We’ve been down to two cats now, Sophie and Dolly, for over two years. The last two lads, Tucker and Sneezer, took their leave a couple of summers ago, one otherwise healthy gentleman on the operating table to have his teeth cleaned and the other a poor devil who had suffered far too long from a debilitating disease. Now we have two aging dowagers who think they’re still debutantes. They barely tolerate one another, however, and share a porch space during the day as though they’re on opposite sides negotiating a treaty with Iran. Feline peace is not easy to maintain.
In contrast, the troika of hounds that make up our pack are a mixed group in age, breed and temperament. They came to this planet as different space voyagers and found us as much as we found them. But they’re all social, fun loving, and good natured. They also seem to know something deep and mysterious we are unable to fathom.
Living with all these guys and gals has been an education in animal and perhaps human behavior. The cats are seriously amusing when they unwittingly approach one another at right angles where the walls inside the house meet. It’s one of nature’s true moments of hilarity (for us) and shock (for them) as they come nose to nose at a ninety-degree corner and scare the bejeezus out of each other. I’ve seen them truly levitate.
The dogs on the other hand just chase one another around my car on the parking apron for sport. Milo, the lead dog will occasionally stop abruptly, and let Sheldon (known affectionately as “Shut Up, Sheldon” because of his “little man” constant noise making) run smack into him. They quickly recover, reverse direction, and off they go. Abbie, the aging Goldie who’s a pup at heart and goes few places without her doll baby in her mouth, just watches as though she’s ashamed to be on the same playground with such hooligans.
Living with cats and dogs now for a number of years has perplexed as well as amused me. Fortunately, they usually spare me their thoughts of how I must appear to them. During these hot and humid days of mid summer, life slows down a bit but still has a certain pace to it. Of course, the snows and ice of February didn’t keep them from demanding their morning “walkie,” so why should we think humidity in the nineties at seven in the morning would make them pause for a nano second as their eyes follow my every movement from the time I get up with them until Jody and I pull on our boots and reach for the leashes. Cats never go on walks and never show any interest in us bounding off, dogs tugging at their leads. Good riddance, they say, as they curl up for a moment of peace and quiet.
This morning before the dogs finally won the waiting game I was reading an excerpt of a book by Yuval Noah Harari entitled, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. When I was growing up we were taught that the main difference between us and the rest of the animals on the planet was that we were tool makers and users. Then someone noticed that crows used devices in clever ways to bust up hard-to-get-at food. Dolphins could “talk” and anteaters used their tongues to poke around in anthills to catch dinner. The tool-user idea was soon out.
What fascinated me about Harari’s book was the premise that the truly unique quality that only humans have — the key thing that distinguishes us radically from other animals and allows us to create large, complex social organizations — is our ability to have a commonly held abstract belief about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated at all. As Harari writes:
“The truly unique feature of [Homo Sapiens or Sapiens] language is not its ability to transmit information about the [tangible]. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
“Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution (about 70,000 years ago). Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’”
According to Harari,
“This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo Sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey, for example, to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.”
As we walk, I talk to Milo specifically about all this because he’s the academic intellectual in the group. Abbie is the hedonist interested only in her own well being which translates into finding a pile of deer pellets to scarf down before we can jerk her leash back. Sheldon is the primitive hunter concerned totally with scanning for deer, for some reason his mortal foe.
So I turn to Milo and tell him that it’s our “fiction making” that has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. Voilà, common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime Myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states come to mind. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, or so the story goes.
Of course, Milo is unimpressed and doesn’t care when I tell him that Harari says that ants and bees only work together in huge numbers in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. He acknowledges, though, that his distant relatives the wolves cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individual wolves that they trust and know intimately. He scoffs when I tell him that the superior Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. I smugly tell him that’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and wolves are hunted down and shot by ranchers. So much, also, for chimps who usually end up locked away in zoos and research laboratories.
All that may be true, he acknowledges, but he points out we “superior” Sapiens are nothing to brag about as we also hunt one another down and have an insatiable blood lust. We also go in large numbers to rallies featuring Donald Trump and Scott Walker and salivate at their every word in a manner not so dissimilar to how Abbie approaches a pile of deer scat. He says it’s easy for me to talk about “civilization” now that I live in the woods and disdain most cities, all the time saying that a good day is one when I don’t have to go anywhere and no one comes to see me. As we trot along undisturbed by the noise and commotion that fellow dogs and owners have to deal with in town, we wonder what causes this social order to come apart at the seams when too many people or dogs — or worse yet, cats — live under the same roof or the same neighborhood. Seems as though there’s a finite number of individuals as well as societal rules and requirements that can be piled into place before society reaches the tipping point. Anything over that plateau and pop goes the weasel.
We agreed each had a point as we headed into the last furlong of our walk. Milo firmly believes there is no need for formal ranks, pecking orders and law books to keep order so long as the threshold of about a handful of people, dogs and cats, and other critters is not crossed. That and regular meals is why he finds his life at our manse ideal. He feels sorry for urban dogs and owners alike who have to be careful where they pee and can be sent to jail without passing “Go” if they forget their latex gloves and discrete “animal waste” bags. He doesn’t believe in the fiction thing and says with conviction that things definitely do not work better if we all just drink the kool-aid and adopt whatever religious, political or social patterns that contribute to the belief in common myths.
I think in his sleep when his legs twitch and he runs in his dreams he’s living in his own myth. He’s convinced that dogs rule, despite the taunts from the cats that dogs are obsequious retards and can barely get beyond the drool stage. He dreams those wild and passionate dreams of Ferlinghetti’s dog who wandered the streets freely on his own, not at the end of a leash. His idea of a critical threshold, however, is definitely reached when some unknown nincompoop becomes the leader of the pack, the moment someone affixes a binding license tag on his collar ring, or installs an Invisible Fence that yells at him “Stop! Or Feel the Pain.” He still can’t get over the day he was taken to the vet’s and told he was just going to be “tutored” in a new skill. So it goes in an “ordered” and political world of too many rules and regulations.
We get back home hot and sweaty, and all serious talk stops as the water pan is attacked. Special treats are ice cubes and chilled carrot sticks. The cats just shake their heads and turn away from the spectacle.
The dog empire, though, is founded on something that predates the Cognitive Revolution. In fact, it predates most history. Milo knows the ancient ways and is content to keep the secret to himself. We can talk all we want about large-scale human cooperation and what keeps “civilization” going. If we want to believe civilization is the fiction we tell ourselves and that the common myths we live and die by exist only in people’s collective imaginations, that’s fine with him. But he knows the truth.
It was the dog that originally came out of the night around the fire to provide man with companionship and protection. It was the dog that could hear and see “the other” that threatened the tribe. He could smell the marauders and raiders and sound the alarm before those in his adopted tribe knew they were in harm’s way. It was this archetypal Dog, just a juggling of letters to go from there to God, that was at the heart of the matter. Stranger theories have spun the world on its wobbly course.
So as we settled into our morning, Milo felt no need to argue with me further or bark out his claims. Unlike so many who are little more than big noises, he knows of what he speaks. An alertness of the head, hair raised, a low growl, a charged whisper is all that is needed.
One could do worse than live in a civilization that has gone to the dogs. That’s my shaggy dog story and I’m sticking to it. Now, if politicians only had four legs and wagged their tails …