July 1, 2023

To Understand God, Understand Dog

There is nothing more human than to love a dog and nothing more divine than for God to love humanity. Empathy is both innate and learned, a variable talent to be diligently built on and a skill to be lovingly cultivated. Empathy is the glue that holds human society together (sometimes clumsily referred to as “love”), but it isn’t unique to humans, or even primates for that matter. Anyone with warm-blooded pets can attest to that (maybe not as perceivably so in reptiles, fish, and whatnot). Now, all of you cat people out there are probably annoyed that I’ve singled out dogs as being essential companions to the nature of humanity. But I would encourage you to be patient and maybe just stick with me on this. It’ll take less time to explain than lint-rollering the cat hair off your couch.

Cats have empathy, as do birds, apes, and a variety of other vertebrates. But their empathy begins in their own instinct to nurture each other in their family, herd, flock, troop, etc. For an animal to have empathy for or with a human takes a little extra push on the part of either the animal or the human. Elephants have been known to assist humans in danger, apes have been known to nurture puppies as their own offspring, and domestic cats may even form familial bonds with animals they otherwise would prey on in the wild, like birds and rodents. I’ve had dozens of different pets throughout my lifetime and I can tell you that almost any vertebrate animal (including reptiles) can form emotional, empathic bonds with not only each other, but animals of different species.

Interspecies empathy is a secondary mechanism to instinct.
However, again, interspecies empathy is a secondary mechanism to instinct and natural imprinting behaviors. Chimpanzees often hunt monkeys for food. Many hawks actually prefer to prey on smaller birds than on rodents or fish. And elephants are very likely to charge and fatally trample a human if one stumbles into their territory. Even cats weren’t technically “domesticated” by humans – they effectively domesticated themselves when they realized that befriending humans meant free food and shelter. Dogs are an exception, both by nature and by human design.

We’ve been genetically engineering organisms for thousands of years. Even before we engineered plants for agriculture through selective planting and crossbreeding, we began “engineering” the wolf through selective breeding. Every domestic dog breed on the planet is genetically descended from the gray wolf and archaeologists estimate the process has been going on for somewhere between fifteen and thirty thousand years (that’s five to twenty thousand years before agriculture). We selected the wolf because of its social and empathic nature and nurtured it into an even more empathic creature that is literally designed to be our ideal companion animal – an “image” of mankind, so to speak.

Dogs innately understand AND share our joy and our sorrow.
Dogs recognize human facial features and expression better than chimpanzees (our closest genetic relative in the animal kingdom). In fact, dogs pass the “pointer test” better than apes, which means that if you point to something, a dog will look at the thing you point at, whereas a chimp is more likely to stare at your fingertip than at what you’re directing their attention to. Wolves don’t possess these qualities like dogs, at least not as reliably. For millennia, we designed the dog to be as human-like as we possibly could (short of creating a weird, aberrant dog-man creature). They innately understand AND share our joy and our sorrow, they instinctively protect us and our offspring (even our unborn offspring), and they communicate non-verbally better than many adult humans I know. It’s for this reason that I have always, and with some degree of vindictive spite, claimed that a person who abuses a dog must be soulless, or at least less than human. I stand by that.

Although it may be difficult to look into the buggy eyes of a pug or the needly face of a chihuahua and see their majestic wolf ancestry, we’ve been crafting and honing the dog for almost as long as we ourselves have been properly what we think of as homo sapiens. We effectively and quite intentionally co-evolved with dogs. They have always effectively been mankind’s “pet project,” no pun intended. Put a toddler in the same room with a dog and you’ll see the instinctive, empathic bond that occurs, even with a dog that might be several times larger than the enamored child. This is why I say that there is nothing more human than to love and have empathy for a dog.

I’m leveraging science into a spiritual perspective.
As dog is the image of man who created it, man is the image of God who created him. Yes... as I often do, I’m leveraging science into an existential spiritual perspective. A quote I’ve always loved from 19th century chemist, Louis Pasteur (forgiving his French-ness), puts it quite well: "A little bit of science distances you from God, but a lot of science brings you nearer to him." If God is everything He is said to be – all-knowing, perfect, all-good, etc. – and humans are a sort of image of Him, then we, in a sense, are like His pet project as well. This is one way to think about the troublesome question of how a good God could allow evil to happen in the world.

If you’ve ever had a dog, you know the heartbreak of having to look into their big, sad eyes at the vet as they’re held down to get a shot or that dreaded butt scoop fecal sample thing. They look at you as if to say, “How could you let this happen? I thought you loved me?” I don’t mind admitting that just thinking about having my previous dog euthanized after a long, painful battle with cancer almost brings tears to my eyes. It hurts us not only because we love our furry companions, but also because there really is no way to explain what’s really happening and why it’s for their own good. While they understand what and who we are and that we love them unconditionally, it’s still utterly confusing to them as to why we allow misfortune to befall them at all. And there’s no way for us to explain it to them at their level of intellect and understanding. You know, kind of like how we struggle to understand the concept of divinity and the vast, infinitely interconnectedness of the cosmos.

A misfortune today may save you from a tragedy tomorrow.
Think about the events of your life, trace them back several steps, and consider how little you knew years ago, versus what you know today. Think of all the shots and butt scoops (... gross) that happened to you during your life and how painful or uncomfortable they were at the time, but how they may have been best for you in the long run. Sometimes the loss of a job leads to the discovery of a better career. A divorce might lead you to find a truly loving and fulfilling partner. A misfortune today may even save you from a tragedy tomorrow. When we grapple with understanding what God has in store for us, think of the dog and how we love them and empathize with them, yet still struggle with our inability to truly communicate just how deeply we love and cherish them in a way they can understand. To understand God, seek to understand dog.