One of the coolest scientific studies in recent memory was published last week in the journal PLoS One. In this study, psychologists showed that dogs are capable of experiencing jealousy, a “complex” emotion previously thought restricted to humans.
The experiment was marvelously simple: the researchers went to people’s houses and asked owners to shower a little toy with affection while their dog looked on. The toy was either a plastic jack-o-lantern, or an electronic picture book with some lights and sounds, or a little toy dog that yapped and whined if you pressed a button on its head.
The experimenters observed the dogs’ behavior. It turned out that when dogs watched their owners play with the little stuffed dog, they got way more upset than in the other conditions: they barked, snapped, and pawed at the toy. Many dogs sniffed the butt of the stuffed dog, which the researchers took as evidence that they considered the toy a real dog—adding to the argument that they were jealous of the owner’s misdirected attention.
Now, for many dog owners, it may come as no surprise that dogs exhibit a host of complex behaviors in response to their social environment. Anyone who has ever seen a dog gleefully run away with a slipper is well acquainted with dogs’ ability to read others’ thoughts (he knows you want that slipper)—a phenomenon social scientists call “theory of mind.”
Interestingly, though, there are some people who insist on doubting the claim that dogs feel jealousy. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and adjunct professor at Barnard College, said, “What can be shown is that dogs seem to want an owner’s attention when there is attention being given out.”
Why can’t we know for sure that dogs are feeling jealousy? The argument is that though you see the behavior, you never know what’s really going on inside the mind of the dog. For all we know, a dog could exhibit all the signs of jealousy that we typically see in humans but not actually experience anything close to the same internal sensation.
This argument reminds me of the philosopher Descartes, who believed that animals were actually just machines, with no internal experience whatsoever. They looked, felt, and acted like living beings, but ultimately were just like clocks, with intricate internal machinery but no accompanying consciousness.
Is it possible that behaviors which echo so closely those performed by humans are not accompanied by the same subjective experiences? Sure, it’s possible. It’s possible in exactly the same way that there is absolutely no way of knowing if every single other person in the world is a zombie—with all the trappings of human biology but none of the accompanying qualia (subjective experiences). This solipsistic dilemma is well known in the philosophical world, originally proposed by philosopher of consciousness, David Chalmers. The gist of the whole thing is that, sure, you can assume that when you’re sharing a laugh with another person, they’re experiencing the same feelings of hilarity that you are, but when it comes right down to it, there’s no proof. It’s one of the irrefutable qualities of our current understanding of the universe that it is impossible to prove once and for all that everyone around us isn’t a zombie.
This is all well and good in the world of philosophy, in which thought experiments like this are treated seriously, but let’s be honest, the idea’s absurd. Of course the people around us share the qualities of human experience—joy, sadness, love, envy, and the like. We’re made of the same stuff (carbon, oxygen, etc.), we enjoyed relatively similar upbringings (we had friends and caregivers and toys and scraped knees)—it would be silly to take seriously the claim that we don’t have some things in common, experience-wise, with people in our immediate social sphere, and even in our own culture and beyond. There are certain basic emotional components of what it means to be human which, though they morph and twist from person to person, remain largely intact across all humanity. Everyone knows hate; everyone knows love; everyone knows pleasure; everyone knows suffering. Just because it’s not impossible that your little sister is just a complicated machine that is programmed to annoy you but takes no pleasure from it doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculous. Sis has fun.
The same is true about the proposition that, when dogs show jealous-like behaviors, they aren’t actually feeling the corresponding emotion. Yes: we don’t know what it’s like to be a dog; we never will. But just because intellectual humility requires us to be circumspect when it comes to drawing conclusions about the inner experiences of other organisms doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses about what’s going on for them.
Think about how much we have in common with dogs. Every structure in our brain has a direct analog in the dog brain. That being the case, what’s the most likely scenario? The law of parsimony states that all else equal, the simplest explanation is best. The simplest explanation here is that if we’re made of the same stuff, and behave in similar ways, we should be thinking the same thing, too.
Ultimately what this comes down to is the issue of humility. There are two different ways of being humble when you’re talking about human beings’ relation to animals. The first is to say, “It would be presumptuous to take for granted animals are just like us, so let’s assume we’re different.” These people, maybe nobly, want to grant other organisms their own kingdoms of consciousness and not impose our own experience on them.
The second way of being humble is to say, “It would be presumptuous to take for granted that we’re different from animals, so let’s assume we’re alike!”
I’m all aboard this latter boat. Humans dress themselves in clothes and invent computers and use these to show themselves how different they are from other members of the animal kingdom. But if you could shine a spotlight into the minds of all those people walking back and forth on city sidewalks, you’d see the same basic thoughts—thoughts of sex, and anxiety, and jealousy, and joy—that must populate the minds of all those other organisms with whom we share so much.