Monthly Archives: December 2011

When did dogs figure out pointing?

In “Transposition,” a sermon delivered during World War II and published in 1949 in Transposition and Other Addresses, C. S. Lewis refers to dogs’ inability to understand pointing.

You will have noticed that dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you will no doubt find this a rather extraordinary thing to say. Dogs obviously understand pointing, even without any training, and it’s quite common to train dogs to respond to pointing as a command (for example, pointing to a doorway to tell the dog to go into the room indicated). No dog I’ve ever met would waste time sniffing my finger when I’d just pointed out a bit of food it could eat. Cats, yes, but certainly not dogs.

However, Lewis had already had no fewer than six dogs by the time “Transposition” was published (details here), so it’s hard to dismiss what he says about them. This isn’t Pliny the Elder we’re dealing with, reporting hearsay about animals he’d had no personal contact with. Lewis knew dogs well and must surely have known from direct experience how they respond to pointing.

Is it possible that Lewis was right, and that dogs have changed in the half-century since he wrote?

We know that dogs’ ability to understand pointing is a relatively recent evolutionary development. According to dog expert Stanley Coren (as quoted in a 2009 Bloomberg article), domestic dogs understand pointing but their wild conspecifics do not.

“Suppose I point at something — the dog recognizes that I’m indicating something in that direction and looks,” Coren said, referring to a 2004 experiment carried out by Harvard anthropologist Brian Hare, which focused on the increase in dog IQ from domestication. “They do this even if they’re eight to ten weeks old, whereas a wolf, reared since puppyhood in a human environment, would look at my hand,” explained Coren.

Is it possible that the change Coren alludes to could have happened within living memory, sometime after the Second World War? It would be interesting to comb old books for references to dogs’ understanding or not understanding pointing and try to infer when the change took place.

I suppose it’s also possible that geography is a factor. Perhaps the North American dogs studied by Hare and Coren have abilities which English dogs do not. (Iain McGilchrist, a Scot, also refers to dogs’ ability to understand pointing, but he seems to be drawing on the same American research as Coren, not on his own experience.) Most of my own experience with dogs has been in America, but I often see stray Taiwan Tugous (a local breed far removed from anything in Europe or America) and should be able to test their responsiveness to pointing.

If you have any direct experience with dogs and pointing, or if you know of any references to it in books, please leave a comment.

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Filed under Dogs, Evolution

A strange symbiosis

Let me tell you about an organism I know of which has a very peculiar lifestyle. Actually, it is composed of two biologically distinct organisms, known as the Slug and the Shell, each with its own DNA and reproductive cycle. However, the Slug and the Shell are so closely bound together for most of their life cycle that it makes more sense to think of them as two parts of a single organismic system.

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At first glance, it’s hard to see why a Slug needs a Shell at all. Slugs are complete, self-contained organisms in their own right and are quite capable of living and thriving alone, without being bonded to a Shell. In fact, because of their greater fecundity, Slugs greatly outnumber Shells, and at any given time most of the Slugs in the world are unbonded, living without Shells. However, unbonded Slugs do have one striking liability: an inability to reproduce. They produce gametes in great abundance but have no external genitalia and hence no way of releasing those gametes.

Shells, on the other hand, are wholly dependent on Slugs and, except during pupation, are unable to live independently. While a Shell is a complete, living organism (not a lifeless mass of calcium carbonate, as the name might suggest), it is a seriously deficient one, with an incomplete digestive system (no mouth or anus) and no means of locomotion. Unlike a Slug, it does have a fully functional reproductive system, including external genitalia, but its inability to move around nevertheless makes reproduction a practical impossibility.

A few days prior to hatching, Shell eggs produce a powerful pheromone that attracts unbonded Slugs, which will hang around waiting for the eggs to hatch so they can bond to the newborn Shells. (If no Slugs are attracted, or if the bonding is unsuccessful, the Shells usually die in a matter of hours.) When a Shell bonds with a Slug, it plugs into the Slug’s digestive system, siphoning some of the Slug’s food into its own stomach and then routing its own fecal matter back into the Slug’s digestive tract to be excreted. Because it is mostly immobile, the Shell uses relatively little of the Slug’s food, but it is nevertheless essentially a parasite at this stage in its life cycle, living off the Slug and giving it nothing in return. The Slug-Shell unit at this point in its development is known as a Protosnail.

