Are Dogs Just Parasites?

by Robert Wright

Apparently we don’t have to worry about Jonah Goldberg writing a book called “Canine Fascism.” Turns out he loves dogsand indeed approaches liberal levels of sappiness in talking about them. I love dogs too (especially Frazier). But I must take issue with Jonah’s formulation of a question that, he says, is now raging in philosophy-of-dog circles: Are dogs “social parasites” or do they “actually love you”? Putting the question this way suggests that Jonah may be confused about doggy loveand, indeed, about person love. I’m here to help!

With all due respect for the intelligence of Jonah’s dog, I doubt he/she is consciously choosing to be a parasite. Then again, you may say, neither is a tapewormbut it’s still a parasite. Exactly my point! Parasites can be parasites without any awareness of the fact. Parasitism is a behavioral relationshipprofiting at the expense of the host--not a state of mind. So in principle Jonah’s dog (in contrast, by the way, to the average liberal) could be feeling deep love for Jonah even while harming him.

In fact, in principle the love felt by the dog could be something evolution built into dogs as a way to aid in the parasitization of people. After all, any good Darwinian would expect animals to feel love when it is in their interest (or, strictly speaking, the interest of their genes) to feel loveregardless of whether it is in the interest of the animal being loved.

I suspect the historical relationship between dogs and humans has been mutualistic, not parasitic; humans have probably been pragmatic in choosing what kinds of dogs to associate with during dog-human co-evolution, thus keeping wantonly exploitative tendencies out of the canine gene pool. (If anything, the parasitism has probably worked in the other direction.)

And as for the question of whether, evolutionary history aside, the average dog is now parasitic upon its owner: Well, these days we own dogs mainly for the joy they bring us, not to warn us about wild animals. So the question is simple: Does your dog bring you more joy than pain? With Frazier that’s a no-brainer (unlike Frazier himself, I hasten to add!). I’ll let Jonah speak for his dog.

And as for the implications of this Darwinian view of love for human-on-human affection: Well, it turns out I don’t have time to get into that. But that’s probably just as well. The last thing I want to plant in the mind of Jonah or any other married person is the idea that their spouse could feel love for them yet be exploiting them. Best not to think about it.