|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
MB: Marc Bekoff
MF: I’m really excited, because we’re going to be heading into an extended three-segment interview with a very special guest.
BN: We like to think that we’re part of Marc Bekoff’s tribe. As I was reading his most recent book, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed,” and took a look at the Table of Contents and how he categorized this series of essays that he’s written over the years, I was remind of a couple things. One is that I really believe we are part of the same tribe, given that we think that the connections between people and nonhuman animals is a really important part of how we will all survive on this earth, and also because you’re trying to communicate this message out to the world.
We appreciate this book. We appreciate the many years of work that has led to this point, and we’d like to start there after a quick welcome to Animal Wise Radio, Marc.
MB: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
MF: I also would like to point out, he’s not only an author, he’s also Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Before we get into talking about your book, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed,” – which, by the way, there’s a whole lot of questions right there in the title – you ask in all of your writings and have for many years a lot of really big questions. You’re really tackling some of the big topics in the world of animals. I’m curious if you can give us a background of how you got into thinking about animals and why, and how you developed that really big picture perspective.
MB: My folks tell me that since I was about three years old I was always asking them what animals were feeling and what animals were thinking. That actually turned into the name of a book I published back in 2002 called, “Minding Animals.” They said, “You were always minding animals,” meaning that I was attributing minds to them, but I was also caring about their wellbeing. I didn’t know that word when I was a kid, but I was always caring about them.
I think part of my views of animals just came from being raised in a very compassionate household. Nobody who knew me back then, if you will, is surprised by what I’m doing and have been doing for decades now.
BN: I’m going to take that question a little bit further, though. Even if you found yourself in that space mentally and emotionally that you grew up in a compassionate household, you had this almost innate compassion towards nonhuman animals; to be going through the academic world and maneuvering through that world, you grew up and were working in a time when that wasn’t really popular thought.
MF: I would say lots of people get into these fields and get that trained out of them.
BN: I’m wondering how that was for you.
MB: I’ll be honest to say that it was okay for me. There were some colleagues who thought I was wacky or fluffy or crazy and tried to in some ways 86 my career, but seriously, in all honesty – and I don’t mean it in a self-serving way – along the way I won a whole bunch of awards for my scientific research. One of the things about “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed” is it’s also got about 50 pages of reference.
MB: Everything that I do – and I really mean everything – is evidence-based. Some people will say, “Oh, you’re a science worshipper.” No, I’m not, but we have wonderful information now about the cognitive, emotional life of animals that we can use not only to learn about who they are in the world, but we can use on their behalf. It’s not fluff.
I just decided that it was time for a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be part of it. That’s honestly how it all came about. Like I said, over the years I’ve been vindicated in others. In 2000 I published a book called, “The Smile of a Dolphin,” and no less a person, if you will, than Stephen Jay Gould, probably the most world famous evolutionary biologist in the 20th century, wrote the foreword for it. Times are changing.
MF: Times are changing. We’ve only got a couple minutes, and I’m going to ask a question that you’re probably not going to be able to finish before we get to the next break. I’m fascinated by this notion that in fact we have to and you have to even go to lengths to prove what I think is easily observable by just common experience with animals, that we have to even go to the lengths to document it scientifically. Why is that even necessary? I guess that is fundamentally my question. It seems to me if you just experience you would understand that they’re cognitive.
MB: The short answer, of course, is that we can use common sense. If you’ve lived with a dog, if you have lived with other animals, you’d know that. The other reason of course to me is that they’re not surprised at what we’re learning. I’m fascinated not only to learn about what animals can do, but what they can't do, what their emotional lives are like, what they experience, and what they may not experience, just like humans animals.
I’m also really interested in individual variability. My early field work really centered on trying to understand individual differences in wild coyotes and how that might influence later behavior. Once again, a lot of academic reasons, but to me, I always say, “It’s a no-brainer that we have done horrific things to other animals. We continue to. We really need to change our ways.” I find it intriguing that bats can communicate using ultrasound that we can't. Elephants and whales can use infrasound. Caledonian crows make and use more sophisticated tools than chimpanzees.
MF: That’s a great place for us to take a very quick break. When we come back, we’ll pick it up right at that point.
MF: I just can't wait to get back into the conversation with Marc Bekoff, who is an author, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His new book is, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.”
BN: In the first segment, we talked a little bit about what got him started as a young person, and the idea with thoughts about animals and what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and how this has carried forward professionally for him. It really has culminated at this point, I’ll say, in a really powerful collection of essays that were written for “Psychology Today.”
