For the Birds Radio Program: Atlantic Monthly Article

Original Air Date: July 9, 1999

The current Atlantic Monthly has gone to the dogs. (3:26) Date verified.

Audio missing


This month’s Atlantic Monthly cover has the intriguing teaser: “Why Your Dog Pretends to Like You.” The author, Stephen Budiansky, writes, “Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick out pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all.” He goes on to say, “Biologists, if they weren’t victims of the same blindness that afflicts us all wouldn’t hesitate to classify dogs as social parasites.”

The rest of the article discusses canine genetics: how the domestic dogs evolved much farther in our past than people used to believe, and why many geneticists conclude that it wasn’t humans who domesticated the dogs but the dogs that started parasitizing us.

That much of the theory seems true to me, but the author uses the wrong bird species to make his point. He likens dogs to European cuckoos who leave the raising of their young to other birds. In my opinion, dogs are much more like Gray Jays—those endearingly fluffy birds that look like chickadees on steroids and are nicknamed Whiskey Jacks and camp robbers. If Blue Jays are the rascally wolves that get by on their wits, living in small family and acquaintance groups very similar to wolf packs, Gray Jays are the friendly dogs that ingratiate themselves to both humans and wild predators in order to sneak an occasional snack and maybe get a little protection to boot.

What irritates me a bit about articles like this one is the author’s need to prove how a group of animals, in this case dogs, lack intelligence and emotions. I’m perfectly willing to believe, until proven wrong, that humans are the smartest and most emotional animals on the planet, and perhaps even the universe. But I am not willing to concede that animals lack intelligence or emotion. They share much of our biochemistry-in this article, Budiansky even goes so far as to state that “probably 90 to 95 percent of the dog genome and the human genome are identical.” If this is true, how can we possibly have cornered the market on all emotions and intelligence?

Yes, dogs and Gray Jays have made their living for thousands of years by accompanying and exploiting big mammals. But that doesn’t mean they don’t at least occasionally end up feeling a genuine fondness for the individuals they exploit, particularly when they develop a long-term relationship. I suspect that my dog Photon cares for me a lot more than, say, Anna Nicole Smith cared for the rich old man she married.

Anyway, the article is a fascinating read, whether you’re interested in dogs, birds, or simply human psychology. After ati wondering about the nature of humans and the nature of the creatures with which we share this planet is part of our humanity.