Dogs and cats

People in the U.S. and in much of the world don’t eat dogs and cats. But it goes beyond that. If you even mention the idea of eating dogs and cats, people will get very upset and try to change the subject. There is clearly some taboo here – something that goes beyond the rational.

On an emotional level, it’s as though dogs and cats have an intermediate place in our collective consciousness – somewhere between “human” and “animal” – and for this they get a free pass out of our food chain. It’s clearly not a free pass that we collectively extend to other animals. People are perfectly content to watch a film like “Babe” and then go home and cook up some pork chops, without batting an eye. But even the idea of somebody frying up Rover or little Tigger will send most people into a tizzy.

I was involved in a discussion last week about this, and somebody raised the theory that there is some co-evolution going on here. There are sound practical reasons for humans to cohabit with dogs and cats. Dogs were the first burgler alarms – their barking has probaby saved many a soul from hostile invaders over the millennia. Cats, of course, have historically been the main line of defense against disease-carrying competitors for human food sources, such as rats and mice.

If you gain a survival advantage from spending time in the company of another species, it probably furthers that advantage to develop an emotional attachment to members of that species. And this attachment will go both ways – humans can afford protection and a steady food supply to the dogs and cats in their company, and so dogs and cats would have co-evolved to want to hang out with us as well.

One glaring contradiction to this theory is that canine exceptionalism is not universal among humans. In the markets of Shanghai you can purchase a dog for the purpose of cooking and eating at home – a dog that looks very much like that cute stray many Americans and Europeans would welcome into a loving family.

So what is going on here? Why are pigs and cows – even those pigs and cows that people on a farm might bond with and feel affection for – suitable for eating upon their demise, whereas dogs and cats are not?

7 thoughts on “Dogs and cats”

  1. It’s probably too short a timescale for evolution to have incorporated it into the brain. Here’s a related possibility: a culture which incorporated love for cats and dogs and passed that attitude to its children would be more likely to prevent disease and obtain food. It would be more likely to flourish than one that didn’t have that attitude. So when we are born and find ourselves part of a culture, it’s no surprise to find that some of the beliefs it spreads are beneficial to the culture continuing.
    That’s a memetic way of looking at it.

  2. I agree with Doug, its likely memes, not genes, at work here.

    I once exhibited a piece where flies were taped onto the wall. It was titled “fly” and materials listed were “flies, human hair, tape, sponge, jelly, honey”. The meter-long hair (from my wife)was tied around the neck of the flies and fixed to the wall with tape cut in neatly trimmed ‘x’s. Dabs of jelly and honey (in water-soaked sponges) were fly food. The first impression when entering the exhibition and seeing this work was a bunch of colorful forms and dots on the wall. Only when one came close enough did the flies become recognizable. Many visitors didn’t recognize them until they’d practically touched them.
    I doubt that any of the visitors would hesitate to kill a fly at home. Yet in the context of the exhibition there was soon a consensus that I was an animal torturer. With some things, like cats, dogs and flies, its quite easy to push people’s buttons.

  3. David, you might just have stumbled upon an effective method of animal rights activism.

    It’s not clear that it was about flies in particular. If you had done the same thing with hamsters you might have provoked even greater outrage.

  4. The exact subset of “beloved animals” is certainly a culture dependent phenomena.

    For example, in India and certain parts of southern China, eating cows is considered to be extremely bad due to the historical roles of cows (or, water buffalo, to be more precise) played in agriculture.

    I guess it is probably just that ancient people living around Shanghai (or the entire nation of Korea) never found the evolutionary need for dogs.

  5. Following these arguments, shouldn’t it then follow that cannibalism would not be a taboo within any society in which “eating the other tribe” would not damage the survival of one’s own friends and kinfolk?

  6. “India began from a stronger nutrient base than Mexico and followed a different but equally profound cultural transformation as meat grew scarce. The earlier Aryan invaders of the Gangetic Plain presided over feasts of cattle, horses, goats, buffalo, and sheep. By later Vedic and early Hindu times, during the first millenium B.C., the feasts came to be managed by the priestly caste of Brahmans, who erected rituals of sacrifice around the killing of animals and distributed the meat in the name of the Aryan chiefs and war lords. After 600 B.C., when populations grew denser and domestic animals became proportionately scarcer, the eating of meat was progressively restricted until it became a monopoly of the Brahmans and their sponsors. Ordinary people struggled to conserve enough livestock to meet their own desperate requirements for milk, dung used as fuel, and transport. During this period of crisis, reformist religions arose, most prominently Buddhism and Jainism, that attempted to abolish castes and hereditary priesthoods and to outlaw the killing of animals. The masses embraced the new sects, and in the end their powerful support reclassified the cow into a sacred animal.”

    — E.O Wilson, “On Human Nature,” Chapter 4 (“Emergence”), pp. 94-95, Harvard University Press, 1978.

  7. Interesting point. Societal evolutions that lead to greater compassion for others are often merely a side-effect of some internecine warfare.

    These days we like to think that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves (at least that’s what those of us in the North like to think). But of course that result was largely a side-effect of an economic power struggle between the industrial Northern states and the agrarian Southern states.

    Similarly, emancipation in Great Britain was simply dismissed as a pipe dream until it was made to seem economically convenient: Once the slave ships from Africa lost their protection from the Royal Navy, slavery ceased to be the cheapest means of production.

    I wonder how many high-flung ideals that beat proudly in our chests are actually accidents of history, nothing but fortuitous manifestations of the cold logic of sociobiology.

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