The recent Nova Science Now special on canine intelligence was an eye-opener for me, and, no matter how simple and “dumbed down” the presentation, I heartily recommend it as a provocative introduction to the subject.

The most interesting segment, for me, was of the attempts (started by the Soviets) at breeding a tame race of canines from wolves. Ninety-nine percent of all specimens captured from the wild were either too fearful or too aggressive. But that 1 percent of curious canines who did not go into fight-or-flight mode at the sight of humans were selected for breeding. And then the process was repeated, over and over, until the behavior of the animals became “tame.”

By which we could mean: civil. Civilized.

And smart.

Tame enough to enjoy human company; smart enough to track human eye movements, and our sense of direction, of pointing.

This latter is something even chimpanzees cannot do. Dogs are more in tune with humans than are any non-human primate.

Truly, this is an interesting aspect of intelligence. Recent work by Jonathan Turner suggests that intelligence to “read” emotions is the crucial feature on the road to what made hominids human.

The lesson I draw, though, is not about dogs. It is about man.

The ancient Greeks believed that virtue was to be found in moderation, the moderation of impulses and proclivities, between contrary passions. And here this research bears this ancient idea of virtue out. What makes for a civilized person is to avoid the instinctual fight-or-flight tendencies. A virtuous human is one that does not leap to aggression, nor sink into fear. The civilized stance — as opposed to the “wild” stance — is to stand one’s ground, and accept (perhaps even expect) co-operation from the other.

To see the other primarily as the enemy is, at core, an uncivilized habit. And when human beings  fall into that habit — either because others are, indeed, doing the same, or for less realistic reasons — civilization is lost. An essential element of “humanity” is lost.

In this we see something like a “natural end,” to use the much-overused and misunderstood terminology of the Aristotelians. It’s not that “Nature” cares one whit about whether the human species remains civilized, progresses in its civilization, or regresses. It is that, by choosing and expecting and daring to co-operate — and to treat others as non-enemies, at the very least — the natural consequence is the improvement of human nature, the gradual modification of human institutions that, in turn, buttress that motion towards improving peaceful habits and inclinations, and the opening up of new vistas of expanding options that this civilization affords.

Not discussed in the Nova program was the possibility that the breeding of dogs was co-evolutionary rather than pure artificial selection, “breeding.” The first dogs may have hung closer to human beings simply because they were curious, and gained an advantage. They may have domesticated themselves.

This is especially interesting, for human beings learned early to see the advantages in their new friends, the dogs. As the show explained, without dogs, civilization may not even have been possible. Early agriculture and the domestication of other animals was dependent upon canine assistance. Dogs were absolutely vital in defense of property and territory as well as in hunting.

It interests me that some early civilizations were more keen on honoring their dogs than others. I think one might say there is something perverse about those cultures that look down on dogs. They have forsaken an element of civilization. And maybe we should be a tad wary of any group of people that doesn’t like dogs.

But, to return to the upbeat moral of this story: the balancing point between conflicting instincts and habits, the “sweet spot” of moderation, is the key to virtue. And we now know that this key spot was found, early in the human story, by dogs. And that made a huge difference.

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