Jonah Goldberg’s latest op-ed can be summed up by paraphrasing the title of a famous Tom Wolfe article: “Sorry, but your dog’s soul just died” — at least according to a writer at the Chicago Tribune, Jonah notes:
Charles Darwin, a true secular saint of the modern age if ever there was one, loved dogs unreservedly. And, in The Descent of Man, he marveled at the ability of dogs to love back. He noted how even “in the agony of death, a dog has been known to caress his master.”
But even Darwin was a sucker, apparently. Eric Zorn, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, recently mocked a local woman, Jess Craigie, who dove into near-freezing waters to save her dog from drowning. Zorn wrote, “Note to Jess Craigie: Your dog still doesn’t love you.”
Zorn’s source for this dog slander is Jon Katz, who despite his name has written mostly wonderful stuff about dogs. Zorn uses an unfortunate quote from Katz to peddle the fashionable notion that dogs are, in the words of science writer Stephen Budiansky and others, “social parasites.” According to this theory, canines are evolutionary grifters that have fooled humans into believing they are our friends. “Dogs develop very strong, instinctive attachments to the people who feed and care for them,” Katz told Zorn. “Over 15,000 years of domestication, they’ve learned to trick us into thinking that they love us.” (In his book Soul of a Dog, Katz is far more nuanced about the nature of canine affection, suggesting a quid pro quo of food for love. Here, Katz is out of the bag.)
Look, few would dispute that dogs are complicated creatures with internal lives that fall far short of humanlike consciousness or self-awareness. And anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with dogs knows their priorities and our own differ dramatically. That’s part of the magic of doggy goodness. Dogs don’t care whether you’re rich or famous or popular. They care about you. Or, in the case of my dog, Cosmo (a shelter dog), he cares about me and about maintaining an orderly and secure perimeter on our block, as free of mail carriers, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, cheetahs, and wildebeests as possible. His biggest successes have been with the cheetahs and wildebeests — so far.
Here’s the question reductionists like Zorn don’t answer: Why does canine affection have to be a trick or a con? After all, according to the very same logic, I love my wife and daughter because I have strong instinctive attachments for them grounded in my genes. But even if the genetic explanation is absolutely true, it doesn’t change the fact that I love my family.
Why should it be different with dogs? It’s not as if dogs have a Terminator-like computer screen inside their heads that says “run fake-love subroutine now” when their masters come home from work. Dogs don’t pose in front of the mirror practicing their tail-wags like lines from a script so they can make it convincing. If it is true of any living thing, it is true of dogs: They are what they are. A happy dog can no more be faking his joy than a hungry lion could be faking his appetite.
Do we really want to live in a society in which love is a genetically mandated confidence game? Where will that argument take us?
Wolfe’s article (reprinted in his 2000 anthology, Hooking Up) helps to flesh out that last question. But Zorn’s B.F. Skinner for schnauzers routine isn’t exactly the best way to sell newspapers, no matter how leftwing your target audience is — needless to say, lovers of dogs (or “fur children” as they like to say in Berkeley) can be found across the political spectrum, and then some. So it’s a good thing the Tribune has a phalanx of editors there to nip such heartless writing in the bud before the readers see it!
Or not, as the case may be.