I came across Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz because I am a dog lover. I am also, by the way, a cat lover. And I love birds, too. I still long to read a truly great book on elephants, and another on wales. And I have read The Marvelous World of Bugs and hope to read The Soul of the White Ant and Innumerable Insects. Yet this book was special because I have had special dogs in my life–Rosebud or Buddy, to name two–and this book tried to understand that seemingly impossible question to answer: What is it like to be a dog?
A dog is an expert sniffer; that much is certain. It can tell where you have been by sniffing you. It also greets people by sniffing them. It also communicates by licking people–that and wagging its tail is a way of being friendly. A dog’s brain–because of how it was domesticated by humans–has a child’s plasticity, with an ability to quickly learn things. And it is evolved in such a way that it can read human emotions with ease. When ancient man and dog hunted, they used their evolving ability to “read” each other to chase large prey. A dog’s sense of hearing, by contrast, is not very good (I think that is right). Yes, in its evolution from wolf to dog, man’s best friend learned to read the human heart. This is despite the scientific cynicism which says that we cannot truly know if a dog can “love” his or her owner. Scientists who study dogs look relentlessly for evolutionary explanations for apparently altruistic behavior towards human beings on the dog’s part.
I have to admit: to get the material in Inside of a Dog mastered I would have to read the book a second or perhaps even third time. (This was what I used to do with the pre-I.B. U.S. History textbook in High School. If I read a chapter three times, I would have it down pat.) I hope to do this sometime…
Yet I do have to admit one regret: as wonderful as it is that humans can study dogs or cats I wish we could study elephants and elephant seals the same way. I have even wished for the book that charts evolution from its earliest days to the different families, genus and species. I admit that this project might be over-ambitious for a scientist: there are enough bugs to fill an encyclopedia, for instance. Yet to have a book that explained the elephant and the lion, the polar bear and the ant… oh, what a splendid undertaking it would be. Of course, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the evolutionary theory, but to actually have it on a chart that the hippo evolved from the whale and uses sonar underwater. (I learned that late one night watching TV.)
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the now extinct wooly mammoth had somebody love it as passionately as some children love dinosaurs? I had a book Dinosaurs put out by Scientific American. That is another book I should reread, when I have time. Yet–alas–the science in it is difficult for me to digest. I only remember a few details, like the fact that the vegetation which the dinosaurs lived upon was the same as the vegetation native to the region in which they would have lived. For instance, dinosaurs may have lived among the red woods of California. Of course, reading Oceans of Kansas, it is possible that during dinosaur times, the land of Kansas (where I live) was under water and it was elsewhere in the continent where the land Dinosaurs lived. Of course, there are portions of the earth where the cold caused by the ice age that led to the dinosaurs’ extinction caused a change in the vegetation. However, this was not so in the middle regions of North America. I also learned in Dinosaurs that birds did in fact evolve from dinosaurs. Yet much of the information in the book was too technical for me to make much out of. This said, I believe if it was written in easy, accessible language, books about dinosaurs and other animals would sell to ordinary people, and the general public’s knowledge of the sciences would improve. That said, I read two adult books: The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science and The Bone Hunters: The Heroic Age of Paleontology in the American West. By combining history with science it made it a little easier for me to understand the intellectual currents of the 19th Century and today.
However, this Blog was to be about Inside of a Dog. Anyone who has loved a dog can see the appeal. Yet each of us also wishes the author could take that leap of faith: our dogs do love us, Gosh darn it. Instead she leaves us in the zoologist’s agnostic position of not understanding what goes on behind the soulful eyes.