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.

Hunter-Gatherers

PandorasSeedEvery once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.

Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.

Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.

Civil Lies a Ton

Often I began my classes by asking a basic question: if something pervasive, invisible, and very powerful were affecting you daily, in all aspects of your life, would you want to know about it? I don’t recall too many sleepy shoulders shrugging. We want to know what it is that is impacting us on a daily basis. Of course, I meant religion. Our secular society has a peek-a-boo affinity with religion; if we close our collective eyes, it will go away. Time and history have long put the lie to this idea—religion is a deep and pervasive force in society, and it is not about to go away. In our one-size-fits-all culture, however, we like to think that the bottom-line of greed and personal promotion will satisfy everyone. Statistics, however, seem to indicate otherwise. Not just America, but the world is a pretty religious place. I have always wondered at the strange elitism that considers itself above the influence of hoi polloi (in the literal sense). “If I’m not religious,” so the reasoning goes, “then no sensible person can be.” And we ignore religions until they explode and then go on ignoring them some more.

Although my career hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped—I am an academic through and through—I still believe in the conviction that got me started down this rough and tangled trail. Religion is important. It is important to understand because it is very much a part of what it means to be human. Even those who are not religious have had to switch off an instinct that every child feels during a thunderstorm, and every adult feels at a time of deep, existential crisis. We may not believe, and yet we believe we believe. Religion is part of us. If we ignore it, we become strangers to ourselves.

I often look at our insipid culture. Sure, the internet provides hours of entertainment, and even some bits and pieces of knowledge. We have, however, consistently devalued those things that make us civilized. Art, music, literature, and yes, religion, all played a part in the very founding of what we consider civilized existence. Prior to that we were hunter-gatherers, roaming after the necessities of daily life. While our institutions of learning struggle to make entrepreneurs believe they still have value, we train our children to hunt and gather. It may not be food, but it is something not so different from food. Only money truly satisfies. If there were another way of being in the world, it might imply—why, it might imply that there is something more to be gained from life. And since that idea is a religious one, it is safest to ignore it and pray it will go away.

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