Ecce Canis

Towards a Philosophical History of Dogs

Justin E. H. Smith

6a00d8341c562c53ef0120a62ddc6f970c-500wi What is it about the dogs? In recent philosophy everyone from John Searle to Donna Haraway has had something to say about them. And recent philosophy, as I never tire of insisting, is nothing new.

Now I have also been insisting for some time that there is no such animal as 'animals'. That is, when it is discovered, for example, that a chimpanzee in a zoo in Sweden is stockpiling stones to be thrown at a later hour, this does not prove, as the popular media would claim, that 'animals' are capable of conceptualizing and planning for the future. What a chimpanzee does says nothing at all about 'animals', but at most something about chimpanzees, and likely only about some chimpanzees, or indeed only one of them. Animals, I mean to say, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Haraway, to her credit, recognizes this. Her take on the special case of dogs issues in the somewhat cryptic claim that “we have never been human” (a riff, I think, on Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern). I understand this to mean that, for as long as there have been humans, the denotation of 'we' has never been understood to include all and only members of our species. It also includes dogs: we and they have co-evolved, and in a certain sense this puts our species closer to Canis lupus familiaris than to Pan troglodytes, not with respect to the tracing back of common ancestors, but with respect to recent history, the history of the past 15,000 years or so, the history that lingers in both of our memories, in which humans have been exercising intense selective pressure on dogs, and perhaps also dogs on humans. The result is that we have come out more like each other, behaviorally and expressively, than we are to either of our nearest cousins: the grey wolf in the case of dogs, and chimpanzees in the case of humans. The wolf is the dog's closest ancestor, but this implies no solidarity. Quite the contrary: the dogs are on our side.

1. A Mirror of the Complexity of Objects

Could recent co-evolution really play a greater role in the appearance of similarity than ancestry does? That it in fact does seems to be one of the lessons of Ádám Miklósi's excellent Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition, a work that covers everything you could ever want to know about why humans and dogs fit so well together. One crucial question Miklósi addresses at length concerns the way in which this new form of symbiosis began sometime in the Upper Paleolithic. There are two competing theories. The first, going back to Darwin, holds that human beings actively sought out wolf cubs, breeding and raising them with an eye to enhancing docility. An alternative view, recently defended by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, has it that certain wolves began, of their own initiative, to take advantage of food surpluses at Paleolithic camp sites. The less fearful these wolves were of humans, and the more endearing their faces, the better were their chances of obtaining scraps of meat. Whichever side made the first move (and consensus is converging around the Coppingers' view), it is clear that this new relationship began around the same time as, or immediately preceded, a number of other, very important developments in human history, including the development of food-storage technology, the Eurasian megafauna extinction, and the expansion into the Americas: all events, it is fair to say, that played a central role in the destiny of the human species.

Some key moments surveyed by Miklósi include the first ritual burials of dogs by humans between ten and twelve thousand years ago: sure indications that humans in that era attributed great sociocosmic significance to their canine companions. Between five and seven thousand years ago, the Neolithic revolution occurred, triggering the spread of agriculture and a whole host of new technologies. Another of its consequences, though one less often stressed, was the diversification of dogs into breeds for the purpose of filling various work roles, indicating an intensification of human involvement in dogs' lives, and vice versa. As Miklósi explains: “Diversification of dogs runs in parallel with cultural-technological evolution…. [D]ogs seem to mirror the increasing complexity of objects” (97).

Patagonia was the last bit of land, other than Antarctica, to be settled by human beings, and it should be no surprise to learn that they brought their dogs with them. This occurred between twelve and thirteen thousand years ago, thus probably a few thousand years after the beginning of symbiosis between homo sapiens and gray wolves in Eurasia. On his voyage around the southern tip of Patagonia, Darwin had occasion to observe that dog-breeding might be the most 'primitive' form of selection pressure that human beings impose on other species. Watching the Yaghan Indians of southern Argentina (for whom he had no kind words at all), Darwin maintained that the selective breeding of dogs is something even the human beings living closest to nature do, and this even as they remain ignorant of all other forms of animal husbandry:

[A]ny one… particularly useful to them, for any special purpose, would be carefully preserved during famines and other accidents, to which savages are so liable, and such choice animals would thus generally leave more offspring than the inferior ones; so that in this case there would be a kind of unconscious selection going on. We see the value set on animals even by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth, as of less value than their dogs.

