Thursday, December 15, 2005

Saletan on Dogs

William Saletan is one of those writers who I had read in bits and pieces for a while before I really differentiated him from the crowd and made an effort to look for his byline. That transitional moment came on the first day of last year’s Republican convention, when he wrote on Slate, in part:
This will be an interesting convention for me. Five years ago, when I moved out of the District of Columbia—a one-party state, minus the statehood—I had to think seriously about which party to register with. I was sick of the liberal dogmatism of my college and post-college friends. I'd come to the conclusion, through personal and political experience, that while Democrats had the right values, Republicans had a better operating theory of human nature: People behave more virtuously and wisely when they bear the consequences of their actions. . . . I didn't agree with the conservative urge to legislate on abortion, homosexuality, or other moral issues. But in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, I found a Republican who shared my libertarian instincts on those questions: Rep. Connie Morella. On many spending issues, Morella was to my left. But I was happy to find a sensible representative who didn't have to follow the Democratic Party's line of bribing approved constituencies and equating virtue with spending.
Of course, that analysis was written before the second Bush administration started to authorize spending like a mature-looking 16-year-old who just found the credit card of someone who shares his name on the sidewalk. Still, I appreciated the way Saletan was wrestling with his political loyalty; something I’m almost alone in doing where I live and work. Being a fairly liberal person stuck in Texas for many years, I figured that New York residence would only expand my presumably left-leaning sensibility, but I underestimated just how deep a contrarian I am. Unless you’re working on Wall Street (I assume), Manhattan and Brooklyn -– news flash -– are patrolled by particularly aggressive thought police. On one level, this provides opportunity for great fun: When I suggest that I might support a John McCain nomination in 2008, friends look at me like I just asked for help naming my new street gang.

OK, you’re not going to believe this, but this post is really intended to discuss Saletan’s piece yesterday about dogs. (I guess I should be writing more about politics in general, so as not to occasionally hijack a perfectly innocent post like this.)

So, take off your GOP-hating or –loving (hi, Ray) hats for a minute, and focus on pooches. Ready?

I’m not a big pet person. I’m not even a small pet person. It’s not that I dislike animals. (I can just hear my vegetarian friends and family screaming now: “Says you!” So, OK, if eating them counts as dislike, there’s room for debate.) The point is I don’t like animals enough to feel that their immediate presence is worth the trouble of taking care of them. Fine: It’s impossible to qualify my feelings without sounding cold-hearted. I get that now.

Part of my cold-heartedness is Darwinian. I’ve long argued that the tiniest breeds -– the kind you often see skipping gaily ahead of freshly face-lifted septuagenarian socialites in upper Manhattan -– are an abomination. I’m not a might-makes-right kind of guy, but I think to qualify as a legitimate species you ought to be capable of surviving for at least three minutes should we suddenly revert to the state of nature. And it’s true that on the other side of the spectrum, dogs that could clearly kick some ass in the state of nature -- well, quite frankly, I fear them. That leaves a middle ground of decent-sized, reasonably tempered dogs with whom I can get along.

According to Saletan, dogs have us to thank for their very existence, but should simultaneously hate us, because we experiment on their genetic distinctiveness to find ways to help ourselves. The whole piece is worth reading (it’s brief; here’s the link again, lazybones), but I particularly loved this paragraph:
Dogs were just a loose category of wolves until around 15,000 years ago, when our ancestors tamed and began to manage them. We fed them, bred them, and spread them from continent to continent. While other wolf descendants died out, dogs grew into a new species. We invented the dog.
So next time a dog is giving you a hard time -- acting disobediently, digging up your garden, gnawing on you -- just put it in its place with a well-timed putdown: “I invented you.” That should help.


Blogger Dezmond said...

I like this guy's writing, based on the clips you just posted. Personally, I feel that someone who does not like animals or is not able to enjoy the presence of pets has a hole in their soul. But that is beside the point. I am lazy, so I did not click the link, instead I just depended on you to summarize it for me. Plus, I am so intelligent, that from the small snippits you posted, I can fully anticipate the wit of the rest of the article, and I have to say that I like it a lot. (At least what I imagine it to be).

But, if he also makes this point in the full article, then I apologize. But he misses the point in the Darwinian discussion. In fact, those small dogs are one of the most shrewd Darwinian animals around. They have "figured out" (evolution-wise) that they would be crushed if left to fend for themselves. So they have made themselves cute (both in appearance and behavior) to appeal to a much stronger species, knowing that the stronger species would take them in and care for their needs. Being somewhat confined in someone's home or backyard and occasionally being subjected to wearing silly custom made sweaters is a small price to pay in exchange for all of your survival and protection needs being met.

11:18 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

No, no. The puppies haven't "figured out" anything. (In fact, the article points out that dogs are dumber than other mammals in many ways.) Saletan's point is that this was genetic engineering -- in other words, manipulated evolution, at best. It's not like tiny, tiny primitive dogs were cagey enough to avoid trouble for enough generations to pass on their "cuteness" to others and then attract the attention of humans... We bred these things: We'd take the two smallest, cutest ones, and keep them and future generations locked in an incestuous cycle that ended up producing the type of rodent-like monstrosities that perch on the shoulders of Paris Hilton.

And Dezmond, I like animals. I do. I just don't want to own them. And this isn't an ironclad rule. Much stricter people have ended up with a pet...

4:24 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Again, you miss the point. I'm not saying that dogs have conciously figured this out, had secret underground meetings, and voted on a course of action for survival. It evolved, like everything else. Slowly, dogs integrated themselves into human society for protection. You are right, breeders took over and genetically engineered quite a bit, but as a species overall, the dog did this on its own over the millenia. Just like the monkey didn't consciously decide to stand up a little straighter and get smarter. It just...happened. Or was designed in a very intelligent way to unfold thusly.

5:04 PM  

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