Dog Brains & Science Journalism

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October 6, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich

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Photo from the New York Times

Yesterday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “Dogs Are People, Too”. He stresses, particularly, the resonance between the caudate nucleus region in both dog and human brains. And, he emphasizes that the research was aiming for dog consent:

“From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.”

Justin E.H. Smith has published a biting critique of this piece, arguing that it is a “fine example of an obnoxious genre” that:

“… always presents the evidence for animal emotional intelligence as something new and controversial. This journalism presents what was already perfectly obvious to paleolithic humans (even without the help of MRI’s!), but denied for the past few centuries, as if it were an exciting new debate still to be had. In fact this is a way of deferring change in the way people relate to animals, not of initiating it.”

I think he makes a good point. Though, perhaps, what’s more interesting about the piece is the method that Berns was using: aiming for a form of informed consent. What’s less interesting are his speculative claims about what research in neuroscience might mean for dog rights.

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4 thoughts on “Dog Brains & Science Journalism

  1. Lori Gruen says:

    Some are lauding this research (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201310/dogs-are-people-too-they-love-us-and-miss-us-fmris-say)as presenting a new paradigm.

    But let’s hope that the new paradigm doesn’t necessitate looking into brains to figure out what sort of obligations we might have to others or how we should structure our relationships. At other labs at Emory, those at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, researchers anesthetize chimpanzees and put them into MRIs to map their brains and call that research “non-invasive.”

  2. Which also points to the limits of the consent model he’s using. If a dog owner is needed, in order to act as a proxy, then this puts non-domestic animals outside the limits of the model.

  3. I just started a blog about animal studies and I also responded to this article! His research (and writing) asserts a human animal binary that will prevent any new ethical turn and more ominously, provide impetus for new forms of speciesism when beings fail to meet the mark in terms of human intelligence.

  4. Hal Herzog says:

    Here’s the critique of the “Dog’s Are People, Too” Times op ed I wrote for Psych Today

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201310/are-dogs-people-really

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