In Sunday’s New York Times, neuroscientist Gregory Berns recounted how:
FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner—completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.
Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.
After years of preparatory work, Berns says that “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
To Berns, “by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us.”
The neuroscientist believes that he has peered into the mind of his canine, and witnessed a similarity of brains structures that proves that dogs have emotions just like us. And because they have those similar brain structures, dogs have the moral status of a child, and should have their personhood recognized accordingly.
Meanwhile, at First Things, B.D. McClay pushes back against the idea that because dogs aren’t people, they are appropriate food:
Dogs and human beings have a particular relationship, one distinctive among domestic animals: even when we work together, we work alongside. The man working with a dog in the field trusts the animal’s independent judgment. Whether that dog is herding sheep, hunting other animals, or sniffing for bombs, we place our trust in the dog’s intelligence and loyalty. We therefore accord them a respect and a place we do not grant to the other animals.
That respect isn’t irrational, because it is founded in the uniqueness of the relationship. You could say the relationship itself could have been formed just as easily with some other animal—pigs, for instance. That might be true, but it’s irrelevant. Denying the existence of the relationship would be the irrational thing to do here. The relationship is a fact, and like all relationships, it comes with duties and privileges. So don’t eat dogs.
Surely, though, there is a rich and reasonable middle ground between claiming that dogs have emotions identical to humans and considering them fit for the table. Diana Schaub in a recent issue of The New Atlantis finds canine specialness to be rooted in their friendship with us, a friendship in the truest sense of the word:
Of the brute creation, only dogs — by virtue of their alliance with us — can experience the spiritedness that listens to reason and rises above the promptings of pleasure and pain. Dogs become ethical beings through their capacity to pay attention, to care about praise and blame, and to obey. While not themselves rational, they are willing to follow our lead. Man and dog together instantiate the tripartite soul. …
The education of a dog is always an education for the man as well. Remember, mastery and obedience are desirable not in themselves, but for the shared work they make possible. Obedience points beyond itself to “the practices of friends.” With a little help from Plato and Hegel, Borjesson shows how man and dog may arrive at a spot where the dog knows enough about the common endeavor to hold the man accountable for his failures. He tells the story of a hunter who
“could see his brilliant German shorthair pointer Colter’s disappointment every time he tracked and flushed a bird only to stand by and watch his master shoot and miss the mark. Ashamed to let down his friend, Bass bought a better rifle and went to a Texas ranch for a weekend primer on shooting. Thus Colter pressured Bass to become a better friend, or at least a better shot. Now that’s an example of the power of recognition at work making friends better and more beautiful.”