Science Writers' & Reporters' Political Agendas: Revisiting the 'Truth About Dogs'

Some writers and reporters equate “science” with truth and use it as a vehicle to support political and other ideologies. Those who may question their ideologies and motives are then dismissed as being “anti-science” and anti-progress. A case in point is the book The Truth About Dogs, (Viking, NY, 2000) by journalist Stephen Budiansky in which, like his earlier book The Covenant of the Wild, he used the theory of co-evolution to support his fatuous claim that animals chose to be domesticated. I interpret this as a deliberate, albeit anthropomorphic attempt, under the guise of scientific authority, to distance humans from other animals. In the process he demeans people’s love for their dogs and other animals and undermines the legitimate concerns and progress of the animal protection and rights movements.

After his book The Covenant of the Wild was published, in which he presented his hypothesis that certain opportunistic species deliberately chose to live with humans and thus became domesticated, was feted by the establishment, even giving a keynote address at an American Veterinary Medical Association conference. This was one of many conferences convened over the years to help keep at bay the concerns of animal rights and liberation advocates, and the scientific documentation of ethologists and others, concerning the mental states, awareness, and emotionality of animals.

Such scientific documentation, often eloquently argued and impeccably documented by animal behavior and cognitive ethology researchers, is discounted, and by and large not even cited by Mr. Budiansky in his book The Truth About Dogs. He uses a few carefully selected scientific studies citing often only parts and half-truths thereof. The truth behind his book is a truth that moral philosophers call the Cartesian fallacy – and legacy: The view that dogs and other animals are more like unfeeling machines than feeling human beings; and that domestic animals, as wildlife protection advocate Joseph Wood Krutch contended long before Budiansky, are nothing more than “degenerate parasites”.

The worldview that Mr. Budiansky espouses and defends is a view that sees dogs as opportunistic, manipulative emotional parasites of gullible human sympathetic weakness (rather than empathy) is something to be reckoned with politically, legally, socially, and ethically. As a science writer and journalist, he surely has a responsibility to convey to the public accurate information about the latest developments in the sciences and biomedicine. But how can this responsibility be fulfilled by any science writer and journalist with such a biased, anthropocentric world view that regards animals are our inferiors, lacking reason and emotion, having no rights, and being exploitable as a means to satisfy exclusively human ends without question.

Because of his aversion to animal rights and environmental ethics, which I have long advocated, Mr. Budiansky, in his feature article in US News and World Report, (May 13, 1996, pp.33-34), singled me out first of all intellectuals in the US whom he perceived as being philosophically aligned with the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, and his “anti-society and anti-science indictments.” This is the politics of mis-perception indeed, — and the fabrication of disinformation to discredit an entire movement, not to mention my life’s worth and work! The dominant worldview of Budiansky, et al, can be traced back to the Greek Stoics and the Roman Imperialists whose culture, Aristotelian philosophy, and human-centered values were embraced by opportunistic materialists and religionists, and later industrialists, capitalists, and colonialists. This is why Mr. Budiansky saw support for animal rights as radical anti-establishment, even counter to religious tradition, and against the nation’s economic security and medical and scientific progress.

Professor Ray Coppinger sent me his scientific paper that Budiansky used as the central scientific truth in his books The Covenant of the Wild and The Truth About Dogs, this being that domestic animals chose to be domesticated as a survival strategy. (Raymond P. Coppinger and Charles Kay Smith (1983) The domestication of evolution. Environmental Conservation 10:283-292.) Prof. Coppinger sees domestication as a natural (and therefore acceptable) evolutionary phenomenon. He hypothesizes that species showing infantilism (neoteny– the persistence of infantile traits into adulthood), what he calls “youthful behavior,” like play and submissive, friendly greeting, enabled us “to enter into interdependent symbioses – relationships that led to a whole new strategy of survival for all the neotenic partners.” A mutually beneficial “domestic alliance” was thus established, as with, he states, the neotenic “Indian [Elephas maximus] but not African [Loxodonta africana] elephants” (p.285).

As I know from personal experience working in India, Asian elephants are chained, starved and beaten, and their spirits broken in the course of training to work as beasts of burden and to carry tourists on their backs. This is a far cry from establishing a “domestic alliance. Prof. Coppinger’s unconditional (or fatalistic) acceptance of the domestication of animals ignores the serious animal welfare and now global adverse environmental consequences of domesticating and breeding billions of farmed animals. To see these consequences as natural evolution, implicit in his article that Budiansky naively took to be scientifically valid, is regrettable.

No less disturbing is Prof. Coppinger’s possibly well intentioned invective against attempts to conserve certain endangered species in their natural habitats. He proposes to save some endangered species by making them more human-dependent and neotenized. Mr. Budiansky and others take this to mean that it is ethically acceptable for people to keep wild animals as pets like wolves and wolf-dog hybrids. To reason that having wild individuals adapt to the changed conditions of the domestic environment by becoming dependent upon humans is species conservation, is an extremely limited, if not defeatist rationalization.

All of this is not to imply that Prof. Coppinger is not concerned about animal welfare. He has done much to promote the use of guard dogs to protect livestock – and thus protect wild predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars and cheetahs in Namibia, from herder and rancher retribution and annihilation. It is also worth noting that in his book, co-authored with his wife Lorna Coppinger, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, (Scribner’s, NY, 2001) that he never cites any of Mr. Budiansky’s observations and writings about dogs; and which I had the pleasure to write an endorsement to appear on the printed cover.

While Budiansky’s book about dogs is scientifically flawed according to other informed reviewers like Dr. Marc Bekoff and Mark Derr, another dog book that concerned me deeply because it was more allegory and novel than a scholarly work of non-fiction, being filled with false assumptions based more on anthropomorphic projects and reflections than about the nature of dogs, is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ book The Hidden Lives of Dogs, (Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1993). This was a media-hyped best seller and I was asked by Ms. Thomas’ publicist to write a promotional statement endorsing her book. I said I would, but only if Ms. Thomas put in her Foreword that even though she allowed her dogs to roam free in the Boston area across major highways, and they would return home covered in blood and deer fur, it is totally irresponsible for people to let their dogs behave like hers, even if it was a “research study” of dog behavior, as she claimed. The author Ms. Thomas refused to do so and sent me a petulant letter chastising me for once having kept captive-bred wild canids for behavioral studies rather than studying them in the field (which I had). I also had serious problems with Ms. Thomas’ interpretations of dog behavior, and this is where editors and publishers of books about the behavior of dogs and other animals need to be on the alert. They should seek expert readers with biological or ethological training so as to avoid a lot of misinformation being published by writers like Ms. Thomas, known more for her Kalahari IKung Bushman experiences than for any scientific studies about dogs; and who have acquired the jargon of science but are lacking in the disciplined, impartial observation and interpretation of animals’ behavior that students of ethology acquire from their mentors like the Coppingers and others trained to interpret the behavior of animals in unbiased ways.

The ethics of responsible care of animal research subjects aside, the utilization of scientific theories and hypotheses presented as fact to support political and other ideologies is now widely employed to protect and promote corporate and other vested interests. The use of “science” to promote the notion of genetic determinism, to deny the anthropogenic causes of climate change and cancer and the risks of genetically engineered food crops has become the hallmark of the latter-day industrial revolution. Science and sensibility go hand in hand and the perversion of both is a call to arms for all scientists, academic institutions and book, journal and newspaper publishers; a call indeed for ethical accountability, veracity and transparency.