Dog-breeding, Darwin seems to wish to say, is something human beings do qua natural beings. We can hate his failure to detect the culture of the South American natives, yet his ignorance helps him to note something else of perhaps greater importance: even before there was any other culture in human life, there was caniculture. Dogs were there at the origin.

2. A rude & dirty passetime

Dog Here is yet another important date to keep in mind: at some point between two and three thousand years ago, when grain storage had become an established practice, and social roles had diversified enough to sustain individuals of no obvious utility, some people began styling themselves as 'philosophers'. Scarcely had this new symptom of sociocultural complexification become apparent when certain of the philosophers, dubbed 'Cynics' by their adversaries, started identifying with the dogs. The truly virtuous life, they claimed, is the life led in accordance with nature, and who, they asked, provides a better example of that than the dogs?

It would be vastly too ambitious to attempt to argue here that the entire history of philosophy might be understood as a series of attempts on the part of humans to either distance themselves from the dogs, or to recognize their community with them. This is a project for another time. What I would like to do now is simply to give a sense of the enduring importance of dogs for philosophy, by sketching out the various ways in which they make themselves known in the period of philosophy I know best: the one that extends roughly from Rorarius's bold treatise That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Humans (originally composed around 1539 but only published in 1647), to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's 1706 report to the French Academy of Sciences on, of all things, 'A Dog that Speaks'. As Dennis Des Chene has noted, in this period “[t]he concept animal is charged not only with designating a class of creatures, real and imagined, but also with supplying a contrast to the human” (216). Yet different animals contrast in different ways: the ape tells us certain things about ourselves (I've dwelt on apes at length elsewhere), the ox other things, and the insect still others.

Consider the well-known exchange between René Descartes and Henry More of 1649. More the Platonist has argued in an earlier letter that all animals have a sort of 'stupid, drunken life' in them that is responsible for executing the actions associated with bare animal existence. Descartes the mechanist responds that in our own bodies, as well as in the bodies of all animals, “all the motions of our limbs which accompany our passions are caused not by the soul but simply by the machinery of the body. The wagging of a dog’s tail is only a movement accompanying a passion, and so is to be sharply distinguished, in my view, from speech, which alone shows the thought hidden in the body.” (Descartes was however, as Dennis Des Chene reminds me, at least 'subjectively pro-dog': he even had his own, whom he affectionately called 'Monsieur Grat'.) One thing to notice here is that it is to the dog in particular that Descartes feels the need to deny speech and consciousness. There was no similar need to deny it to the ox, because there was no question of their ability to think or, what is the same for Descartes, to speak.

Descartes was not the only 17th-century philosopher for whom a great deal rode on whether dogs could speak or not. Leibniz, for one, concurs with Rorarius that they can. We learn from a 1706 report to the French Academy of Sciences, describing a letter sent by Leibniz 'sur un chien qui parle', of “a peasant’s dog, of the most common figure, and of a medium size.” Leibniz relates that

[a] small child heard it pushing out some sounds that he believed to resemble German words, and from that he got the idea to teach it to speak. The master, who had nothing better to do, spared neither his time nor his efforts, and fortunately the disciple had dispositions that it would have been difficult to find in another. Finally after some years the dog knew how to pronounce approximately thirty words, among which are thé, café, chocolat, assemblée, French words that passed into German without any change. It is worth noting that the dog was already three years old when it began its schooling. It only speaks as an echo, that is to say, after its master has pronounced a word, and it seems that it only repeats the words by force, and in spite of itself, although it is not at all mistreated.

And the report concludes, just in case any doubt remains: “Again, Mr. Leibniz saw it and heard it.”

Before rushing to place Leibniz squarely in the dog-friendly camp in the history of philosophy, it is important to point out that the dog's similarity to human beings was not necessarily a reason to include it as a member of our moral community, and in at least one early text (Leibniz was 24) we find the philosopher arguing that dogs are more useful for studying the inner workings of the body than are humans, since, he explains “we can cut them open how and when we please.”

