelley July 30, 2014 at 7:31 AM Interestingly, I attempted to post a comment to Bekoff's piece on "evolutionary continuity" yesterday, explaining that he's been misquoting (or selectively quoting) Darwin, and how he has the whole idea backwards: it's not that if we have something they have it too. Not only did my comment not show up but that post is now closed to comments from anyone!

  3. dog's dogJuly 30, 2014 at 2:32 PM Great analysis. This sounds a lot like the efforts of some to superimpose the complexity of language onto the vocalizations of dogs. This preoccupation with trying to see the human in the dog rather than the dog in the human. Perhaps these theories are suffering under the weight of critical thinking and they don't need the attention such comments would bring. The inability to separate emotion/feeling from thought is starting to seem pretty silly.

  4. Lee Charles Kelley July 31, 2014 at 8:03 AM Oddly enough, Bekoff has now also deleted the comments I made on his post on jealousy in dogs. He has also turned off the comments section on that post as well.

  5. Jamie and Aaron MeriwetherAugust 7, 2014 at 3:28 PM I have often questioned if the label of attachment disordered is too often thrown about. In the wild, if a dog is shunned from its pack, that is a real cause for concern for the dog as it is a form of punishment/abandonment. As dogs are pack animals, being separated from the pack involuntarily should be something that causes a bit of distress to a dog. If a dog doesn't mind being in another room in the house while family members are home, self-initiates solo activities or activities involving only other dogs, asks to go outside alone, responds appropriately to commands and signals, and does not panic when the owner travels a short distance from the house without taking the dog (goes to the malibox, or out into the yard for a few minutes), I'm always hesitant to go with a label of attachment disorder. I guess my question for you would be that if a dog doesn't show any other signs of attachment disorder besides whining/barking if locked away from the family (which I would say is a healthy response to being shunned by the pack) and trying to get the owners attention when the owner is focused on giving attention to someone or something else in a way the dog would prefer be focused on them, is it really attachment disorder? Or are these two separate behaviors: a healthy response to pack shunning/abandonment and an act of jealousy? Lee Charles KelleyAugust 7, 2014 at 5:40 PM

Hi Jamie, I don't think it is normal for a dog to whine and bark if locked away from the family. People often give their dogs too much attention. And that's what leads to attachment disorders. The only way a dog who's raised in a healthy way would (or should) feel "abandoned" is he's actually been abandoned, i.e., taken for a ride in the country and let out of the car to fend for himself. Most dogs I know are fine being left alone for most of the day. And they don't even have to be given tons of exercise beforehand. As long as that emotional connection is there, between the dog and the owner, and it's based on the dog's needs, not the owner's, they're fine. As for "shunning," that's usually not something that the whole pack does. And I wouldn't even call it shunning. It usually happens when a younger member of the pack has grown old enough to go out and start his own pack, but keeps hanging around, like a member of the family who's an adult but is still living in his parent's basement. What happens in those cases is the "pack leader" and the younger wolf get into a conflict where the older wolf keeps pinning the younger one, and won't let him follow the rest of the pack. From my old training blog: In a 2010 paper David Mech and Dean Cluff, discuss an incident observed in 2009, where the leader of a large pack of wolves (20+) on Ellesmere Island repeatedly pinned and re-pinned a younger wolf, possibly (according to Mech and Cluff) one of his own offspring, for the purpose of “pack dispersion” (hypothetically motivating the youngster to go start his own pack). The only real question of interest here (again according to Mech and Cluff) is the length of time that the older wolf spends doing this, which they suggest might have been due to the fact that the older wolf had recently been shot with a tranquilizer dart (for the purpose of attaching a radio collar). They eventually dismiss this idea, but ask openly if anyone else has seen such a long and continuous bout of “dominance” in wild wolf packs. So this pinning behavior is the closest wolves come to "shunning" one of their own. And it's not done to punish or isolate the other wolf. I hope this helps!

  1. Jamie and Aaron MeriwetherAugust 7, 2014 at 3:38 PM Of course, maybe it isn't so much a feeling of jealousy, but of envy. The two are confused rather often.

Lee Charles KelleyAugust 7, 2014 at 5:44 PM No envy is wanting something someone else has, like a car or a job, or in some cases, a lover. Jealousy is wanting someone's affections that have either been taken away by someone else, or are currently being given to someone else when the person you were in a relationship with has moved on.

  1. Lee Charles KelleyAugust 7, 2014 at 5:47 PM If you google "Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behaviors in Gray Wolves" you'll be able to read a pdf file of the Mech/Cluff study on "pack dispersion." Or go here: http://canadianfieldnaturalist.ca/index.php/cfn/article/view/1076 Jamie and Aaron MeriwetherAugust 7, 2014 at 11:06 PM Thanks, Lee. You've given me a lot to think about.

  1. dog's dogAugust 10, 2014 at 12:21 AM Great info there on the wolf packs, Lee. Appreciate the related discussion. If we really wanted to strip it down to nature and instinct, things like an owner paying attention to a stuffed dog, or a dog being left alone to rest, present no danger to the dog so a panic response would seemingly serve no natural purpose and be terribly inefficient. It's curious what we think of as natural behavior in dogs these days. ReplyDelete Replies

Lee Charles KelleyAugust 10, 2014 at 7:50 AM Thanks, dog's dog. It is curious indeed!

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