Calling a dog “the dog” It is the nature of scientific study of non-human animals that a few individual animals who have been thoroughly poked, observed, trained, or dissected come to represent their entire species. Yet with humans we never let one person’s behavior stand for all of our behavior. If one man fails to solve a Rubik’s cube in an hour, we do not extrapolate from that that all men will so fail (unless that man had bested every other man alive). Here our sense of individuality is stronger than our sense of shared biology. When it comes to describing our potential physical and cognitive capacities, we are individuals first, and members of the human race second. By contrast, with animals the order is reversed. Science considers animals as representatives of their species first, and as individuals second. We are accustomed to seeing a single animal or two kept in a zoo as representative of their species; to zoo management, they are even unwitting “ambassadors” of the species. Our view of the uniformity of species members is well exemplified in our comparison of their intelligence. To test the hypothesis, long popular, that having a bigger brain indicates greater intelligence, the brain volumes of chimpanzees, monkeys, and rats were compared with human brains. Sure enough, the chimp’s brain is smaller than ours, the monkey’s smaller than the chimp’s, the rat’s a mere cerebellum-sized node of the primates’ brains. That much of the story is fairly well known. What is more surprising is that the brains used, for comparative purposes, were the brains of just two or three chimpanzees and monkeys. These couple of animals unlucky enough to lose their heads for science were henceforth considered perfectly representative monkeys and chimps. But we had no idea if they happened to be particularly big-brained monkeys, or abnormally small-brained chimps.* Similarly, if a single animal or small group of animals fails in a psychological experiment, the species is tainted with the brush of failure. Although grouping animals by biological similarity is clearly useful shorthand, there is a strange result: we tend to speak of the species as though all members of the species were identical. We never make this slip with humans. If a dog, given the choice between a pile of twenty biscuits and a pile often biscuits, chooses the latter, the conclusion is often stated with the definite article: “the dog” cannot distinguish between large and small piles—not “a dog” cannot so distinguish. So when I talk about the dog, I am talking implicitly about those dogs studied to date. The results of many well-performed experiments may eventually allow us to reasonably generalize to all dogs, period. But even then, the variations among individual dogs will be great: your dog may be an unusually good smeller, may never look you in the eye, may love his dog bed and hate to be touched. Not every behavior a dog does should be interpreted as telling, taken as something intrinsic or fantastic; sometimes they just are, just as we are. That said, what I offer herein is the known capacity of the dog; your results may be different.

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