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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Shocking Implication of New Research on Dogs

Two days ago the NY Times had an article entitled Dogs Are People, Too authored by Gregory Berns, a professor at prestigious Emory University. Berns discusses research he has been doing on dogs. Berns has spent quite some time scanning the brains of living dogs using an MRI unit. An MRI unit is a complex piece of medical equipment that uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging to create images that are like “visual slices” of the body. Scientists can use MRI scans of the brain to draw conclusions about someone's mental state. Berns spent some time training dogs to climb into the big white MRI machines, where they could be scanned.

Berns says, “after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.” Later in the article Berns suggests that dogs “have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.” Berns found that a key part of the brain called the caudate nucleus seems to function in a very similar way in dogs and humans.

If humans ate dogs, this finding might be very shocking. We might say to ourselves: good heavens, we've been eating dogs, and all the time it's been almost like eating small children.

Humans do not eat dogs. But humans do eat another animal which many people regard as being more intelligent than dogs. The animal I refer to is the pig.

We think of pigs as being filthy animals fit only for slaughter, but in truth they are fairly intelligent creatures with high degrees of sociability and curiosity. If dogs didn't exist on our planet, we might well have used pigs as household pets, and pigs might be known as man's best friend.

An ABC News article a few years back concluded “pigs are smarter than dogs.” It mentioned research done at Penn State from 1996 to 1998 by Stanley Curtis. Curtis showed that pigs are able to learn to use a computer joystick. The pigs were able to learn this quickly, as quickly as a chimpanzee. A dog could not be taught to use that device, despite a year of trying. The research is discussed here and a video of it is here.

Pig using a computer joystick successfully

Why is the intelligence of pigs relevant? It is because if dogs really are about as sentient as small children, and it is likely that pigs have the same degree of intelligence, then pigs are probably as sentient as small children. Some people think that pigs have the intelligence of children with an age of 2 or 3.

So this is the shocking implication of Bern's research: probably each time we eat pork (the flesh of a pig), it is to a large degree like eating an infant human child. This is something to ponder the next time you are chewing on a ham sandwich.

A spokesman for the pork industry might say that eating a pig is vastly different from eating a small child, because a small child has the potential to turn into a productive adult (perhaps a doctor, an astronaut, or a CEO), and a pig cannot one day turn into something better than itself. But this argument doesn't have much weight.

Let us imagine a two-year-old child who has a genetic disease, and cannot grow any smarter. Imagine the child will only live a few more years. Would it then be okay to carve up that child and eat it for dinner? Certainly not.

So the fact that a pig cannot turn into something like an adult human does not overturn the claim that eating a pig is to a large degree like eating a small child.

Now it is true that that until we do MRI readings with pigs, we cannot be certain that pigs have minds roughly equivalent to those of infant children. But there is still strong reason to suspect that pigs are just too smart for us to eat.