It’s organized in a way that I thought was really brilliant, Marc. I love your different categories and your invitation to the reader to dip in and dip out of this book, set it aside, pick it up, explore this concept or that concept.
Before we went to break, we were just on the edge of another idea that you talk a lot about in the book, and that’s the idea that within a species or a grouping that there’s even the idea of individuality, which presses against some of our ideas about animals.
MF: Scientifically, we’ve been told for generations that animals are like these little robots, automatons that are genetically programmed for these behaviors, but if within a family unit there’s a whole lot of individual difference in how animals learn and behave, that opens up a whole can of worms. Can you talk a little bit about your coyote study?
MB: Yes. What we discovered in wild coyotes, for example, and other people have seen it in wild wolves, bears, and whales – in all animals – is that when the coyotes were as young as 20 to 22 days of age and they came out of the den naturally, they really differed. Same mother, same den, likely the same father, and at 20 days of age there were bold coyotes, shy coyotes, gnarly coyotes, animals who if they could have would have gone back into the den and back into the womb. That cautioned us about talking about “the coyote.”
When people start talking about “the dog” and they start applying training or as I like to call them ‘teaching techniques’ as if it’s a one shoe fits all solution, I always say, “No, that’s not true.” I’ve rescued various sorts of dogs, and what worked for one would never work for another. What’s fascinating to me is how variable individuals are and how that variability influences their lives later on. As a biologist, I’m also interested in the evolution of this variability. What does it mean over millennia, if you will?
BN: I’m wondering if when you started to really have an awareness or a realization of that kind of idea of individuality, did you find it to be kind of a humbling idea?
MB: I did, but it was just something once again, I think because I was always sensitive to watching animals, that I would say, “Oh my goodness! Look at those two Golden Retrievers. They’re like night and day.”
At one point I remember watching some animals, and I discovered that they were in the same litter and I said, “Oh my goodness!” Someone pointed out to me – once again, it’s not Einsteinian physics – “What about twins who vary?” Then, all of a sudden it hit me as a grad student, “What does this mean in terms of the evolution of behavior? What does this mean in terms of why we see this incredible spectrum of personalities and temperaments in animals just coming out of the den?”
I hate to say it this way, but among the things I’m doing that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four decades is trying to understand that role of variability, and then of course always translating it into the way in which we treat other animals, knowing that one chimpanzee is different from another, one wolf is different from another. It’s just not this one shoe fits all.
MF: I’m curious, since you’ve really taken it on in your career to confront the traditional paradigm about how we perceive animals and how we really as a species treat them as these cookie cutter, automaton entities – you’ve really taken that on. What has that been like for you, and where do you think that mindset that you’re fighting comes from?
MB: I think the mindset that I’m fighting in a sense seems to be not as big a battle now. It comes from normative science and statistics. I wrote a paper once and talked about the “P less than 0.5 club.” For people who do statistics, they test certain trends, they compare means, they compare different data, and say, “This was significant at the 0.5 level; therefore, when dogs are confronted with a certain sound, they’ll do this.” Of course, there’s always the exceptions, but that was always ruled out as noise.
For my Ph.D. thesis years ago and my field work on coyotes I said, “No. This isn’t noise. We really need to understand individual variation and individual variability and temperaments and behaviors.” In all honesty, I wrote a paper so long ago it was after the typewriter was invented, but before computers …
BN: It wasn’t with a quill pen, then?
MB: It really became a classic and won me a big award, because every time I’d watch these captive animals and then especially the wild animals I’d say, “My goodness … we’re losing everything.” Once again, don’t talk about “the coyote.” Don’t talk about “the coyote pup,” because they’re so different.
I also believed in it, and I’m a very passionate person. I can be pretty damn stubborn. I just really believed in it. I had a lot of support from my mentors, so maybe that’s the best way to say it.
BN: I’d like to turn the conversation slightly. We’re going to hang on to the idea that you were just fleshing out about individuality and bridge into when you started to write for “Psychology Today,” when they approached you and asked you to write a blog, a contributing article to their website, and what your initial reaction was, and then why you maybe changed your mind.
MB: My initial reaction was, “No way!” I was so busy working on three or four books and traveling, but then I realized it was actually what I really wanted to do. I had written a bunch of popular books before and I really wanted to delve into the variability and behavior, and I wanted to delve into other species and stuff like that. This weekend I published my 540th essay.
BN: Congratulations on that.
