06/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dog Souls, Animal Intelligence and Human Hubris

A few days ago, Seattle Times headlined an article by Electra Draper entitled, "Dogs Have Souls, but You Already Knew That." Much of the piece is devoted to University of Colorado Professor Marc Bekoff, who has concluded that humans are not alone in having a nuanced moral system.

I strongly suspect that the conclusions are correct, and that many animals, including dogs, likely have a true sense of right and wrong. But I question the premise about what is being proved and disproved in Bekoff's research. We have been so brainwashed by Christianity that we begin with the too-long-unquestioned assumption that only humans are moral creatures. Research then operates from that premise, in either proving it right or wrong. But that has the process exactly backwards. Instead, we should start with the baseline assumption that animals are moral; research would then set out to prove that premise to be verifiable or not. We may come to the same conclusion either way, but how we get there reveals much about human hubris.

The question of animal morality is ultimately based on the concept of a soul, which Western religion teaches us is an exclusively human possession. In this view, morality springs from an inner spiritual life separate from the corporeal self. Morality requires and is derived from having a soul.

The Bible offers plenty of proclamations on the subject:

"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul..." (Genesis 2:7). Note that no other animal ever got the nostril treatment, only humans.

"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Again, the Bible gives no similar treatment to any life form other than humans. Only humans shall "return unto God."

We can also remember the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator." He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake," and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. (CCC #356)

That species-centric hubris cultivates the unhealthy attitude that humans are better than other animals. If we possess a dignity conferred only upon us by our special relationship with god, if we alone were made in God's image, we would of course conclude that only humans have souls.

But even if the concept of a soul were valid, the notion that such an idea is exclusive to humans is unsupportable. Would a chimpanzee sharing 98% of our genome not have a soul? Does this mean that the soul resides in the differential 2%? Would a chimpanzee have a soul, but not an elephant? How about dogs, if we can prove them to be moral creatures knowing right from wrong? How about Alex, the African Gray parrot so famous for his command of language?

The concept of a soul, though, is not valid. The soul rests on the discredited notion of dualism, as does the closely related issue of mind versus brain. By looking at the latter issue we can gain some insight into the former.

Neuroscientists have moved beyond the old dualist arguments that posit that the mental and physical are different in kind, or that understanding the brain will not lead to an understanding of the mind. Dualism, separating mind and brain, arises from the deep human need to offer an explanation for what is not yet understood. We have difficulty just saying, "we don't yet know" while searching for the answer. From the ancients trying to explain the rising and setting sun to modern efforts to understand the beginning of the universe, humans simply make up comforting explanations when nothing more is available, with little regard to objective truth. What could be more comforting than knowing that the earth is the center of the universe, around which everything revolves? This geocentric view was taught as an absolute divine truth for almost 1500 years until Copernicus and Galileo proved instead that the earth revolves around the sun. We made up an answer until the evidence became overwhelming that the myth was not supported by fact.

Likewise, we do not yet know the neural mechanisms underlying consciousness, so we make up the notion that it is somehow a mysterious entity separate from the brain. Dualism is nothing more than the neurobiological equivalent of geocentrism -- a false doctrine created out of a deep need to understand something that is not yet understood. It is this same appeal to dualism that contributes to the persistent idea that humans have souls, something beyond the body, just as the mind is something beyond the brain. By rejecting dualism, the notion of a soul becomes equally insupportable.

Instead of tying the concept of morality to the soul, we need to understand morality as a consequence of intelligence. After all, one needs to be smart enough to understand the difference between right and wrong to be moral, so the concepts of morality and intelligence naturally correspond. And with that idea we can easily see how other animals can be moral, and are likely so.

So what, then, is intelligence? Intelligence can be thought of as the ability to learn from experience (acquire and retain new knowledge), and to subsequently apply that new knowledge with flexibility to manipulate or adapt to a changing environment. Or we can view intelligence as the ability to create abstract thought, beyond instinct or responses to sensory input.

Without a doubt, human beings possess a level of intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness greater by degree than is found in any other animal. Evidence suggests that no animal besides the human kind is aware of its own mortality, the ultimate expression of self-awareness. Only humans bury their dead ceremonially. Dogs and cats do not put on elaborate state funerals for their fallen leaders. Chimpanzees do not visit their lawyers to make out a will in anticipation of impending death. For centuries, philosophers have taken this highly developed sense of self in humans to mean that intelligence does not exist at all in other animals. Descartes was convinced that animals completely lacked minds, and his influence is felt even today. Even Stephen Jay Gould, the no species-centric chauvinist, concluded that consciousness has been "vouchsafed only to our species in the history of life on earth."

With all due respect to the late Professor Gould, perhaps one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time, and to Descartes, the issue is not so simple. As with almost all aspects of comparative biology, intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness are elements of a continuum, rather than phenomena with sharp boundaries between species. Intelligence does not by any means belong exclusively in the domain of humankind. Animals exhibit by degree skills in language, music, mathematics, social organization, and other traits previously thought to be uniquely human.

No matter how we define or measure it, intelligence must always be understood in context. A cat under water would not look too intelligent, but a porpoise might. On the other hand, you would be severely challenged to teach a porpoise to climb a tree. You may well be able to solve math problems, but your dog will learn more quickly and more effectively than you ever could to sniff out the drugs in your colleague's suitcase, and to notify you of the contraband. An animal's intelligence, or more precisely, its ability to manifest its intelligence, is tightly correlated with its natural environment, and its evolutionary adaptations.

Therefore, no universal measure of smarts can be meaningful because animals have diverse adaptations that define the context of intelligence, making interspecies comparisons suspect. Brain power is found by degrees across the animal kingdom, and not in some nice neat linear correlation with some other trait like the development of mammary glands. Being smart seems to be a trait unique to human beings only when we artificially designate our particular suite of characteristics as the definition of intelligence, proving that circular logic is not too intelligent.

The same applies precisely to morality. The assumption must be that animals are moral until proven otherwise. Not the other way around.