When Protosnails reach maturity, they mate. However, while the Slug does all the work of finding a mate and fighting off other Protosnails, it is only the Shells that mate, only the Shells that lay eggs, and only the Shells’ DNA that is passed on — for what hatches from the egg is not a complete Protosnail but just a Shell, which must attract a new Slug of its own.

Shortly after mating, the Shell disconnects from the Slug, drops off, and pupates. During the Shell’s pupal stage, the Slug once more lives independently. However, it stays in the general vicinity of the pupal Shell and will not bond with any other Shell during this time. During its Protosnail phase, the Shell has imprinted on its Slug’s DNA, and after pupation the adult Shell will bond only with that same Slug. And the Slug, as we shall see, has a very good reason for wanting to bond with its Shell again; such re-bonding is its only hope of getting any return on the investment it has made in its erstwhile parasite.

When the adult Shell emerges from its chrysalis, its Slug is generally there waiting for it, and they immediately bond again to form the final stage in their collective life cycle: the Permasnail. This time the bonding is much deeper and more pervasive, and it is irreversible. If the Protosnail is a bit like a hermit crab (albeit with a living shell), the Permasnail is more like lichen: functionally a single organism. However, the Slug and Shell components still retain their own separate DNA. Most importantly, from the Slug’s point of view, in the Permasnail the Shell’s external genitalia connect to the testes or ovaries of the Slug, finally allowing the Slug to reproduce its own kind.

When Permasnails mate, the eggs they lay hatch into Slugs, which grow to maturity and then start looking around for Shells to bond to in order that they may move on to the next stage of their life cycle.

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So what am I really talking about? What is the real meaning of this zoological treatise à clef? I’ll reveal the answer later, but first feel free to guess.

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Filed under Mormonism

How crazy do you have to be to think you’re God?

C. S. Lewis once wrote that if Christ was a mere man who believed he was God, he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” — that is, a complete lunatic who could not possibly be considered a great moral teacher or anything of that nature. In this essay, Peter Kreeft takes Lewis’s point a step further and claims that mistakenly believing oneself to be God is even crazier than believing oneself to be a poached egg — that Christ, if wrong, was literally as crazy as it is possible for a human being to be.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Is that really a fair measure of insanity, though? The gap between your beliefs (about yourself or anything else) and reality is a measure of how wrong you are, but being very wrong isn’t the same as being insane. To be insane, you have to be obviously wrong; your beliefs have to be inconsistent with, or at least completely unsupported by, the data directly available to you. Ontologically speaking, a man may have far less in common with God than with a butterfly or even a poached egg — but the fact that he is not a butterfly is still far more immediately obvious than the fact that he is not God.

Consider the following three (hypothetical) people and their beliefs about themselves.

  1. Anthony believes that he is entirely composed of matter operating according to deterministic laws of physics, and that his “soul” (if that word is even appropriate) is “made of lots of tiny robots.” (The phrase is from Daniel Dennett’s translation of an Italian newspaper headline about his philosophy.)
  2. Brian believes that he is an immortal, non-physical spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body, and that his spiritual part is supernatural and not subject to the laws of physics.
  3. Christopher is completely normal physically. However, he is firmly convinced that he has no hands and that his arms terminate in horse’s hooves. He believes this even when he is using his hands, which he can do just as well as anyone else. When other people insist that he does not have hooves and that his hands are perfectly normal, he thinks they are just trying to avoid hurting his feelings.

Whatever the truth may be about the soul and its relation to the body, it’s clear that either Anthony or Brian (or, most likely, both of them) must be deeply and fundamentally wrong about his own most basic nature, whereas Christopher’s error concerns only some relatively trivial anatomical details. Nevertheless, we probably all know people who hold views like Anthony’s and Brian’s and consider them perfectly sane — or at any rate far saner than Christopher, who is clearly barking mad.

Now some people may believe — or think they believe — that Anthony’s denial of his own metaphysical free will (which, in their view, he uses every day) is every bit as insane as Christopher’s insistence that he has no hands. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the question under consideration is not whether a particular belief is a “crazy” one, but whether a person holding that belief can be assumed to be so severely mentally ill that none of his teachings on any subject could be of any value to us. If Anthony or Brian (whichever one seems crazier to you) had written a book about, say, biology or economics or parenting — or even about moral philosophy or religion — would you feel justified in dismissing it as the ravings of a lunatic? (The question is supposed to be a rhetorical one, and I hope you got the right answer.)