MB: I love doing it. Honestly, the response has been very positive. People send me stories. They send me scientific papers. I discovered them on my own. It’s actually been a wonderful experience. I would have many regrets looking back if I didn’t take it on, because one important thing is it just forces me to keep up with all the new and wonderful research that’s being done in what we call the field of cognitive ecology – the study of animal minds. I would keep up with it, but never at the level or the intensity that I am now or have been for the last several years.
BN: One of the things I thought was interesting is you said that people sometimes would say, “Why are you writing in this publication?” which I think goes to the core of your work.
MB: Right. I got a comment once when I wrote an essay. “What in the world do your essays have to do with psychology?” I said, “Oh my goodness!”
BN: “I missed that one!”
MB: I did. On the one hand I was astounded at the naivety, and then I thought, “Okay, here’s an opportunity to have a nice, honest answer.” I explained that the way we view animals really influences the way we treat them, and then not being viewed as who they are. They’re just not. It was an opportunity once again to take the science and the many stories, write essays, and get them out to an audience that didn’t think about animals.
Just last week my essays went over a million and a half hits. I think that the people at “Psychology Today” are shocked by it. I am.
BN: They’re probably pretty happy, too.
MB: I’m thrilled. What it means in a sense is that sure, a lot of people who follow my work or who are interested in animals read my stuff, but it also means that I’m getting to an audience that would not have been exposed to what I’m writing about, and that would be a shame because there’s so many animal lovers out there. There’s so many people who live with pets or companion animals, as we call them, who really want to know about the behavior, the emotions, and the intelligence of these animals.
I’m thrilled I did it. One of my publishers said, “Don’t make a hasty decision. Think about it.” I didn’t have to think about it too long, because in all honesty about a day later I wrote them back and I said, “Sure.” Then I just started whipping them out.
MF: What I find fascinating about the writing in “Psychology Today” is I believe obviously, we shouldn’t even have to say it, we are animals. We all have in effect a reptilian, bird, and mammal brain in our own brains. Understanding that can help us understand ourselves better. I also think that analyzing the way we view animals is helpful in understanding our own psychology. By examining our own view of animals, we can understand ourselves better, too.
MB: Yes. That whole field of anthrozoology that I write about – I like to call it the scientific study of human-animal relations or animal-human relations – really bears on that, because not only do we care about how we interact with animals, but we should care about who they are, what they want, what they need, and then how we can ultimately come to a very peaceful coexistence with them? I agree thoroughly with you that the link between what I do and human psychology is huge.
I also write about these new, growing fields. One is called conservation psychology, and another called conservation social work, and how they too are really expanding our knowledge. When you get down to it, people are saying now that conservation of animals is not an animal issue, it’s a people issue. We need to deal with how other animals are viewed and treated by humans, and the only way to improve it is to show the people who these animals are.
MF: This is a fascinating conversation. Our guest is Marc Bekoff, who is an author. He’s a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. He writes articles for “Psychology Today.” His new book is, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.” We’ve got more conversation with Marc Bekoff when we come back.
BN: We are having just a thrilling time with Marc Bekoff, author of “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.” We haven’t really settled on talking about what that title means and why it was chosen, so we’re going to start this segment off with that.
MF: Yes; but before we do, we’re going to put a plug out for his website, www.marcbekoff.com. So, why do dogs hump?
MB: In addition to it being a catchy title, and of course publishers want that, we chose the title to make a really significant point that many essays deal with in the book. “Dogs hump because it feels good and it’s sexual.” No … they hump during play, yes. They hump to dominant … maybe. They hump because they just happen to wind up on top of another animal … yes. They have all these animals and explanations, and none is necessarily correct. When we were talking before about the one size fits all theories of behavior, it doesn’t with humping.
When I discuss the title, I like to tell people that we chose it as well, which we did, to make the point that when we think we have these simple explanations, we may not.
Bees get depressed is to show some of the surprises in research, one being that when bees are made to get depressed or pessimistic in experiments, they show the same changes in the brain as do humans when they go into these same states. The second title makes the point that there are similarities, but also differences. Bees have smaller brains with many fewer neurons.
Once again, the main message of the book is, “Let’s look at these animals for who they are, not for what they can do for us, and let’s see what they really do and don’t do, and we don’t have to embellish them in order to treat them better or to appreciate them.”
There’s a lot of popular books out there that are in my opinion missed because they talk about other animals. They ignore the science. Once again, I’m not a science worshipper, but we know a lot about other animals that we can use to understand them and to help them along.
BN: One of the things that I think you do really well, Marc, is that you leave the questions open. Even that one essay about why dogs hump, you talk about all those different scenarios and you get to the end and it’s like, “We never got to the answer!”
