The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Are Dogs Worth More Than Humans?

Environmental Crises, Ethical Fronteirs, and Dogs

Last week, I wrote a piece about why the former Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick should be left in jail for the crime of dog fighting. My post brought on a bunch of commentary and rather than trying to address everyone's concerns individually, I decided to write a second post on the topic.

First off, as many dog rescuers like to point out, the current dog "crisis" is entirely man made. Dogs are a human creation. While there is still some debate about whether we domesticated wolf pups or they domesticated themselves (because they loved our leftovers), we certainly found the results charming. So the current problem of dog overpopulation is both the result of our love of canine companionship and our pathological dislike of spay and neuter laws. There is also an argument about how many dogs die each year in American shelters, but the number is somewhere between 10 and 60 million. We have created this problem and our solution-which those of you who disagreed with me seem to sanction-is an annual canine massacre.

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Secondly, even though many disagreed with the statements made in my post, the intellectual and emotional life of dogs is now thought to exceed that of almost any other species save man. Scientists have also found they share an inborn sense of morality significantly greater than human children and can plan for the future to boot. These are the four categories often used to explain why dogs are different than humans and none hold much water. So if you're logic behind ethical treatment of animals rests on such faculties, than it must also be okay to kill 10 to 60 million small children or retarded adults. If that doesn't seem fine, then maybe it's time to rethink your views on these animals.

As for those who think I'm making an argument for vegetarian eating, my point here is simple: Michael Vick wasn't eating these dogs. He was torturing them for his own entertainment. Which is also why we have laws against dog fighting and animal cruelty in the first place.

But the main problem people had with my post is that I am arguing that dogs are worth as much as human children--and while that wasn't really my argument--I'd like to address that question as well.

In the past few years scientists have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what the "carrying capacity" of the earth actually is. What this means is how many humans can actually live here in a sustainable fashion. They have come up with a variety of numbers, but the best guess is about 2 billion--though, if people insist on living with American standards of living, that number drops severely, to 200 million.

There are now close to 7 billion people on this planet, and the results, to quote Richard Manning from his excellent "Against the Grain" are not good:

"Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure. Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's "primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others."

So do I think that a dog's life is worth more than a humans? I think that no dog has ever, intentionally, for reasons of selfish greed, destroyed their home like we have ours. I think that yes, there are way too many people on the planet, and while I'm not advocating mass euthanasia (though mandatory birth control sounds pretty good to me), I think before we start saying humans are worth more than dogs, we need to examine exactly what we have contributed to the quality of life for all species on this planet, not just our own. I think that drawing ethical lines based on "human uniqueness" and "species difference" is the exact kind of arrogance that got us in this mess in the first place. And, mostly, I think it's time to start taking responsibility for our actions.

So while I can't say that dogs are worth more than humans, right now I'm not so certain humans are all too impressive.


Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.


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