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Thursday, May 13, 2010

When Bow is good....

When Bow is good, he is very, very good (and when he is bad, he is horrid.) Just like the little girl who had a little curl, in my Untermeyer anthology. Today, Bow is good. He is very, very good.

The school bus this morning went whizzing past our house about seven minutes earlier than usual, and it didn't even pause to see if Sword was there. I had to take her to school. I asked for Bow's cooperation. He graciously agreed that I should be allowed to take Sword to school in the car. When I returned, about ten minutes later, Bow was still good. He caused no mischief. He was calm and patiently waiting for me to come back.

What makes people cooperate with other people? What makes apes cooperate with other apes? Or dogs with dogs? Is it selfless devotion or enlightened self-interest?

Teyman, our tiny little terrier-like mixed breed mutt, is currently in heat. We know this, not because of the way Teyman is behaving, but because of Brownie's sudden, extreme, focused interest in her. He is a giant of a dog compared to her-- a chocolate lab. His exertions and attempts at mating are not going to result in puppies, but they certainly burn a lot of calories and keep the two of them occupied for hours. They also raise quite a thirst, and the water bowl gets emptied of its contents much faster than usual.

When I refill the water bowl, Brownie stands back, his tongue lolling in his mouth, while Teyman drinks first. Only after Teyman has had her fill, does Brownie allow himself to drink. He usually empties the bowl, he's that thirsty!

What accounts for Brownie's gentlemanly concern for Teyman's well-being? Is it love? Or is it the realization that he needs her? And, actually, is there any difference between the one motivation and the other?

Primatologists provisioning wild bonobos with sugar cane have noticed that the females and the young are allowed to take their pick of the sugar cane allotment, while all the males stand back, waiting for their turn. When the women and children of the bonobo people have taken what they want, that's when the men and adolescent boys move in for their share.

Watching this, different primatologists come to different conclusions. Some claim that among the bonobos, the females are dominant, because only dominance could account for the females getting to eat first. But others have observed that this rule isn't enforced by the females. It's enforced by the males. When a young, immature male tries to break the rules, it is older males who see that he stays in line. What the males among the bonobos have agreed to abide by is a rule of chivalry. The weak and the helpless get to feed first.

What motivates bonobos to adopt this chivalrous attitude? Is it selflessness, or is it the understanding that they need their females? I think it's enlightened self-interest. I think all forms of chivalry and every kind of love stems from an understanding that deep down we really do need one another.

Bow does cooperate with me. He knows that our fates are linked. He is especially solicitous whenever I am sick. He understands that he needs me, and he doesn't want me to die. Who else will take care of him? He worries about what will happen when I am gone.

On the days when he's being bad, it's because Bow thinks I can take it. All forms of exploitation are based on a misunderstanding of interdependence. Governments that overtax citizens forget that if the citizens fail, they do as well. Masters who overwork servants forget that they need their servants strong and healthy. Children who overburden their mothers forget that it's on their mothers' strong backs that their very survival depends.

But today Bow is good. He is watching Teyman and Brownie outside. He understands that for me to be able get him a mate, I will need to prosper. If we work together, there's nothing that we can't accomplish!


  1. If your terrier mix is anything like mine, all dogs big and small will stand back til she's had her fill, or they'll suffer the consequences!

    My two bully girls are terrified of my terrier dachshund mix!

  2. Suzanne, Brownie is not too terrified to try to mate with her. It is true that she is an aggressive little female and he is a gentle soul, but when she tries to take his toys away, or a treat that belongs to him, he has been known to show her who the real boss is. He is slow to anger, but he's not a pushover. So I still count him as a gentleman, not a coward.

    This is a really important distinction that many in the human world overlook.