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Let us take it as axiomatic that Christians are not (as such) literally insane. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Christian creed is false, it is obvious that such people as Newton, Dante, and St. Thomas have much of great value to teach us. (See my essay about that here.)

Christians believe that Christ is the Eternal and Omnipotent God. They believe that in spite of the fact that he started his career as a baby, increased gradually in wisdom and stature, and needed to eat and drink like ordinary mortals — in spite of the fact that he died like an ordinary mortal, his last words being “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — in spite of the fact that, after promising to return within the lifetime of his first-century disciples, he disappeared for 2,000 years and counting. Many Christians believe even “crazier” things about Christ — for example, that he and his Father are both one and not one, or that bread and wine can literally be his body and blood.

Christians believe all this, and yet, even if we assume it all to be false, they are still sane and perfectly capable of being great moral teachers. Is it really so different is someone falsely believes such things about himself? It seems different — it seems that any sane person would know the truth about himself in a way that he could not know it about another person — but I’m not so sure that it is.

At first glance, the Catholic’s belief that, despite his lying eyes, the bread and wine in front of him are actually the body and blood of Christ, seems to be on the same level as Christopher’s insistence that his hands are actually horse’s hooves. It’s not, though, because the Catholic’s belief is qualified in a way that makes it consistent with what he experiences: the bread is supposed to be flesh only in essence, while its “accidents” remain that of ordinary bread. Christopher’s belief about his hands has no such asterisk, which is what makes it more truly mad.

Similarly, no sane person is ever going to believe that he is simply God, but only God in human form. If Christ believed that he was God, but a God who had condescended to live and die as mortal, would it really be so obvious that he was wrong? So obvious that the belief would mark him as a raving lunatic and disqualify him as a great moral teacher? What aspects of his experience would be inconsistent with that belief? It would be an unusual belief, to be sure, an eccentric belief, but nowhere near the poached-egg level of madness. And if we assume that Christ was in fact a rather extraordinary mortal with seemingly “supernatural” abilities, and that he had been told by his mother that he had no biological father — well, then his belief that he was God hardly even seems all that eccentric anymore.

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Actually, this whole discussion is less hypothetical than I have been making it sound. The fact is that I am personally acquainted with a man who believes himself to be Jehovah incarnate, and he’s a very intelligent, creative, and insightful person with a keen if somewhat unconventional moral sense. (In fact, in his moral discourse I often find the same combination of astute insight, earnest benevolence, and biting sarcasm that is so characteristic of Christ himself.) I wouldn’t call him a great moral teacher, but it’s quite easy for me to believe that someone like that could be such a teacher. I haven’t bothered myself too much over the question of whether he should be considered “insane,” but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I’m forced to conclude, either that you can believe you’re God without being insane, or that you can be insane and still be an insightful moralist. Either way, the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma crumbles.

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Filed under Christianity, God, Psychology

Contrarian verses

“Not to admire, is all the art I know
To make men happy, or to keep them so.”
Thus Pope quotes Horace; but had none admired,
Would Pope have sung, or Horace been inspired?
(These rhymes are clipped from Byron, every line:
For God’s sake, reader! take them not for mine.)

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I’ll never see nor ever hear
A tree as lovely as Shakespeare,
Nor think that God shall ever make
A tree to rival William Blake.
Not since the tree that wrought Eve’s curse
Have leaves of green matched leaves of verse.

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If cut worm lives,
It ne’er forgives.

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What was once proved
Is now only imagin’d.

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Two Principles in human nature reign;
Reason, to urge, and Self-love, to restrain.

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What Browning meant I think I see
And understand — yet men there be
Whose grasp exceeds their wildest reach,
Who practice what they dare not preach,
Whose flesh is willing, spite of pride,
And for these, too, I think, Christ died.

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My reduced version of Pascal’s wager

If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong.

Therefore, don’t waste time considering the possibility that nothing matters.

(But — don’t be too quick to dismiss a theory just because it seems to imply nihilism. It might not imply what you think it does.)

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Filed under Philosophy