For the Love of Dog

All I have to do is say “Old Yellar,” and everyone will know the feeling.  Everyone of a certain age, I should add, who’s owned a canine.  The love of dog.  From where I pass my days I can see out the window into the neighbors’ back yards for four houses over.  They all have dogs.  Big dogs, mostly.  They also have fenced in backyards.  One of the things I haven’t seen too much in our neighborhood is dog walking.  People let their dogs out to frolic, and do their, ahem, other outdoor activities in the yard.  Once a day some member of the family, either with the basic plastic bag or with the specialized, long-handled brush and scooper, slowly surveys the yard to remove any offensive matter so the space may be used for human activities.  It’s a level of care that most would shudder to provide for their own species.

Wolves were the earliest domesticated animals.  In those hunter-gatherer days either they or humans—the jury’s out on which—realized the advantages of working together.  Kind of like we were fated to be partners.  Besides, unless the dog turns on us, there’s no question of who’s the master here, and everyone likes to be the boss.  When I catch a glimpse of one of the neighborhood pets being scolded, or praised, it’s clear they share emotions with us.  The bond is deep.  I often wonder about this—they recognize the tone of voice, something that takes humans a while to learn.  I grew up with dogs and I found out that even if you insult them in a friendly, encouraging tone of voice they’ll love you for it.  Dogs are just that way.

Our first real dog—the one that ended up staying with us his whole life, was a beagle pup we got at a farm.  Dogs like to be with others.  Unlike humans, they don’t have to pretend.  (Although they can do that too, as when they growl at you during a game of tug-o-war.)  Then we leave home and go to our places of business, where capitalism reigns.  We treat other humans coldly, clinically.  “It’s only business,” we’ll parrot, especially if we feel bad about doing what the boss tells us.  That’s the way we treat our own species when money’s involved.  And we’ll sit at our desks, daydreaming of our dog at home that will be so glad to see us when we walk through that door.  And we’ll gladly clean up after our pets what we find obscene even to write in human language.  It kind of makes me wonder when I glance out the window while at work.

Ethology Theology

MindingAnimalsProminent public intellectuals, we’re used to hearing, often lament the survival of religion into a rationalist age. As an obscure private intellectual—if I may be so bold—I am always pleased to see when a credentialed scientist asks if we are being too hasty. No, but actually says we’re misguided to dismiss the evidence of our own observations. Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart is an encouraging study by a balanced individual. Bekoff, unlike many scientists, realizes that emotion does play into observation and reasoning. More than that, materialistic reductionism does not account for human or other animals’ experience of life. Historically motivated by religions to separate ourselves from animals, we have only come to know slowly—painfully slowly—that the distinctive markers of humanity are shared in degree by other animals. Bekoff is bold enough to give the lie to the belief that animals have no emotional life. Traditionally science has said that we cannot know what goes on in animal brains so it is best to take animal emotions off the table. Then scientists go home and love their dogs, who love them in return. When’s the last time I read a scientist writing about love?

Minding Animals is a manifesto. We have, in our arrogance, made unwarranted assumptions about both animals and our unique status on the earth. We drive other species of animals to extinction at a rate that required an asteroid collision or some other catastrophic event in the past. And we use animals as if they had no interests of their own, even such basic interests as avoiding pain and suffering. “They’re just animals,” we’re told. Bekoff is an ethologist—someone who studies non-human animal behavior. As common sense, both the sine qua non and bête noire of science, reveals, animals experience and express happiness, anger, and love. They can be depressed. They can be overjoyed. And we treat them as if they were objects to do with as we please.

Bekoff admits some of his fellow scientists treat him as if he’s gone soft. Like Diogenes, however, I search for an honest man and I think I have found him. Instead of castigating religion, Bekoff ends his book with a chapter on theology. Not to make fun of it, but to show that even scientists must integrate different kinds of knowledge. Not only is the science that Bekoff describes appealing to the emotions, it also makes sense. No scientist is completely objective. Even Mr. Spock breaks down once in a while. We all have perspectives. And that includes our fellow earthling animals. We evolved from the same ancestors and yet treat them as if we own them. Minding Animals will—or at least should—make us feel guilty about that. Being human and being humane, after all, are only a silent e apart.

Monk over Matter

ManWhoCouldFlyPeople can think with their emotions. At a young age we begin formal schooling to teach us the rational ways that we must develop to live in society. Emotions are trained, tamed, and sometimes repressed as we are taught that “higher brain” functions are what make us distinctly human. Even in our supremely rational world, however, we can’t figure out consciousness. It remains elusive, provocatively bordering on the supernatural, and the experience of being human gives the lie to consciousness being emergent from a physical brain. These are the kinds of issues that underlie the strange case of Joseph of Copertino. The subject of Michael Grosso’s recent book, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, Joseph may well be off the radar of most people. In fact, in the seventeenth century church in Italy, his presence was downplayed and hushed, almost as an embarrassment to Roman Catholicism of the day. Why? Joseph was known to levitate. In fact, his levitations were often in public and were witnessed by individuals whose credibility was not in doubt. With the Reformation going on, however, the last thing the church needed was a miracle.

The standard historical line of dealing with Joseph is to laugh and wave our hands in the directions of those credulous early moderns. They thought they saw him levitate, but it was all imagination. Even if we have to invoke mass hallucination. People just can’t levitate. Grosso’s book, however, takes a different approach to Joseph. Looking at first-hand accounts, carefully considering the political situation of seventeenth-century Italy, and being open to parapsychology, this book presents a very different portrait of the flying saint. There was nothing to be gained by hiding such a prodigy unless, as Grosso argues, there was actually something to the story. It may come down to a basic misunderstanding of consciousness, his book suggests.

No doubt The Man Who Could Fly will be simply dismissed by many. Those who dare to read it, however, will find a cogently argued, rational exploration of a man who was lifted by spiritual ecstasies in a way we have yet to understand. Grosso demonstrates that, depending on perspective, such events do not violate laws of physics so much as demonstrate that we have much yet to learn about them. Categorizing events as supernatural puts up an artificial barrier to exploring scientifically events that have evidence in the form of multiple witnesses. Obviously we can’t go back to the 1600’s and visit Joseph in some obscure convent where he’d been shuffled by church authorities to keep him out of the public eye. Even if we could there would be no way to prove his extraordinary gifts. When it comes to the life of emotion, the only way to accept the impossible is with belief. And at times belief may be the most rational response at hand.