Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

The myth of animal altruism

Progressives project ideology onto animals because it feels good.

Farmers have always understood the dominance-seeking behavior of animals, but city folk are curiously uncomfortable with the striving for social status that's obvious in every mammalian herd or pack or troop. Academics are it downright intolerant of these facts of life and rush to cover them up with studies representing animals as altruists. Researchers that refuse to run with the altruism herd are ridiculed, ostracized, and denied grant funding. So they crank out "evidence" that protects their status, which of course promotes their sexual prospects too.

Lee Charles Kelley is not such an ideologue. He seems like a decent person trying to make sense of the research in order to do right by dogs and their owners. So how can he reconcile the progressive orthodoxy with the evidence he sees with his eyes? He concludes (in his response to my blog, Alphas Hog Reproductive Opportunity: It's Still the Same Old Story) that dominance is limited to the sexual context and thus not a generalized social pattern. Here are my reservations about that conclusion:

1. Female chimpanzees are "in heat" about once every five years (because lactation suppresses fertility). Male chimps are only interested in sex when the hormones of fertility are in the air. But they're interested in social dominance all the time. They effectively fight for five years to be first in line when the big moment comes. The winner's DNA survives. Obviously chimps are not intending and planning this strategy, since they don't have abstract knowledge of conception and genetics. They simply respond to their neurochemicals. Brains that motivate successful reproductive strategies were naturally selected for over millions of years.

2. Sex, aggression and dominance are different behaviors motivated by different neurochemicals. Testosterone and oxytocin motivate sex, serotonin rewards dominance, and aggression is a cocktail of neurochemicals. Mammals seek dominance because the serotonin feels good. Dominant animals get more food, which builds the strength it takes to keep their DNA alive. Strength helps males vanquish predators and compete for sex. Dominant females get extra food that helps them make more nourishing milk, chase off more predators, and get better paternal genes. (In some species, stronger females compete with other females; in other species, they run from all males and manage to escape getting impregnating by all but the strongest.) Dominance is not just about sex. It's about survival, and sex is one facet of survival.

3. Dogs calm down when they follow a dominant, and become aggressive when there is no dominant. That's the message of TV's Dog Whisperer, and it's easy to see this with your own eyes. All mammals have this same basic survival strategy. They evolved to live in groups for protection from predators. Weaker individuals must learn to live alongside stronger individuals in order to retain the protection of the group. Mammals submit to stronger group mates to avoid getting bitten and scratched. Most chimpanzees are missing a finger, toe or ear lobe due to past conflicts with more dominant troop mates. But the mammal brain stays alert for opportunity. When it sees a way to dominate without getting hurt, it goes for it. That's why mammals become aggressive when group mates are weak. And it's why authoritative leadership calms down dogs, children, and committees. I explained this in my parenting post, If I Could Do It Over I Would Lead My Kids.

Mr. Kelley accuses The Dog Whisperer's Cesar Millan of cruelty, so I wonder how he would react to my citing him as a parenting guide. Progressives attack Millan because he treats dogs with stern body language. You better be deferential to your pets and kids or the anti-authority crowd will accuse you of cruelty in the shrill terms that get them attention. The fact is, stern authority prevails in every mammalian herd or pack or group. And the instant an individual shows weakness, a pack-mate seizes their spot in the pecking order. For example, stronger bovines push their way to the center of the herd where their children are safer from predators. Stronger monkeys dominate the best foraging spots where they get more nourishment with less predator threat. Stronger mammals do what it takes to keep their DNA alive.

This is not progressive behavior. You can choose to know the truth or you can sift for facts that fit your world view. Most people prefer to reinforce their comforting world view.

My book, I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness explains how natural selection produced a brain that rewards social rivarly. This is why the patterns of social interaction seem so familiar across time and space.

Animals are altruistic when that promotes their survival. It's dishonest to represent selflessness as the organizing principle of animal behavior when it's only a small part.

Reciprocal altruism is indeed the organizing principle of mammalian society. But reciprocal altruism means helping others when you get something out of it. That is what animals do. Progressive fundamentalists don't say that. They emphasize the selflessness of the collective the way Lenin and Mao did in speeches that inspired the masses to sacrifice themselves.

Mr. Kelley insightfully distinguishes domesticated animals from their wild ancestors. He raises the salient question: why a dog would risk his life for you, in apparent violation of the survival instinct?

Dogs evolved from wolves when humans selectively bred the most submissive individuals. But wild wolves also appear to sacrifice themselves for the collective. This is not a happy egalitarian collective as idealists may imagine. A wolf pack is totalitarian despotism. To see why, let's start with their sex lives.

Only the alpha pair in a wolf pack have sex. The alpha male bites any fellas that go near a girl, and they quickly learn to avoid pain. The alpha bitch bites her girlfriends, and the stress blocks ovulation, so her man isn't interested in them.

The whole pack hunts to support the offspring of the alpha pair. They do it not with conscious intent to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They do it to avoid getting bitten and scratched. A couple could run off together, but in the harsh desert their offspring are not likely to survive without the efforts of a whole pack. So subordinate wolves wait it out until they see an opportunity to overthrow the alphas and become alphas themselves. What looks like collectivist utopia from the outside is collectivist hell from the perspective of the individual brain. No wonder some wolves chose to hang out with humans instead.

Dogs don't use their brains to meet their survival needs as wild animals do. Domesticated animals rely on others for food and shelter, and sacrifice their lives and their ability to reproduce in exchange.

Many people see in their pets a comforting model for human relations. To me it looks alarmingly uncomfortable. First you stop meeting your own survival needs and then you're expected to lay down your life for the alpha. The idea of a collective that assures your survival is so seductive that people tend to overlook the fact that the alphas are in it for themselves. I'd rather remain a wild animal able to meet my own survival needs than a domesticated animal bound to sacrifice myself for the regime. Of course modern urbanites are interdependent, but the more we're willing to be responsible for ourselves, the less opportunity we give our leaders to become despots.

So I share Mr. Kelley's view that understanding domesticated animals is a subject for pet owners rather than a window on the state of nature.

My book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity is a plan to feel good about life in a world full of mammals instead of waiting for an idealized world to appear.

 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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