The Price of Inventing the Dog

The Price of Inventing the Dog

The Price of Inventing the Dog

Science, technology, and life.
April 16 2008 12:02 PM

The Price of Inventing the Dog

One thing I hope to do more of, now that I've got this network of Web pages , is to integrate reader comments into the blog. Here's a good thread in response to yesterday's post on dog meat . Lid writes ,

I like pigs just fine but dogs share a place with people like no other animal.  Without dogs man could not have herded goats and sheep. Man would not have settled the Arctic before modern technology. Dogs are largely responsible for our ability to sucessfully hunt game and establish populations in arid climates. Without dogs civilization would have evolved much differently, its dispersion limited and its progress stunted.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


To which Sevumar adds ,

Very few people relish the idea of eating an animal they've developed a personal bond with. Because dogs are so common as pets in our culture, it's understandable that many would be squeamish about eating them. These attitudes are the result of the culture we've been born into or raised in and they vary widely from place to place. In Peru, it's common for residents of the highlands to eat guinea pigs. Many African and Asian cultures use a variety of insects in their cuisine. In many East Asian cultures, the keeping of dogs as pets is a relatively recent phenomenon, so eating them was not considered taboo. Nomads of steppe cultures regularly ate horse meat. Typically, cultures learned to make use of whatever sources of protein were available to them.

It's an interesting conversation. If you start with the logic of the first post -- that the dog's moral priority stems from its role in our history -- then the second post seems correct in pegging this as a kind of relativism. So if you come from a population that didn't rely on dogs as other populations did, you have no obligation to treat dogs as pets rather than as food.

Still, I have to agree with the first post that there's something icky about relying on dogs as our teammates and then eating them when it suits us. In fact, I'd push the point further. We didn't just team up with dogs. As a study in Science explained several years ago, we fed them, bred them, and spread them . My take on this is that through relentless genetic selection and breeding, we essentially invented the dog . We derived dogs from wolves by selecting those that excelled at interpreting our behavior and executing our assignments. To borrow the Biblical metaphor: We made a species in our image.

Objectively, going by intelligence alone, it still strikes me as irrational that we think it's more wrong to eat dogs than to eat pigs. Our compunction is purely subjective, based on our current or past relationships with dogs. But maybe this is one of those cases that suggests we should respect subjectivity (or, more precisely, intersubjectivity -- somebody stop me before I start quoting Habermas) as a basis for ethics. Not only is our relationship with dogs deeply enmeshed in history - arguably the most objective thing there is among people - but that history includes our creation of dogs. The nature of dogs is that we made them to suit ourselves; so if our aversion to eating them arises from the same basis, then it's based -- objectively, you might say -- on their nature.

All this philosophy has my head spinning. I'm gonna go find a simpler topic for my next post. Somebody else carry the ball from here.