MB: Because there isn’t one.
MB: The one answer, of course, is they do it for a lot of different reasons.
BN: Right, exactly.
MF: Dogs hump because they can.
MF: I’ve got a little terrier named Bella, and I’m convinced that what she likes to do is straddle your foot and she will rock side to side, basically giving herself a belly rub. It’s not sexual. She just likes to have her belly rubbed.
MB: Absolutely. We see these common explanations. That’s why I love going to dog parks and talking to people and listening to them. I don’t interrupt, but some people around Boulder know I study dogs, and sometimes they’ll ask me questions. I love it, because I can educate them, and then they educate me. I don’t know everything. I don’t mean that in a snotty way, but I don’t know everything, so sometimes I’ll say something and someone will say, “Oh no – how’s this as an explanation?” I’ll say, “Wow – I never thought of that!”
It’s all reciprocal. I can teach and I can be taught, and that’s what is so exciting.
BN: There’s where I was going to slide us a little bit. You leave the questions open, and I think that’s one of the pieces of science that sometimes to me as a layperson gets frustrating. We are presented so often through conventional media that science has the answer, and this is what it is, and yet if you spend enough time mucking around reading some of the papers or reading scientific journals you know that’s a process of discovery in and of itself, and if we pretend like we’re at the end point, we’re going to always stop ourselves.
MB: That’s a great point, yes.
MF: Right. I want to go back to something that Marc said in the first segment. He has taken really a different perspective. He has challenged some of the common thinking in our cultural perspective on animals and in fact went against the grain of what a lot of people were saying in the scientific realm, and as a result of that he won awards. I will just say this – some of the other scientists out there maybe want to take a note that just buying what people tell you is not a way to break new ground and do a lot of new learning. We don’t have a lot of time left, but I just want to get to that space. In recent years, we have actually had a lot of scientific learning, especially in the field of cognition.
BN: As Part Six says, Marc, the ever-expanding circle of sentience includes depressed bees and empathic chickens. The circle gets bigger and bigger.
MB: Yes, it does, because a lot of times we just haven’t studied these things. People go into them with pre-formed ideas. “Chickens can't possibly do this. Bees can't possibly do this.” Then all of a sudden the science is done, and yes, there are some things that bees can't do, but there’s things humans and chimpanzees can't do.
What’s really exciting about it is number one, expanding this circle of sentience. It’s discovering more and more animals who are sentient beings who five or six years ago we would have never imagined that they were conscious, sentient beings. Once again, we need to keep the door open and see what we come up with in future research.
What’s really exciting too is that funding is becoming more available. Funding for animal behavior and the stuff I do is zilch. The government doesn’t fund it, and it’s really hard to get money. Slowly but surely, if we cast out what we’re learning in what we call a comparative perspective in biology – how do wolves and dogs and coyotes and jackals and foxes compare? They are all very closely related animals. Then, how are they different? How are they similar, and how are they different? I’m excited. I think arguably the hottest field going these days is the real broad interest in animal cognition and animal emotions.
BN: Marc, you describe yourself as an optimistic person, and that also comes through your writing. I think sometimes when we look at issues surrounding ecology, animals, and the environment and our interconnectedness with them, it can feel pretty heavy out there. I appreciated your writing from that perspective as well, and I really am hopeful that as you and others move into this emerging field of science that this information really starts to inform us as a society more and more in how we decide we’re going to interact with other animals, and how we are going to “use” animals around us. It’s important work.
I wanted to remind people that if they want to find Marc Bekoff on the Internet, they can by going to www.marcbekoff.com. His latest book is called, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.” He’s written many books. I’ve not read them all, but he’s a talented and gifted writer. You can find his work in e-book format. You can find it at all major booksellers. It’s widely available.
MF: We have literally one minute left – do you have any closing thoughts you want to leave our listeners with, Marc?
MB: No, not really. I think one thing I like to do is think that my work and that of a lot of my colleagues will have practical consequences in how we treat other animals. Since I studied dogs and their related wild cannage, I always like to think about dog training, which I call ‘dog teaching’ or ‘dog learning’ and I really push for the adoption of very positive training. The one thing that a lot of dogs who need teaching don’t need is being bossed around and dominated. I talk a lot to dog trainers, dog teachers, and I love how open they are to positive training.
That would be it. I think what we’re learning today we need to use what we know on behalf of other animals. Once again, a couple of years ago people would have said, “Well, we are, we are …” They’re not. The trend is changing, and I am a hopeful optimist.
MF: Thanks so much for your work. Again, you can find him at www.marcbekoff.com.