In this text Leibniz is very enthused about some of the experimental work being done in the London meeting hall of the Royal Philosophical Society. Most intriguing was the work of a certain Richard Lower, a Cornish physician who in 1669 had published a Tractatus de corde [Treatise on the Heart]. Lower was not working alone, and indeed he appears to have been encouraged in his experiments by other members (many of higher rank than he) of the Royal Society. Thus we learn from the Society's journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society about “[t]ryals Proposed by Mr. [Robert] Boyle to Dr. Lower, to Be Made by Him for the Improvement of Transfusing Blood Out of One Live Animal into Another.” Boyle goes on to enunciate a list 'Queries' for Lower to answer:

  • Whether a fierce dog, by being quite new stocked with the blood of a cowardly dog, may not become more tame or vice versa?
  • Whether a transfused dog will recognize his master?
  • Whether characteristics peculiar to a breed (e.g., the scent of bloodhounds) will be abolished or impaired if a spaniel’s blood is transfused into a bloodhound?
  • Whether rejuvenation will occur if an old, feeble dog is given the blood of a young, vigorous one?

We know from the text of the Tractatus de corde that Lower took Boyle up on many of these suggestions. The most active period of animal experimentation in the Royal Society seems to have peaked in the 1660s, when researchers were concerned mostly with questions about respiration and the circulation of the blood, areas in which, it could easily be presumed, not much differed from species to species. William Harvey, with his discovery of the blood’s circulation, did not settle the question once for all as to why it circulates and of what vital functions it sees to. Next to those performed with the air pump, experiments involving transfusion were among the most common of those performed by the Royal Society (and it is worth noting as well that many of the air-pump experiments on animals were also concerned with blood– namely, with the oxygenation of the blood through respiration).

Before a transfixed public at Greshame College, in 1666 Lower performed dog-to-dog transfusions, in which two dogs were connected together by means of tubes, and blood was made to flow out of one, into the other, and back again. The record shows that of all the members of the audience at the experiment on transfusion, only the legendary diarist John Evelyn registered any squeamishness. A few years later, in 1670, Evelyn writes in his diary of being “forc'd to accompanie some friends to the Beare-garden” in London, to watch a dog-fight. “[T]he Irish Wolfe dog exceeded,” he relates, “which was a tall Gray-hound, a stately creature in deede, who beat a cruell Mastife.” Evelyn goes on: “One of the Bulls tossd a dog full into a Ladys lap as she sate in one of the boxes at a Considerable height from the Arena: there were two poore dogs killed; & so all ended with the Ape on horse-back, & I most heartily weary, of the rude & dirty passetime, which I had not seene I think in twenty years before.”

Was the Royal Society just another scene of rude and dirty pastimes? One thing that the historian of animal experimentation cannot help but notice is that the dog was often taken as the ideal test subject not just because of the relative similarity of its internal anatomy to ours, but also because its expressions of pain or displeasure are for us so easy to read and understand. Who after all really knows whether the parakeet in the vacuum chamber is suffering from lack of oxygen, or just flapping its wings as some mechanical response? Far from it being the case that the famous new animal-machine doctrine of the 17th century made vivisection permissible, it is rather precisely because the vivisectionists knew that dogs do have feelings that they were such useful Ersätze in experiments known to involve suffering.

Dogs were moreover useful because they were so forgiving: they can be put through the same torture over and over again without growing resentful. Thus Lower tells of one test subject who, “once its jugular vein was sewn up and its binding shackles cast off, promptly jumped down from the table and, apparently oblivious of its hurts, soon began to fondle its master, and to roll on the grass to clean itself of blood.”

3. Lelaps, Mopse, and Amarille

Justin2 Let us turn to what I take to be the pièce de résistance of early modern philosophical writing on dogs: Leibniz's “Request of the Dogs” of 1680 (a full transcription and translation of it is available here). It is a satire, obviously. But beyond the simple fact of its genre, what might we hope to learn from it?

