The New York Times published an op-ed on October 5th that has the internet abuzz. The point of the piece is that dogs look forward to things they enjoy.
This is not news to anyone who has ever had a dog, or known a dog, or been awake in the vicinity of a dog. They wag their tails — sometimes their entire rear ends — when something happy this way comes. They do not keep their excitement secret.
The only truly newsworthy morsel in the Times piece, which was written by Emory scientist Gregory Berns, is that for the first time, MRI machines have captured images of dogs’ brains when they learn that something they like is being offered. Those images look a lot like pictures of humans’ brains when they are in the same situation.
A region of the brain called the caudate nucleus is in charge of anticipating good things in humans. The new MRI results make it hard to dispute that the same structure does the same thing in dogs. It lit up when dogs in MRI machines (wearing earmuffs, because those contraptions are ear-bleedingly loud) saw hand signals that indicated food and when they smelled a familiar human.
No one had done this research before because they couldn’t get dogs to enter and stay still in MRI machines without sedating them. Berns and his colleagues used positive reinforcement to persuade dogs to cooperate, allowing the machines to take pictures of their brains while they were awake and could respond to stimuli. Dogs who didn’t like it could leave. All of them were members of local families, starting with Berns’s own rescued dog Callie.
It wasn’t Berns’s result that got netizens jumping, but the conclusion he drew from it: “dogs are people, too.” He contended that their ability to experience positive emotions makes it wrong to treat them as property, which we currently do.
Asserting that there is a moral distinction between an animal and dirt, and that there should be a legal distinction between them too, invariably draws howls of protest because it’s hard to justify exploiting animals if we aren’t better than they are in some important way. This doctrine is known as human exceptionalism. The more similar we are to other animals, the more uncomfortable people become with eating, wearing and caging them.
Science is doggedly knocking down every wall exceptionalists have thrown up between humans and other animals. In the past using tools, using language and transmitting culture down through generations have all been brandished as the final frontier between us and them, until scientists found nonhuman animals who do each of these things. The new battleground is emotion. The Washington Post notes, “The idea that animals have emotional lives and are capable of detecting emotions in others has been gaining ground for decades.”
In 2011, an experiment demonstrated that rats feel empathy, so much so that they will selflessly give up their own food (chocolate chips, no less) to a rat having a bad day who didn’t get any. The bad day consisted of being locked in a cage; researchers found that a free rat would figure out how to open the cage and would release the other rat even without the expectation of a reward.
Evidence that one of the species we malign most can feel, sympathize with, and take action to remedy another’s pain drove people nuts — including the one who studied the rats. Instead of allowing that we should be kinder to rats, or that we shouldn’t assume we are the only creatures on the planet who can be nice to others, they announced that empathy is meaningless. Neurobiologist Peggy Mason, who ran the study, believes that empathy is “closer to a reflex than a thought.” Primatologist Frans de Wall agrees, saying that selflessly helping others who need it is a “fairly automatic” process.
Contrast that with the great pains religions have taken for eons to browbeat people into doing what the rats did. It is said that all of Judaism can be boiled down to one directive: treat your neighbor as you want to be treated. Christianity and the Golden Rule teach the same thing. To be a good person, if you find your neighbor trapped in a cage, let her out. If you are truly virtuous, you might even give her some of your chocolate chips.
As long as that edict distinguished human beings, it merited countless hours of sermons and Sunday school. Apparently it was accepted that it would take a lot of repetition to get the lesson into our selfish skulls.
Now that we know other animals practice the Golden Rule, though, people have suddenly decided that it is just an automatic process. If you aren’t doing it, you aren’t a sinner in need of confession; your automatic processes are on the fritz and you should get thee to a doctor. No word on a treatment for the poor diseased non-empathizers.
In short, people will sacrifice their highest spiritual ideals if it means they can keep treating animals like dirt without remorse. Even rats know better.
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