"René Descartes was a jackass."

Wednesday night, went to a talk at Santa Fe Complex by Steven Kotler. We'd caught him on the Radio Café a while back talking about his book A Small Furry Prayer and again in advance of this. As it sounded like from his most recent appearance, this was still part of the book tour, but, as he noted that night, he presented all the stuff he hadn't been talking about.

More specifically, he focused on the cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology behind the approach taken at Rancho de Chihuahua,* the small-dog sanctuary he runs with his wife Joy. Can I sum up not having taken notes? Let's see. If you're not a dog person, this is going to be a particularly long post.

Old evidence points to the domestication of dogs around 14,000 years ago; later evidence says around 36,000. And then there's some newer findings that say 140,000 years. Meaning that we spent a lot of time evolving alongside the canids. That empathy that we feel defines our humanity? Actually, not really present among our primate relatives — but found in wolves. Were we learning from them as they found a way into our families and homes?

The title's quote comes from Kotler's idea that, 'round about 10,000 years ago when we became agrarian, we moved away from being equal with the natural world — something still found in primitive cultures — and started to define animals as "other," something we had dominion over and could control. Rationalizing why some animals were food and some were friends, why some plants were beneficial and some were weeds. Milllennia later, Descartes comes along and brings scientific legitimacy to the notion that animals are inferior because they can't think.

Do dogs have emotions like we do? Who can say? But, turns out, they've got pretty much the same powerful mix of neurochemicals that we do that drive our behavior. The things that make us feel a particular way, react to situations — and of particular interest to the Rancho — the things that our brains do to heal us, there's a lot in common. For damaged dogs, there's a lot to be said for the value of insane runs around the arroyos and cliffs with a pack:

The Five Dog Workout from Outside Magazine on Vimeo.

Am I paraphrasing and getting a lot of this wrong? Probably. But here's one of the thoughts that stuck with me: even if he's only partly right about our co-evolution of our two species … we came a long way by working as partners. "Bootstrapping" our way up together. In modern times, by redefining our relationship we've cut ourselves off from our potential. If we change the way we think about our dogs, return to the way we related for so long, what more could we both become?

Best believe Cheyenne to got sit up on the couch that night.

* I know, right? Chihuahuas? Apparently, after the Pitties and other "bully breeds," the most likely not to make it out of a shelter alive.

Updated to correct the specific type of ass that Descartes is, based on last night's reading in A Small Furry Prayer.


andy said...

(1) I don't understand why but apparently all dogs have same genetic make up, small to big.

(2) been reading up on bare foot running. but apparently the research is going saying that early man hunted by running down his prey until it was exhausted. seems like dogs would be well suited for pairing up in this "pursuit."

Bram said...

(1) Apparently they all come from — and, given enough generations of cross-breeding, return to — a medium-sized, light-brown dog.

(2) Born To Run? Awesome, right? And, yeah, I had that same thought at the talk. But given his hypothesis about persistance running, everybody had kind of different roles; dogs may not have been a part of the long pursuit. Plus, first job was most likely as watchdogs protecting the home.