In spite of the text's whimsical spirit, Leibniz willy-nilly says some profound things about the nature of dogs, and of dog-human relations. Indeed, much of it seems to be an anticipation of the cognitive and evolutionary account that would later be filled out in the work of authors such as Miklósi. Writing in the person (so to speak) of Lelaps, Mopse, and Amarille –a hunting dog, a guard dog, and a lapdog resident at the court of Hannover– Leibniz begins by invoking “the great Diogenes, called the Cynic or the 'canine' in view of the affection that he gave us, had the custom of declaring loudly that there was sometimes a greater difference from one dog to another, than there is between certain men and certain beasts.” Leibniz notes that the diversity between dogs “makes them seem almost of different species.” He will repeat this observation in the 1704 New Essays concerning Human Understanding, where he claims that the 'races' of great cats, such as tigers and lynxes, are no more different the one from the other than are the breeds of dog. It is unlikely that Leibniz is aware that it is human-imposed pressure that has resulted in the diversification of breeds. But whatever the cause, there is a clearly observable fact that dogs are morphologically and behaviorally diversified in a way that most other species are not. Leibniz describes this diversity in terms of the 'nations' of dogs.

The three dogs, each from its own nation, complain that the introduction of Denis Papin's newly invented pressure cooker (and bone reducer) will “disturb the good understanding that has existed for all time between dogs and men,” and they argue that the agreement concerning the distribution of meat and bones is one that has existed “since the Flood, that is to say since men began to eat the flesh of animals.” Now it is at least striking that, if we replace 'the Flood' with 'roughly 15,000 years ago', we have something close to the true account of the shared history of humans and dogs. There was indeed a time before this sharing began, but that time is antediluvian, which is to say back far enough that many of the basic elements of human existence had not yet taken shape, even if the genetic predisposition for them was already there. From the moment these elements became apparent, that 'good understanding' has held: it has, for practical purposes if not literally, “existed for all time between dogs and men.”

Leibniz goes on to briefly describe what human life might be like without dogs. He exaggerates the practical consequences, but it is not hard to see that such a life would involve the loss of something distinctively human. Again, Leibniz is speaking in practical terms, but unwittingly cutting to the heart of something much more profound. If the dogs no longer guarded the sheep, he observes, they would be taken by the wolves (again, at once the closest ancestors and the fiercest enemies of the dogs). “In denying us the bones,” the dogs protest, “you will lose them along with the meat.” We, in other words, eat the beasts of the field together, and it is this arrangement that keeps us alive, and that gives shape and meaning to the pronoun in the first-person plural.

4. You Are Who You Eat With

Those who conceptualize human-animal relations in terms of 'animal rights' often suppose that dog-loving carnivores are guilty of some sort of performative contradiction. Thus Cass Sunstein worries that “people who love… pets, and greatly care about their welfare, help ensure short and painful lives for millions, even billions of animals that cannot easily be distinguished from dogs.” But in what sense can these animals not be easily distinguished? Genetically? Neurophysiologically? Clearly, we do distinguish dogs from them, and we do so easily. We do so because they respond emotionally to features of their environment in much the same way we do, and, more importantly, we are able to interpret their responses as being like ours. The similar expressiveness of dogs' and humans' faces is a result of convergent evolution, capped off by artificial selection over the past several thousand years. The result is that dogs have been welcomed into our meat-sharing community, which would, much later, become our moral community. How could we eat them, when 'we' includes them? (I will deal with the question of Northeast Asian and pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culinary practices at another time, and will explain why these apparent counterexamples do not necessarily threaten my general account.)

What we see in the 17th-century, I think, is an intensive effort to re-negotiate the boundaries of humanity after the demise of many of the core convictions of the Christian anthropology that had sustained many centuries of a largely unexamined sense of human uniqueness. In this climate, the spectre of cynicism re-appeared: the view that our true community is the one we share with the dogs. That there is not a comparable current of felinism or even simianism in the history of philosophy is the result, I think, of certain facts about humanity's unique relationship to dogs, facts that remain obscure so long as human beings continue to attempt to distinguish themselves by contrast with the unscientific folk-category of 'animal'.


Works Cited

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Dennis Des Chene, “'Animal' as Category: Bayle's 'Rorarius',” in Justin E. H. Smith (Ed.), The Problem of Animal Generation in Early Modern Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Anita Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Ádám Miklósi, Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Cass R. Sunstein, Introduction to Martha C. Nussbaum and Cass R. Sunstein (Eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Oxford University Press, 2005.